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Why the lawsuit against star visual artist Maurizio Cattelan is shaking up the art world

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 evidence is Maurizio Cattelan who states it. In 1993, invited to the Venice Art Biennale, he presented a project bearing this title. He, the autodidact, who came to art by breaking and entering, will never have felt at ease in an environment which, at the time, was undertaking its financial, globalized and spectacularized turn.

Then invited, at the age of 33, to one of his emblematic events, he exacerbates its workings: the space allocated to him, he rents it to a communication agency which uses it for its advertising campaign. Later in the decade, he continues to decline the modalities of a performative refusal to produce.

Among his first signature gestures, his own brush or chisel strokes, are evasion (in 1992, at the Castello di Rivara, knotted bed sheets hang outside one of the rooms) or larceny (in 1996 , for Another Fucking Readymade, he robs a gallery and passes the content off as his own).

With a farcical nonchalance, Maurizio Cattelan enjoys an immediate sympathy capital. It is David against Goliath, the gentleman-burglar 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 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 measure of the lawsuit brought against Maurizio Cattelan by Daniel Druet, brought before the Paris court on May 13. When the two men met at the end of the 1990s, Daniel Druet was a sculptor at the Grévin museum. Twenty years his senior, he made plaster, bronze or wax effigies of famous people, from General de Gaulle to Johnny Hallyday. His business is perfect fidelity to a model.

It is this, precisely, that interests Cattelan when he asks him to produce, in wax, hyperrealistic characters according to a set of instructions or photographs that he sends to him. Druet made nine of them, for which he now claims exclusive authorship.

Some represent the artist himself (untitled, most dating from the early 2000s), others historical subjects (John Paul II for La Nona Ora in 1999 or Hitler with Him in 2001), all of which appear in the Maurizio Cattelan retrospective, Not Afraid of Love, in 2016, at the Monnaie de Paris, from which Daniel Druet claimed, in the same way as the artist and the Perrotin gallery, more than 5 million euros “for having infringed the right, name and [sa] authorship”.

Previously, Cattelan had already hired robot portrait designers from the judicial police (He Super-Noi, 1993) or taxidermists (the horse of Novecento, in 1997, where the pigeons of others, 2011, recently perched on a balcony of the Bourse de Commerce).

Novecento, 1997 © Tom Lindboe/Blenheim Art Foundation

At the beginning of his career, he still embodied the situationist maxim: “Do not ever work !” But when the production of works in space integrates its vocabulary, the subject changes significantly: it reflects the world of work which it exacerbates by moving it within the ecosystem of art.

In this, 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, meaning that he or she in turn relocates and similarly subcontracts to various trades.

Relocation and subcontracting

However, even though Cattelan has since become a very prominent artist, and even if 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 functioning, and, in art, that more traditional inherited from the Renaissance. “It’s an old story that a work is a team, recontextualizes art historian Bernard Marcadé.

In the history of art, there is certainly a parenthesis where 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, cherubim or flesh. With Cattelan, it’s something else: he is alone, and calls on Druet who suited his creations.”

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

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

For La Nona Ora for example, we read: “Polyester resin, natural hair, accessories, stone, carpet, Daniel Druet sculpture.” That litigation arises today, and not ten years ago, points, on a larger scale, to a requalification of the artist as a worker, period, as 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 affair rests on the fact that the targeted artist poses the question of work, and its refusal, at the heart of his conceptual and production system. Where the shoe pinches is that he does it from within the art world. It seems today that it is no longer enough to criticize this world: the scope of a symbolic gesture is dulled when some people disqualify the sphere of art as such.

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

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

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

As a backdrop, the recent irruption of NFTs

For Marcadé, the current case reveals “on the one hand, a blurring of traditional dichotomies which comes from contemporary art itself, notably between art and craftsmanship. And on the other hand, strangely, an indirect consequence of the inclusive ideology, where you don’t want to miss anyone, and here diverted to claim something for yourself”.

By linking 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 above all a material aspect: it is not so much the question of remuneration which is in question as ownership.

The case can also be read against the backdrop of the recent eruption of NFTs. Because if it is possible to put copyright on almost everything, tweet or GIF, the possession is directly a matter of profitability, and any anti-capitalist surface veneer of the matter dissolves.

The current speculative bubble does not stop at art, it doesn’t care about it, embraces the digital and the immaterial. If the sculptor-shaper boasts in an article of the World to have affixed his signature in the neck of the characters, should we advise him to transform it into NFT and to kill two birds with one stone: work, and source of profit?

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