When Is An Artist Not An Artist?

Liu Bolin’s artwork has earned him the title “the invisible man”. The 35 year old artist from Shandong, China is photographed camouflaged into a range of surroundings. Bolin says his art is a form of protest against the Chinese government who shut down his studio in 2005. The photographs are visually stunning, like a minimalist version of Where’s Wally; intriguing and incredibly detailed.

Whilst the ideas behind the art are understandable and provocative, and the pictures themselves are unique, Liu doesn’t actually spend any of the 10 hours per picture painting. Instead, he is the model for the paintings. So, if the artist isn’t actually doing any of the art, does that not incur the question, when isan artist not an artist?

Photo courtesy of LIUBOLIN

Bolin is not original in this sense. In the 1990’s the art movement Young British Artists was taking the art world by storm. Damien Hirst was notably creating some of the most shocking and intriguing art works of the time, including a shark, a sheep and a cow preserved (and sometimes dissected) in formaldehyde. Or rather, he commissioned a shark, a sheep and a cow to be preserved; he didn’t actually do it himself.

Hirst is also renowned for appropriating the work of others. He has been accused of numerous counts of plagiarism, but Hirst has always reacted by saying he is “paying tribute” to the other works, not outright copying them. So Hirst neither does his own work, nor creates his own ideas, and still his work is selling for millions of pounds.

If artists are not physically creating their own work, but merely coming up with concepts (and modelling for the work in the case of Liu Bolin) can they truly be called artists? The word artist is open to opinion, and can have many meanings, including “a person whose work exhibits exceptional skill”. If Bolin’s concepts could be interpreted as “exceptional skill” then yes, he could be called an artist, but this of course is subjective and open to debate. However, none of the definitions I can find would entitle Damien Hirst as being an artist.

Perhaps that is the beauty of the art world- that things don’t have to necessarily be defined but are allowed to be simply what they are. So, when is an artist not an artist? Whenever they decide not to be.



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