Fireworks Fly at Jeff Koons Event: Should An Artist Credit Their Assistants?

Fireworks flew in question time yesterday at an event celebrating the internationally acclaimed artist Jeff Koons. Visiting Oxford to promote his exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Koons was questioned by the Emeritus Professor of Art History Martin Kemp, before receiving mostly hostile questions from the live audience.

Koons is best known for his reproduction of ‘banal’ (in his words) everyday objects in large sculpture form. The best known of these is Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold at auction for $58.4 million. He is also known for various paintings that fuse modern commercial imagery with Ancient Greek and Roman iconography.

What an unsuspecting member of the public might not know from reading the giant “Jeff Koons” banners currently effacing Oxford busses is that Koons himself did not physically create any of the artwork he displays. In fact, he has a studio of 60+ assistants specializing in painting and sculpture who do the vast majority of the work for him.

This was the focus of audience questions at the event yesterday. A woman in the audience who works at the Ashmolean, began the tsunami, asking Koons about his “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” sculpture from the 1980s. “I was here when you presented that sculpture in the 1980s,” she said, “And I was disappointed by the response you gave then and I’ve waited to ask you this again ever since. Will you be one of the first big name international artists to give credit to the people who have worked on your art?”

Koons demurred, stating that the sculpting artist is credited on his Michael Jackson sculpture, but that he puts no artist names on any of his more recent works. He sees himself as the ideas man behind his art, controlling every stage of the process, even if he never picks up a brush. His 60+ assistants, in his words, get showcased in photos of his studio. He doesn’t see why they should be listed on his artwork.

Other audience members pointed out that it was common in other artforms for all people to get credited, as in film, a scientific paper and so on. Even if a director is the ‘vision’ behind a product, the full team of people are listed in the credits at the end of the film.

Koons was not interested in this approach, at one point calling himself a genius, and an ideas man who’s vision is merely executed by his 60+ assistants.

An art student in the audience followed up by asking: “Why should I study your work if you have an entire production team behind you, what do I have to learn?”

Koons diverted this question to a more general idea of what art students should learn in art school, but the point is an important one. Can art students learn anything from big business art productions?

The event was reminiscent of the controversy surrounding American author James Patterson. Celebrated for his many best-selling thrillers, Patterson himself did not write all of the books with his name on the front cover. Indeed, he infamously hires teams of writers to write his books for him, whilst accepting all of the credit for himself.

The practice of artists taking all of the credit for the work of their assistants has a long and chequered history. Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and other greats were noted as doing the same thing. In universities, it is common (although unethical and against the regulations) for professors to get their name on their students’ papers, even if they themselves did no work on the paper.

‘Ghost authoring,’ as it is called, is a practice that denies credit to the real authors or creators of a work. At a time when young artists and academics are struggling to make a name for themselves, this practice erases their real contribution. When society has a false idea that all of the great inventions, artworks and writing is done by middle aged men, this is a large part of the reason for this misconception.

Isn’t it time for the real artists and authors to get credit for their work?