Why the lawsuit against constellation artist Maurizio Cattelan is shaking the art world

The Frenchman Daniel Druet, sculptor for the artist, claims to be the exclusive author of nine works, conceptualized by his Italian sponsor, and is suing him. A case that raises the question of who makes a work of art.

“Work is a dirty job.” This proof is Maurizio Cattelan saying it. In 1993, invited to the Venice Art Biennale, he presented a project with this title. He, the self-taught man who came to the art of breaking in and going in, will never have felt comfortable in an environment that at the time was taking its economic, globalized, and spectacular turn.

Then invited, at the age of 33, to one of his emblematic events, he aggravates its function: the space he has been allotted, he rents it out to a communications agency, which uses it for his advertising campaign. Later in the decade, he continues to reject the modalities of a performative rejection of producing.

Among his first signature moves, his own brushstrokes or chisel strokes, are evasion (in 1992, at Castello di Rivara, knotted sheets hang outside one of the rooms) or theft (in 1996, e.g. Another fucking readymade, he robs a gallery and passes on the content as his own).

With a farcical nonchalance, Maurizio Cattelan enjoys an immediate sympathy capital. It is David against Goliath, the gentleman thief against the guardians of the temple, the lazy outsider against the holders of economic, social and cultural capital. For him, it’s about“to breathe a little weakness into a system that is obsessed with success and achievement”, he will say in an interview published in 2003.

John Paul II, Hitler and a horse

This background is important in order to take the measures for the trial of Maurizio Cattelan by Daniel Druet, brought before the Paris Court on 13 May. When the two men met in the late 1990s, Daniel Druet was a sculptor at the Grévin Museum. Twenty years older than he did plaster, bronze or wax paintings of famous people, from General de Gaulle to Johnny Hallyday. His business is perfect fidelity to a model.

This is exactly what interests Cattelan when he asks him to produce hyperrealistic characters in wax according to a set of instructions or photographs that he sends to him. The grape made nine of them, for which he now claims exclusive authorship.

Some represent the artist himself (untitled, most date from the early 2000s), others historical subjects (John Paul II for La Nona Ora in 1999 or Hitler with Hi m in 2001), all of whom appear in Maurizio Cattelan’s retrospective, Not afraid of love, in 2016 at the Monnaie de Paris, from which Daniel Druet, in the same way as the artist and the Perrotin Gallery, demanded more than 5 million euros “For violating the court, name and [sa] authorship ”.

Earlier, Cattelan had already hired robotic portrait designers from the judiciary (Han Super-Noi, 1993) or taxidermist (the horse of Novecento, in 1997, where the pigeons of others, 2011, recently up on a balcony on the Bourse de Commerce).

Novecento, 1997 © Tom Lindboe / Blenheim Art Foundation

At the beginning of his career, he still embodied the situationist maxim: “Never work!” But when the production of works in space integrates its vocabulary, the subject changes markedly: it reflects the world of work, which it worsens by moving it within the ecosystem of art.

In it, he attributes to the artist a position comparable to a professional in the post-Fordist economy, characterized by the division of labor in the production process, which means that he or she in turn moves and similar subcontracts to different subjects.

Relocation and subcontracting

But even though Cattelan has since become a very prominent artist, and even though his works sell (and above all resell) for millions, he is neither Jeff Koons nor Damien Hirst. These, at the head of large workshops, would represent the Fordist economic function, and in art the more traditional heritage of the Renaissance. “It’s an old story that a work is a team, recontextualizes art historian Bernard Marcadé.

In art history, there is certainly a parenthesis in which the artist is alone, which corresponds to Impressionism, Fauvism, or Expressionism. But in early modern art, art is a team. In the workshops there were those who painted birds, cherubs or meat. With Cattelan, it is something else: he is alone and calls on the Grape, which suited his creations. ”

Daniel Druet and Maurizio Cattelan in the sculptor’s studio in Paris in 2000 © Guy Le Querrec / Magnum Photos

The latter is therefore neither an assistant artist nor a contemporary artist: his function as a designer at the Grévin Museum prevails. For the order, Daniel Druet was honored, and his name appears, if we refer to the legends of the works, among the list of materials.

To La Nona Ora for example, we read: “Polyester resin, natural hair, accessories, stone, rug, Daniel Druet sculpture.” That lawsuit arises today, and not ten years ago, points on a larger scale to a re-qualification of the artist as a worker, the sentence that Aurélien Catin expresses in the essay Our condition – Essay on salary for artistic work (Riot Editions, 2020).

Art, a system like the others?

The whole irony of the case rests on the fact that the purposeful artist puts the question of work and its rejection at the heart of his conceptual and production system. Where the shoe squeezes is that he does it from within the art world. It seems today that it is no longer enough to criticize this world: the extent of a symbolic gesture is dulled when some people disqualify the sphere of art as such.

“It is very welcome that there is a problem. If art does not produce an effect of question acquired knowledge, it has no reason to exist ”, according to Bernard Marcade.

Author of a biography of Marcel Duchamp in 2007 and last autumn another devoted to Francis Picabia, two killers of the fetishism of originality, by the primacy of the idea and by plagiarism in a system, respectively, he believes that“we never stop asking ourselves the question of the definition of the work and wonder what sets it apart from the rest”.

Before, it was the customs who took care of it: in 1927, Constantin Brâncusi wanted to prove that the taxation of one of his works as a utility object was abuse, and won his case. During the second half of XXand century, the lawsuits of those who do it against those who design will be multiplied: In 1989, opposing Ian Hamilton Finlay to one of his former collaborators, Jonathan Hirschfeld, will have resounding in France. In either case, the designer artist will come out validated.

As a background, the recent irruption of NFTs

For Marcadé reveals the current case “On the one hand, a blurring of traditional dichotomies that come from contemporary art itself, especially between arts and crafts. And on the other hand, strangely enough, an indirect consequence of the spacious ideology, where one does not want to miss anyone, and here redirected to demand something yourself ”.

By connecting the three aspects, the world of art, the artist and the status of the work of art, the lawsuit brought by Daniel Druet against Maurizio Cattelan reveals, first and foremost, a material aspect: It is not so much the question of remuneration that is in question. as ownership.

The case can also be read in light of the recent outbreak of NFTs. For if it is possible to put copyright on almost anything, tweet or GIF, possession is directly a matter of profitability and any anti-capitalist surface veneer of the matter is dissolved.

The current speculative bubble does not stop at art, it does not care about it, it embraces the digital and the intangible. If the sculptor-shaper brags in an article of World having placed his signature in the neck of the characters, we must advise him to turn it into NFT and beat two birds with one stone: work and source of profit?

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