Management of Creativity

There once was a man who said God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If He Finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one around in the Quad

(Mgr Ronald Knox)

Train journeys can be remarkable. Not so much for what you see but who you meet. I recently travelled by train and struck up a conversation with a stranger who turned out to be a practising artist. I was on my way to an art school to talk to MA students about the hard edges of life after art school, and my travelling companion obviously saw some of the material I was planning to use and was intrigued.

Our conversation waxed and waned around the subject and my new found friend exhibited a strong scepticism for what she called ‘the management of creativity’: any kind of management or control of art practice acts as a severe constraint to creativity: it is a contradiction in terms. I begged to differ, having spent the best part of the past 25 years helping artists and art students to equip themselves to deal with what I call ‘the commercial dimension’ of practice. But it set my mind wandering and wondering: have artists always regarded ‘management’ of their professional practices as a constraining factor; or have they generally espoused the notion that management is just as much a tool of their profession as is a paintbrush or pencil? And is there any evidence to support either view?

The great majority of artists work in the expectation of some kind of end use for their work: showing, getting feedback and criticism, selling to generate income, or some form of interface with the viewer. It can be argued that the end use (whatever it is) is the completion of the creative act. Naturally, it is for the artist alone to decide whether there is an end use and. if so, whether it is an integral part of the creative process.

From this starting point we may then question whether the ‘undelivered’ work has fully achieved its objective. Mgr Ronald Knox’s limerick is apposite: it addresses the perception of reality and chooses a scenario of the viewing of a tree in a courtyard. To which verse Anonymous offered a reply:

Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about, in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours Faithfully, God.

Having as close friends art students, artists, art administrators, art collectors and art educators, it has been my experience that the vast majority of contemporary practitioners still believe deep down that their proper work is the creation of artefacts, which will then, ideally, be ‘delivered’ to their eventual end use, consumption or completion through some external intervention – dealers, curators, patrons and so on. As did my travelling companion on the train.

This deep-seated belief is reinforced by most contemporary art education which subscribes to the notion of the autonomous 20th century practitioner – crudely, the artist starving in the garret: a person of high integrity and uncompromising in their pursuit of artistic truth and aesthetic excellence, at whatever personal or social cost. Where has this idea come from, and was it always so?

The history of art naturally focuses chiefly on the works themselves, but for our purposes let us try lo consider the circumstances in which work of significant artists was made. It was not until the Renaissance that texts start to give detailed insight into the working lives of artists and craftsmen. This documentary evidence reveals that artists of the Renaissance were very much working members of society, and in many ways were much more advanced and at ease with the ‘commercial dimension’ of their practices than are many of today’s contemporary practitioners.

During the Quattrocento and Cinquecento there is clear evidence of advocated working practices, supported by sophisticated contracts regulating the relationship between artist and commissioner; sometimes led by the artist and at other times by the commissioner. A classic example is the contract drawn up by a notary at the town hall in Padua recording the deal between Bernado, a member of the noble Lazzara family, and the painter Piero Calzetta which includes a sketch, the location of the new work, its size. materials, colours and complexities involved, who pays for what, the date for completion, and the artist’s warranty that the work would last for at least 25 years and, of course, the price of 40 ducats, of which 10 was payable al the outset, 10 on completion of the altarpiece, and the balance on completion of the whole project. (See: The Business o/Art: Contracts and Payment Documents for 14th and 15th Century Altarpieces and Frescoes. M O’Malley, Warburg Institute, 1994).

As the Renaissance progressed, leading artists took advantage of their fame to operate free of the guilds, though still constrained by their noble or royal patrons. Vasari tells one story about Benvenuto Cellini which clearly suggests that he had become a master of business diplomacy and negotiation: after being commissioned by Cardiflal lppolito d’Este in 1539 to create what became known as the Vienna salt cellar. Cellini skilfully fended off attempts by the commissioner to direct his output, by writing this response: ‘if you ask a poor lowly shepherd what he loves and cherishes most. he will certainly tell you that he loves his own children most. So I too cherish the children born of my art, therefore the first design I show you, monsignor, my most revered patron, shall be my own work, and of my own imagining: for many things are fine in words which, were they carried out, would produce a poor effect.’ This was radical and bold stuff from artist to patron in those days.

Bram Kempers’ Painting. Power and Patronage (Penguin. 1997) offers a valuable insight into our current discourse: ‘Individual innovation in art has been elevated in our times to the status of an unquestioned aim, without reference to any network of patrons. This view has been projected onto the past. What this means is that our view of art history is documented by artistic geniuses: we tend to regard them as having mapped out their own careers and having been guided solely by a set of ideals above mundane social reality.’ This view explains the essentially confused and uncomfortable relationship between contemporary artists and craftspeople, and the demands of professional practice.

Space does not permit here a journey through the lives of 17th-century north European artists (after the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church all but disappeared), and the emergence of the ‘free’ practitioner. Mentioning only Rembrandt, who became the employee of his second wife’s art dealing firm (until her death before him). And. of course. Hogarth in 18th century England who successfully extended his ‘brand’ and his ‘marketplace’ by reproducing his paintings as engravings. By the 19th Century the notion of l’art pour l’art had emerged from the romantic movement and represented one of the weapons in the struggle for freedom (see Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art, Routledge, 1951): ‘For romantics, l’art pour l’art becomes the ivory tower in which they shut themselves off from practical affairs’.

Perhaps this is the point at which the switch occurred: from work that was commissioned to that which was self-initiated. The Impressionists then had a great influence on the issue, during which period two strong role models emerged of the artist estranged from society: the new bohemians who chose internal, personal emigration from contemporary culture and those who took physical refuge from western civilisation in distant, exotic lands.

I conclude by offering a practical example. at the end of the 20th Century, of an important initiative that seeks to address all of these matters and to equip students with the tools necessary to manage the commercial dimension. I was pleased to see that The London Institute recently validated a new part-time MA course starting in January 1999: ‘Management of the Creative Arts’. It will offer to artists, designers and media practitioners the opportunity to explore such subjects as: business and finance for the creative arts, marketing issues for creative practice, arts project management, and artlaw issues such as intellectual property, European and international laws, commercial and business law, contracts, and so on.

I hope my fellow train traveller reads this piece and may reconsider her scepticism which, in my view, serves only to handicap, and not to help her to survive and thrive as a practitioner. I trust Cellini would concur.

© Henry Lydiate 1998

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.