The question of authorship in artistic collaborations

Artists often have to work with experts specialized in the techniques they need to achieve their artworks. Some of these collaborative practices are indeed real creative partnerships, which raises the question of authorship, that is to say, the attribution to a single artist of a largely collective work. A survey of three contemporary works highlights the tensions and conflicts which may result from the situation but also the ways by which they may be limited or even solved.

  • Sauvageot A., 2020, Le partage de l’œuvre, Essai sur le concept de collaboration artistique, Paris : Éditions L’Harmattan.

Innovative challenges in contemporary art

Contemporary artworks more and more often require the use of extremely sophisticated technologies, as much from the point of view of the nature of the material as of its process. To meet the challenges of innovation, artists are bound to turn to competences they are most of the time completely ignorant of, whether crafts which have radically changed –engraving for instance – or new technological skills – digital technology, robotics, artificial intelligence to only quote a few.

The use of such contributions is bound to modify in a tangible way the initial conception of the work, its realization and even its scenography. Pierre-Michel Menger underlines that all this turns the artist into an actual professional, away from the image of an ethereal creator, only guided by his own talent. Sociological studies which have explored in situ artworks and all the actors involved – from conceptualization to realization – illustrate the incredible teeming activity which has contributed to their making.

As a manager as well as a creator, the artist has to establish many types of collaboration, whether institutional, technological or media related. Although artists do recognize sharing some tasks, a number of crucial questions remain: to what extent do these collaborations redirect the project? Might they lead to redefining it? How do artists feel as authors about being thus infringed on? What is actually to be addressed here is the question of authorship, even if artists are not really keen on sharing it.

A recent survey entitled: « Sharing one’s work »

This study does not mean to devalue artists’ creativity – far from it – but aims at exploring the nature and the influence of the collaborations required to achieve any artwork. It is not a quick generalizing overview but a narrow focus on the realization of three particular works by three different artists whose notoriety in international contemporary art is well-established.

In-depth interviews have been carried out with, on the one hand, these three artists belonging to different places and different aesthetical registers, and on the other hand, with those collaborators who have significantly contributed to their work. Miquel Barceló was interviewed for the stained glass windows he made together with the glass-master Jean-Dominique Fleury in the Sant Pere chapel of the Palma de Majorque cathedral (2006-2007), Eduardo Kac about his Télescope Intérieur (Inner Telescope), made in partnership with Thomas Pesquet during one of his missions in the International Space Station (Mission Proxima, 2017) and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot about offroad, a work exhibited in 2014 at the Musée des Abattoirs in Toulouse and achieved with, among others, an electro-mechanics specialist, Guilhem de Gramont.

Three artists whose three works have therefore required complex institutional set-ups and complex but not necessarily conflicting collaborations with professionals in a variety of fields. Although their approach as well as their positioning in contemporary art is very different – which makes the study all the more interesting – these artists nevertheless share some common features.

The three of them belong to the same generation and have a multidisciplinary approach, exploring a great variety of material and techniques. They also share a particular interest for all forms of life – from Miquel Barceló’s primitive closeness to animals to Eduardo Kac’s transgenic temptation and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot who sees plants, animals and everyday objects as being able to overstep their nature.

Unequal roles and status

The survey highlights a few recurring patterns. When the project is first presented, roles are apparently well-defined: the artist alone introduces the project he has conceived. He/she is the creator, he/she is entitled to this role which cannot be questioned as it would wreck the partnership on which the project is built. It actually means the project will never be discussed head-on. It is presented as a statement by rights whose legitimacy is not to be questioned. But, in practice, cooperation gradually develops internally, shaped in the course of action rather than along external rules.

The in-depth study of the interactions at play within the collaborative space quickly shows that roles are often redefined by practices. The most significant way by which the artist imposes his/her authority is in decision-making. Collaborations are generally established for the limited period necessary to achieve a project and bring together heterogeneous individuals who have not met before and who will have to combine their talents in a context of possible contingencies and uncertainty.

Within short deadlines, daily problems triggered by the initial lack of thorough definition must be solved – some of them minor, but others so critical that they may invalidate the artwork as first conceived by the artist. The collective realization of the work implies a series of trials and errors whose results may or may not be validated. Difficulties and possible solutions are actually discussed in a concerted approach, sometimes involving the whole team working with the artist, only the latter, after weighing pros and cons if he/she is not fully convinced, is in a position to make the decision even if it means reconsidering it later.

The artist alone enjoys the legitimacy to make these decisions which will be « indisputably related to and historicized under the author’s name » as expressed by François Deck. His/her decision may be made after a great number of tentative solutions and a series of discussions but it may also be delivered as final. The artist’s absolute decision may declare the work completed, which dramatically puts an end to any cooperation.

The agony of notoriety and the attribution of the artwork

The artist’s notoriety guaranteed by himself or by the set of mediations or cultural intermediaries, requires that a name – his/hers – be associated with the works he/she has signed, thus excluding those behind who have contributed to making it. Repute, notoriety in art does not go with work sharing. As the art historian Isaline Bouchet underlines: « The economy of artworks relies on single authorship. As long as the physical and social architecture of the spaces devoted to art remain the dominant framework of artistic practices, co-authorship can only be seen as an obstacle to the kind of possessive individualism underlying the notion of authorship … ».

Any artistic work is to be submitted to legitimizing procedures. There are two kinds of procedures: on the one hand, different accompanying discourses establishing the artwork (statements of intentions, comments by the artist, assessments by art dealers, curators and critics…), on the other hand, the artist’s own discourse on his/her artwork is an assessment in itself and tends to be self-referential. Artists do have to establish the meaning which can or must be ascribed to their work. By putting forward an original concept, the artist gains recognition on the art market.

A work of art is legitimized by being assigned to an author and the art market does not really favour the plural, unless it is a duo’s artwork whose notoriety has been established on their lack of differentiation – such as Pierre and Georges. The signature evidences the uniqueness and authenticity of the work, proclaims its individuation, its subjectivity, the author’s physical relationship to his/her work and thus engages his/her legacy. Even though some artists adopt a reflexive approach and claim to be involved in collaborative practices clearly asserted as such, very few of them gain the status of a star required by the competitive art market.

Inevitable frustrations versus a feeling of collective enrichment

Collaborations are often a source of enrichment, but they also generate disappointment which may turn into frustrations. It is bound to be a place of tensions, even of conflicts, a place where relaxed and friendly exchange is confronted to authoritative egotism embodied by the presence of the artist. Occasional cooperation may easily be experienced as friendly sharing, but it often develops into a feeling of being taken advantage of.

Collaboration may be mistaken for service provision and lead to a feeling of injustice. It is often the case when cooperation involves IT engineers. They may feel they are working on equal footing with the artist and think that the artwork would not have existed without the digital apparatus they have set up, even if they are aware that it would neither have existed without the concept which initiated it. Generally unspoken frustrations go with a repressed feeling of injustice which may come from the artist’s radical appropriation of the artwork although its realization has been achieved thanks to full cooperation, or even task delegation.

But, while tensions and conflicts are experienced in-situ, only happy memories remain –except for a few persistent hard feelings- and go down in history as collective commitment. The prevailing feeling is one of a rich experience of exchanging ideas, competences, of sharing one another’s practices and personalities. The transfer of experiences and of references is often mentioned, together with the way the incompetence of some has fuelled others’ competences when faced with the need to overcome obstacles.

The narratives of shared moments of friendship and mutual help may of course mask the unspoken – the artists’ post facto appropriation of what has been achieved in shared passion, moodiness and humiliating remarks, etc. But leaving out the unspoken or merely mentioning in a low voice is not so much due to the fear of risking eroding the sacred artwork as to a kind of shared collective commitment whose symbolic significance cannot be damaged. If everyone had rather overlook one’s complaints, it is because the narrative of a successful collaboration is much more constructive than mixed petty-minded remarks.

  • Bouchet I., 2004, « Parcours d’un duo et d’un collectif d’artistes », Plastik, 2004, n°4.

Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: all rights reserved Adèle Huguet.

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Image credits in CC: Flaticon Freepik, geotatah, monkik, Eucalyp


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Citer ce billet
Anne Sauvageot (2022, 7 février). The question of authorship in artistic collaborations. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 12 avril 2024, à l’adresse

Anne Sauvageot


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