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700 Artists’ Processes

by Maxime Chanson; foreword by Alexandre Quoi
Les presses du reel, Dijon, France, 2013
94 pp. Trade, $44.00
ISBN: 9782916067889.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini


700 Artists’ Processes is an art object in itself. Its author Maxime Chanson, who lives and works in Paris, has developed a singular artistic project that consists of inventorying and analyzing the activity of other artists. He showed the results of his investigation in a solo exhibition in Paris and collated them into a publishing format, object of this unusual book, which looks like an economic report rather than a book about art.

Having difficulty to identify his own artistic originality, Chanson researched other artists not only to find his own identity but also to show that there is no hierarchy between them when we simply focus on the drivers of their creation and the means they use to express it. In a concern for clarification pushed to the level of the absurd, his method offers a pedagogical tool for decoding the multiple tendencies and preoccupations that coexist within contemporary creative activity. Hence, this book says as much about Chanson as about the artists he studied.

The Preface by Art Historian Alexandre Quoi is excellent and sets out the context for the book and its author as well as invites us, the readers, to be open minded when following through. With economy of words, Chanson presents thoroughly the aims and objectives of his study, his research methodology, analysis and results that are, then, laid out into multiple tables filled with words but also statistics. And that starts confusing us. Is-it a reliable scientific study or is-it something else? And what is this something else? Can we trust these results? If so, how would we know? This uncertainty motivates us to continue our discovery, not necessarily turning the pages in a chronological order. Hence, it may take a bit of time to understand how best to navigate amongst them, but once we have found our way through it is a very pleasant adventure.

Chanson’s investigation is based on a system of classifying artists’ approaches according to categories that describe the creative process. His core area of study, ‘the artistic process,' is defined as the combined action between Motors (what drives an artist to create) and Means (the modus operandi the artist employs). The model he developed offers a general map of the concerns driving the most prominent contemporary artists and the processes through which these concerns translate into works of art. We are, then, able to use this basis to further investigate what makes an artistic process original.

In order to select his 700 artists (in fact, 600 international or 148 French), Champion set up a series of arbitrary criteria, such as the number of solo exhibitions in established venues an artist participated in over a defined timeframe. Artworks, statements, and writings by the selected artists (last resort a third party) were studied to define their process. He, then, analyzed the data collected on each artist in order to identify any consistent elements. Chanson explains “what quickly emerged from the study was that artistic process could be grouped into families of concerns (the Motors) and families of modi operandi (the Means).” However, it is not clear whether these two categories Motors & Means, which borrow formula from cognitive psychology, are the outcomes of the study analysis or are a pre-study decision, i.e. they actually drove the selection and the analysis. More confusion here.

He defines the Motors as ideas that emerge prior to the creative process as such. They stem from the artist’s deep-seated convictions. Motors are never called into question. They are lifetime exploration that underlies the need the artist is trying to satisfy. Chanson refers en passant to cognitive psychology showing in the Appendix the template he adapted for his own classification – again no information source regarding its authors, schools of thoughts is listed. This table is important, however, as it provides a background for Champion’s classification and definitions of sub-sections as well as furthering our insight into what he puts behind the words Motors and Means. Motors are ultimately broken down into 24 definitions, for example “experiencing one’s existence by creating a socially engaged personal myth” that are used to classify the artists. The Means are what the artists create driven by their Motor and appear to become more stable as the artist’s practice matures. They are also broken down into definitions, for example “moving image with documentary-style mise-en-scene.” The artistic process is the combination of a specific Motor and a specific Means, which are shown in the “artist classification charts,” e.g. Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami have the same artistic process, no surprise here. However, Chanson warns us that this is still a very generic classification as artists with the same Motor and Means can still have an artistic singularity but this requires a more in-depth study.

As to his international galleries/exhibition venues selection, Chanson chose those of which participate in shows such as Art Basel, Art Chicago, Art Brussels, FIAC, Frieze London, Art Dubai, etc. Artists exhibiting internationally can be a bias criteria in itself given the influence of a few patrons who have set the contemporary art market trend worldwide, i.e. the British ‘gang’ with people like Charles Saatchi, Tate Modern, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Frieze, etc. that has excelled at marketing and advertising their priorities and, thus, created a certain type of art market. On that note, UK and USA dominate largely in the venues’ selection; only one museum is mentioned for Latin or South America (Mexico); China has only one gallery and one museum listed; Russia has only one museum but no gallery included; finally, Hong Kong, India, Africa and the Middle East have been forgotten. Guangzhou International Art Fair; India Art Fair; arteBA in Buenos Aires should have been included in there. In some ways, this venues’ selection does reflect the contemporary market dynamic to this day, or does it not? Yet again, it raises questions as to how much this study is true to the artistic process out there, in the society at large. Chanson points out that it is more difficult to determine the criteria for French galleries than that of the international ones due to the sheer number of venues in France actively involved in contemporary art. We need to bear in mind though that he knows the French scene better than the international one and that the cultural sector in France is more dynamic, diverse and less under the control of a few wealthy patrons than say in the UK. It is not clear if Chanson looked first for the artists or the venues? We can guess both.

Choosing ‘traditional’ art venues implies that the Street Art form has been excluded. However, Chanson tells us that we can use his charts for artists who are not featured in the study, for forecasting trends or for identifying artistic groupings favored by the different actors of the contemporary art market. We can also access his results via an on-line database (https://www.artistsprocesses.com/). If we are looking for a certain kind of artists, say similar to Peter Doing who ‘creates dreamlike narratives using the poetic form’ (Motor) and ‘still, handcrafted image – painting type’ (Means), we would come across Verne Dawson, Tim Eitel, Hirishi Sugito, etc. in the same Motor-Means category. Knowing about Huang Zang and Cai Guo-Qiang, we discover that Do-Ho Suh was driven by a similar Motor. There is also a classification by the pair Means-Motor.

We can have a bit of fun by trying to read into the statistics comparing the French artists with the international crowd. French artists have a higher percentage than their international peers on the Motor sub-section “Understanding” (driven by a need to understand, the main themes are tied to perception or the “system” (society and its codes, politics)), which is not surprising for a nation of philosophers who ask questions … Also their Means the “Set” (any Means that cannot be reduced to either Image or Object Means) dominates (45%) as for the international artists the “Objects” is higher (39%). We can notice that the number of artists driven by the Motor “Doing,” which is about creating and shaping a reality, has increased over the years. Is-it a real trend? Figures for 2009-2011 look quite different – does that reveal anything? A shift in artists’ perception? Can we trust these numbers? Well, we are now invited to check out for ourselves by going out and looking at contemporary artworks.

The very detailed Index of Artists at the end restating for each of the artists their Motors and Means and where to find them in the charts is extremely useful – surprising, Anish Kapoor has not had the privilege of being studied.

Weaving together facts and fiction is a theme object of many artworks lately, crowned by 2013 Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost. In addition to providing a playful and useful tool to explore artists’ creative processes, that is what 700 Artists’ Processes does too very well. The more time we venture through it, the more we discover about the richness and variety of the contemporary art scene. Definitely a book to have on shelves, not sure under which section, for anyone interested in contemporary art, creativity or the art and science collaboration. There is a sense that this artist’s book is alive in that we can use and adapt it for our own purpose and need.

Last Updated 3 January 2014

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