Patrick Barkham at The Guardian interviews famous artist's assistants in his piece, "Can you do me a quick cow's head?". It is interesting that Michael Smith, fabricator for many famous artists, traces all of this back to art schools, noting, "one reason young artists are turning to artisans (emphasis mine) to build their work is because of a lack of facilities in art colleges; students can't experiment and never learn basic practical skills. He thinks this problem began when he was at college: 'It was all to do with health and safety fears. The colleges were becoming paranoid about being sued because someone lost a finger or burnt themselves.' "
Universities started following a corporate model years ago, to the great detriment of the students. Did you ever think you would see the day that artists would?
I have used assistants before, I will use them again. As friends have pointed out, if Richard Serra tried to make his own work, it would not exist. But if I had the money, I would employ artisans to make a few extra Koons and Hirst pieces to flood the market, as a performance piece.
It is interesting to note that all the people Barkham interviewed seemed happy with their positions in the process. Most of the assistants I have met are just trying to find a bearable way to make a living, taking away from their own studio time to make the work of a more successful artist, in order to pay their rent. I am thinking of a video I used to show my BFA students. In it, a famous artist made a big show for the camera of buying a birthday cake for one of his assistants: she closed her eyes and blew out the candles. When the famous artist asked her, "What did you wish for?", she replied, "You don't want to know..."