The stereotype of a lone artist struggling in a garret is being replaced by a team ethos. Call it 'do it ourselves' art.
NEW YORK — "Art," the avant-garde composer John Cage believed, "is not self-expression but self-alteration." The ascendancy of this approach to creating art, which values transformation over personal vision, might explain an incremental shift in the art world.
As more artists work collaboratively or in art collectives, the stereotype of the lone artist in a garret is fading. In place of the romantic ideal of the figure sweating in front of an easel is a growing teamwork ethos, particularly among young artists. As a result of a greater focus on the process than the product, "do-it-ourselves" now seems more hip than do-it-yourself.
"It's less 'me, me, me,' " says James Yood, who teaches art theory at Northwestern University in Chicago, "and more, 'Let's see what we can do together.' "
At the 2002 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a survey of art from the last two years, the number of pieces by artist collectives was striking.
Experts and artists agree that there are benefits to collaboration, including the sheer scale of the products that can be attempted and an interplay of ideas that can lead to greater creativity. But there still needs to be an artistic vision - otherwise the group approach can lead to diluted, uninspired work - not to mention creating the potential for artistic temperaments to clash. The difference is that the vision is no longer intertwined with one individual's personality.
Lawrence Rinder, the Whitney exhibition's curator, says of this team mentality, "There's definitely something in the air, particularly with the younger generation." Edward Kerns, an art professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., agrees that "it's a generational thing. Students who grow up with networking systems are used to working together."
For the Guerrilla Girls, an art collective founded in 1985, it's about solidarity. "Frida Kahlo," a founding member (who uses the name of the deceased artist to preserve anonymity), says, "People want to create community."
In addition to not using their real names, the Guerrilla Girls wear masks when they appear in public to keep the focus on issues, not personalities. The self-styled "conscience of the art world," they pursue an overtly political goal: to expose sexist and racist discrimination.
Working on ensemble projects such as posters, billboards, and books has advantages, according to the founders. "It's better not to be a lone, angry person making art in a studio," Ms. Kahlo says. "You have a built-in editor. Your own delusion of the importance of your ideas is tempered by another's view. And you can get more envelopes addressed with help than alone."
"Basically, it's just so much fun," adds cofounder "Kathe Kollwitz."
Artworks with plural authorship fall into several categories: (1) projects of great complexity, such as public art, (2) performance art, requiring audience participation, (3) communal projects and workshops, and (4) true collectives, in which individual identities are submerged in the group ethos.
Collaboration can be purely practical. Sculptor Wopo Holup, commissioned to produce a huge stone bas-relief along the walls of New York's Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, says her project is "so big and complex, I could never do it by myself. It would take 300 Egyptians 30 years to carve the panels."
The epitome of public art - requiring a cast of thousands - is the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, known for vast projects, such as surrounding 11 islands in Biscayne Bay with floating pink fabric (1980-83). They also hired 2,200 workers to set up 3,100 umbrellas in Japan and California (1984-91).
Their projects can take decades from conception to realization. The process of working with the public, as well as with engineers and administrators, is essential to how the art's identity is shaped.
"Participation is key," Jeanne-Claude says. "The final form comes from inspiration and interaction with the site."
Their works, such as "The Gates," proposed for New York's Central Park, arouse public debate.
"Thousands try to stop us. Thousands try to help us," Christo says.
In the process, a public dialogue about art ensues before a project exists. When the work is installed and the public interacts with it, "in those 14 days," Jeanne-Claude says, "everybody owns the work."
With performance art, public involvement is a must.
Canadian artist Jillian Mcdonald, working out of a storefront in downtown Manhattan, invites passers-by to tell her their fears, then sews a protective mantra in gold thread into a garment for them.
"Without participation, there's no art - it depends on interaction," Ms. Mcdonald says. "There's nothing like communicating with other people," she adds. "It's more rewarding than working alone."
Ray Kass, founder and director of the Mountain Lake Workshop at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va., has invited visiting artists to work with the local community since 1983. John Cage, folk artist Howard Finster, and French artist Jackie Matisse are a few who've worked alongside students and Appalachian residents.
Two hundred locals attended kitemaking day with Ms. Matisse. More than 700 viewed her artwork, "Kites Soaring In and Out of Space," in a virtual-reality cave. Focusing on a discipline-centered activity to get rural residents involved, Mr. Kass says, "has had the phenomenal effect of creating a kind of local culture."
Such sharing and exchanging ideas in workshops "is an idea whose time has come," according to Kass." It "brings people to life."
At Lafayette College, Professor Kerns designed the studio art curriculum around collaborating with professionals, including such visiting art stars as Frank Stella, Elizabeth Murray, and Faith Ringgold. Art majors as well as students from local schools and city residents participate.
"The community aspect is terrific," Kerns says. Participants learn "art is an experiential moment" - not the exclusive purview of the elite.
Participatory workshops, according to Kass, aid the community by bringing people into art and opening them to abstraction - especially those who wouldn't go to a museum, which he calls a "necropolis setting."
Collaboration expands professional artists' horizons, too.
Without input from other minds, Kerns, an abstract painter, says, "My art always looks like me. In a collaborative moment, you see more possibilities. You can be less egotistical."
Many "eureka" moments result. "Instead of calcifying," Kass, a painter and art professor, says, "you have courage to develop in new directions."
But there are potential hazards to the team approach - such as the clash of strong wills, and the possibility of producing - not ground-breaking art, but a diluted, made-by-committee work.
"If you try to please everyone, you please no one," Professor Yood warns. He raises the question: "Is working collectively homogenizing or enhancing the art?"
The New York-based artist AA Bronson worked for 25 years as a member of the Canadian collective General Idea, until his two partners died of AIDS in 1994. Now working solo, he much prefers the joint approach.
General Idea's process, he says, "was totally collaborative. We became more and more like a group mind, working in unison."
In Mr. Bronson's view, the virtue of collaboration was "the companionship and support and rigor of two other minds checking everything you do. It was a weaving together of all our visions, all so different, each extremely strong-minded."
What about disputes over authorship or reluctance to relinquish individual control? "When you collaborate, you have to accept and often love other people's ideas," Kollwitz admits. "If you're a maniac, crazy artist, that's not easy."
And a desire for personal recognition isn't easy to renounce. "After all this time, you wouldn't mind a little credit," Kahlo acknowledges.
"Collaborating has all the difficulties of a marriage," Rinder says. "There are fights, they break up, the work can get bad. But the upsides are unique to the method."
Cary Loren, a member of the radical art collective and noise band Destroy All Monsters, which originated in Detroit in 1974, says, "Working together is a blast, not drudgery, but it can become restricting."
His partners, the well-known artists Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, have diverse slants, Mr. Loren says. "We come at different angles to it, but we all bring passion."
Destroy All Monsters creates not only visual art but music, an adaptation of the band model and a trend among collectives.
For Bill Viola, whose glossy video art requires a huge crew of technicians, "Creative vision lives in a community. If it stays within the individual, it doesn't go anywhere; it's just self-reflective mirrors. Collaboration becomes bigger than you are."