From the white cassock-wearing, crucifix-clutching Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite (La Nona Ora) to the childlike Hitler kneeling in penitence (Him), all contemporary art enthusiasts know the wax and polyester resin sculptures of New York-based Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, who is represented by Parisian gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin. His banana duct-taped to a wall (Comedian), which sold for 120,000 dollars, sparked a scandal at the Art Basel fair in Miami in 2019. But what are the billionaires who collect this provocative figure’s work actually buying? For some, it may be the idea that the artist wanted to communicate through his project, otherwise known as his “concept.” In Cattelan’s work, this might be the excesses of the art market in Comedian, the pope crushed under the sins of the world in La Nona Ora, and Hitler as both the symbol of evil and a model parishioner in Him. Or perhaps they are buying the tangible execution carried out by a subcontracted manufacturer, whose work makes him or her the co-creator of the piece? In conceptual art, which refuses figuration but often leans on the crutch of representation, we also have to ask the question: Who is the true creator of a work of art?
This problem did not exist for many years. When Renaissance painters such as Tintoretto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael had to deliver several orders, they called on students from their studios to finish the work. The master would only add their flourish to the “noble” sections, such as the subjects’ hands or faces. And yet, theirs would be the only name on the painting. Today, designers and creators are often two different people. But for the layperson, they are one and the same. Jeff Koons was the one who came up with the idea for the Balloon Dog series, featuring enormous, inflated canines sculpted from stainless steel and coated in a glaze of blue, magenta, yellow, orange, or red. But it was his team’s flawless execution (the New York artist employed more than 100 people in his Chelsea studio in 2015) that enthralled the public. The often majestic and hyperrealistic production almost masks the fact that the value of art is above all down to the person who dreamed up the concept. The assistants are forgotten, and the designer is often the only one recognized as the creator.
David v. Goliath?
Is this latest clash a quarrel between defenders of conceptual art and partisans of figuration? It’s not that simple. With the explosion of the contemporary art market and its stratospheric prices – as well as the trend of making series from a single work – the problem has shifted scales. The question “Who is the creator?” is now joined by another query as to how to split the profits from any sale. Last May, this double question spectacularly reared its twin heads at the Paris courts in a case concerning eight sculptures – including four copies of Him – produced for Maurizio Cattelan by a far less famous artist, Daniel Druet.
Born in 1941, this sculptor and graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris is a two-time winner of the Prix de Rome (1967, 1968), the most distinguished French award in the field of visual arts. Trained according to traditional methods, Daniel Druet produces his own pieces in his studio in Saint-Ouen, north of the capital. He specializes in commissioned works and has made a name for himself with his realistic busts and, during the 1970s and 1980s, for his wax statues for the Musée Grévin. His sculptures include life-size depictions of Charles de Gaulle, Paul Bocuse, Johnny Hallyday, and Pope John Paul II!
Today, this artisan is standing up to the celebrity artist, who likes to boast that he doesn’t even know how to draw. Cattelan has never associated Druet with his success, and a contract has never defined the professional relationship between the two men. Druet would receive instructions via fax, written in broken French. Of course, he was paid throughout the eight years they worked together (between 10,000 and 30,000 euros for each work). However, this pales in comparison with the sculptures’ dizzying sale prices: 3 million dollars for La Nona Ora, 17 million for Him. Druet, who claims to be a co-creator and states that he has been unfairly kept out of the limelight, sued Cattelan’s agent Emmanuel Perrotin for infringement of copyright in 2018. The compensation demanded was four million euros.
Ghost Writers and Phantom Artists
This is not the first conflict between a designer and a manufacturer. Renowned for his literary productivity, Alexandre Dumas actually relied on the work of Auguste Maquet, an unknown employee, who never received the recognition he wanted for his contribution to The Three Musketeers. When Auguste Renoir, who suffered from rheumatoid polyarthritis, started sculpting, he was supported by sculptor Michel Guino. “Conserving his creative freedom,” Guino was later acknowledged as co-creator by the courts. In his faxes to Druet, Cattelan detailed the staging of the set that lent his characters their artistic dimension, including the lighting, the body position, and the direction of the gaze. His Hitler had to be exhibited from the back to ensure visitors only discovered his identity when walking around the sculpture. Druet never claimed paternity of this staging. However, the disparity between his salary and the sale price obviously shocked him – as did the absence of any reference to his contribution. Deprived of the 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol claimed everyone deserves, the Prix de Rome laureate may not have the impact of a co-creator capable of imposing their personality on the project. But would Cattelan’s works ever have existed without such perfect artisanal execution?
On July 8, judging the plaintiff to be “in no way capable […] of appropriating the slightest contribution to decisions relating to the staging arrangements […] or the content of the artistic message,” the Paris courts dismissed Druet’s case. The world’s leading gallerists, much like Emmanuel Perrotin, Larry Gagosian, and David Zwirner, all breathed a sigh of relief. By denying the manufacturer the status of co-creator, the law has not shaken up the sacrosanct distribution of sales profits: 50% for the seller, 50% for the artist. Legitimizing a co-creator and forcing a change in this sharing system could have undermined the seller-artist relationship. But will this latest judgement of Paris be confirmed on appeal? The hyper-speculative contemporary art market despises a vacuum; it needs a clear definition of designers and producers – inseparable in the creation of a piece of art, but forever on unequal footing.