By: Sean Bedingfield | March 22nd, 2019
Me: “So how did you get into art?”
Friend: “Oh, I really fell in love when I was apprenticing for “(some big name artist).”
Me: “Really? What did you do as his apprentice?”
Friend: “Here, see this painting he sold at this auction? I painted that. And this one. And this one.”
Me: “What? But his name is on it.”
Friend: “Yeah, I mean, he may have done something to it after I painted it. I just can’t tell.”
Me: “Did you report him?”
Friend: “No way! It was an awesome opportunity. This is just how ‘Major League’ art works. The artist named isn’t always the painter.”
That casual conversation kept tumbling in my head. All my visions of the lonely, tortured artists started to contrast with armies of carefully coordinated painters attacking commissioned projects. This made so much more sense! How was Thomas Kinkade, “The Painter of Light” so prolific? He had a MASSIVE staff, directed to paint lots of light. The superstar artist Jeff Koons (estimated net worth ~$500M) once said, “I’m basically the idea person. I’m not physically involved in the production. I don’t have the necessary abilities, so I go to the top people.” One such work, “Cracked Egg”, is reported as having been painted by an undergrad at $15/hr before being sold in 2003 for $501,933 (New York Times Magazine). This industrialization of one artist’s brand is not a new concept, either, just unpopular. Studios or bodegas have existed to amplify the production of a few individuals since The Renaissance. And why am I surprised? In any other pursuit, a person that finds success usually delegates to expand her circle of influence and do more of what they enjoy (or what’s lucrative). Apple outsources their manufacturing. The firm partners hire more lawyers. The Pope appoints priests. And professors take grad students.
Credit gets equally strange in the scientific community. Authorship and inventorship are often parsed out subjectively in a weird postmortem of long, winding projects. Academically, physical experimentation is often performed by multiple people with varied expertise. The direction of these projects often starts with the Principle Investigator (professor heading the lab), but the application of the ideas often involves creativity and invention. Often, the end goal – or the plan to reach it – is changed as team members discover a better approach. The initial pioneers often find a need to rely on the skills of another. Sometimes, whole portions of the work are contracted out.
There are many fair-minded and generous scientists that still struggle in appropriately defining the role of a given contributor.
I came up with the idea, but I made it work using equipment curated by my advisor in his lab over the course of 15 years. Does he own part of the idea because he allotted me the resources?
My student has worked tirelessly in doing everything I’ve asked to complete this body of experiments, but hasn’t contributed intellectually to the project. Does he deserve inventorship on this patent?
I’m finishing up the work another student left unfinished. Without me, it would not be completed. Do I deserve more credit than her for doing only 20% of the work? What’s the additive percent worth of finishing the project?
These same questions can always be extended, too. How much credit does the academic institution deserve for providing space? Does the NIH deserve credit for funding this project? Does the taxpayer deserve credit for funding the NIH? By the same extension, does the commissioner of a given artwork share in the responsibility for its creation? Is the Medici family’s lowest serf in some way responsible for Donatello’s art by contributing to the Medici coffers?
Art and Science are societal culminations blossoming from the most mundane foundations. FedEx delivered my PCR primers and my oil paints this week. I could not have done much without FedEx. Some guy in a purple shirt should probably be a fine print coauthor on my painting and my publication on drug delivery.
A true master in any field will have willing apprentices. The apprentice will take the contract he’s given in the hopes of making his tomorrow better. The world is not fair. Absolute answers are tricky. Everyone should take pride in the accomplishments in Science. And Art. We all own a piece. We are all the Artist.