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Artisans who turn ideas into art: Who pickled Damien Hirst's shark and painted Ai Weiwei's seeds?

An army of workers are responsible for creating some of the world's best known artworks, says Michael Petry

A few years ago, conservative readers and commentators were shocked to learn that many students cut and pasted extracts from the internet when composing essays. Those same members of the general public would presumably also have been shocked that Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the 17th-century Italian sculptor, had "cut and pasted" the labour of studio assistants to carve his Apollo and Daphne (1622-5). Giuliano Finelli fell out with Bernini because he felt he had been insufficiently credited as the detail master. Finelli went on to become an artist in his own right, but his work was always considered inferior to Bernini's – perhaps because his ideas were not as innovative or interesting.

Plagiarism and authorship are prickly topics, particularly in the fine arts. If an artist does not physically make his or her own work, then what does that mean for the nature of art, and for the status of the artist? What is the difference between the person who conceives of the work, and the person who crafts it; between artist and an artisan? Is it helpful to distinguish art from craft?

On the face of things, these appear to be peculiarly contemporary questions, resulting from the "de-skilling" of art education in the 1960s. The early modern view of the artist as someone who works alone and who personally creates each unique piece by hand as an expression of artistic "genius" no longer always applies. Instead, those who are named as "the artist" are sometimes seen as remote from the physical act of production.

This is not a contemporary concern. In the 18th century, Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the founders of the Royal Academy, had the ideas and the skills but didn't have the time to paint the huge number of commissions that came his way. He had to employ a veritable factory for making paintings. He did the tricky bits, usually the face and maybe the hands, but assistants painted the landscapes, and the silk or taffeta gowns, while others did the jewels. All of them worked to create a Reynolds painting in a similar way that today employees work to make a Damien Hirst. Similarly-but-differently, a film "by", say, Martin Scorsese, is the result of work of many people from different professions. And, yet, the film remains a Martin Scorsese film.

Nevertheless, in the early modern period, the idea of the fine artist as creator caught on. Historically, the difference between art and craft seems to have been defined by usage: artists (mostly male) made things that were primarily seen; craftspersons (mostly female) made things that were primarily used. Grayson Perry says: "I would describe craft as something you can teach." Art simply existed to be itself, whether or not it had a message or concept, and on a higher plane.

Duchamp changed all that when he introduced his readymades, including the famous 1917 urinal, to an astonished art world. Having drawn a distinction between the work of art and the labour of manufacture, Duchamp continued to employ strategies that removed the hand of the artist from the production of the physical object. Since then, contemporary artists have understood you do not necessarily have to make things: like Warhol, you can have a whole factory making things with and for you.

"You should never make anything somebody else can make," explains the American artist Liliane Lijn, who has long used the technical expertise of others to realise her art. "I only make the things that nobody but me can make. In the Sixties that got me into a lot of trouble because I was a woman. No one complained about [Donald] Judd or [Richard] Serra getting things fabricated, did they?" Lijn's first large-scale metal piece was White Koan, a revolving and illuminated conical structure made by a London steelworks in 1971. In 2009, she continued the theme with a series of ceramic "striped koans", manufactured by the Rometti factory in Italy, which has worked with artists since the 1920s.

Lijn tried to paint the pieces herself, but found that the company's painters realised her ideas far better. Her most recent work includes video projections on to aerogel (a solid that is 99 per cent air, used to capture minute particles from space) which is made for her by technicians at Nasa.

Today many contemporary artists use fabricators to make their works. Many who whizzed down Carsten Höller's Test Site in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in 2006 might not have realised that the five stainless steel tubular slides were made by a German company Höller has worked with for more than 10 years.

One of the best known professional fabricators is the Mike Smith Studio in south London, which has made pieces for a who's who of YBAs over the last 20 years, including Michael Landy, Darren Almond, Angela de la Cruz and Tim Noble & Sue Webster. It made the fountain for Anya Gallaccio's 2002 installation in Tate Britain's Duveen Hall and Mark Wallinger's Tardis, a telephone box so seamlessly covered in mirrors it seemed to melt into its surroundings.

Since the late Nineties, MDM Props of London, originally founded as a theatrical prop- and model-maker in 1993 by the ceramicist and sculptor Nigel Schofield, has produced artworks for well-known artists from Damien Hirst (he made the glass case for the artist's stuffed shark, among many other works) to Anish Kapoor. It is also behind Anselm Kiefer's precarious twin concrete towers, Jericho, which sprung up in the Royal Academy courtyard in 2007, the Chapman Brothers' immense war tableau Fucking Hell and Marc Quinn's famous "Kate Moss in a yoga pose" sculpture. "Whenever I have a new idea, we work on finding the technology to do it", Quinn has said of the studio. "It's quite obvious you can't do it all yourself, so I'm not going to pretend I did".

The AB Fine Art Foundry in London has made many works in bronze and lead for, among others, Fiona Banner, and Gary Hume, an artist best known for his paintings who has also had works made in stone by traditional means. Pangolin Editions , another London foundry, has worked with a wide variety of artists including Lynn Chadwick and Angus Fairhurst.

In 2008, Christopher and Suzanne Sharp, founders of The Rug Company, commissioned tapestries by 14 artists, including Grayson Perry, Peter Blake, and Gavin Turk, for a show, Demons, Yarns & Tales. None of the artists had used the material before and their designs were woven by Chinese workers in a factory near Shanghai using traditional Flemish weaving methods. Tapestry was not a craft tradition of the area, and the work was carried out part-time by women who otherwise laboured on local farms.

Historically, artists have worked with jewellers, too. Yves Tanguy had a pair of miniature-painting earrings made for Peggy Guggenheim, while Georges Braque had some of his paintings turned into jewellery by well-known jeweller Baron Heger de Loewenfeld. Salvador Dali designed several metal pieces based on his paintings and sculptures, including a 1949 ruby-lips brooch modelled on his celebrated Mae West lips sofa. He made the designs on paper, and most of the pieces were produced by the Argentinian silversmith Carlos Alemany.

In recent times, Marc Newson's Julia Necklace (2009), in the shape of mathematical fractals, was made for him by Boucheron in Paris using 2,000 sapphires and diamonds. Meanwhile Anika Jamieson-Cook went to Peckham Argos to have them make her work Argos (2009). The simple gold name-necklace would usually feature the name of a loved one or oneself. Instead, she had the store make one using their own name, though it took them several attempts to get it right (they made several "Anika" versions first).

Some contemporary artists are more than happy to provide the names of the makers as part of the information given to viewers. Ai Weiwei's current Sunflower Seeds installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern made very clear that the 100 million porcelain seeds had been made by hundreds of skilled people in Jingdezhen, China. Sam Durant, who makes what appears to be average plastic lawn furniture, but is in fact handmade trompe l'oeil porcelain sculpture, includes the names of the makers in the titles of his pieces, as in Unique Mono-Block Resin Chair (Built at Jiao Zhi Studio, Xiamen, China. Produced by Ye Xing You and Du Wei Dong with Craftspeople Xu Liang Jian, Xu Zhi Hong, Xu Fu Fa and Chen Zhong Liang. Kang Youteng, Project manager and Liaison). As in a film, everyone is credited.

Charles Ray employed the Japanese master carver Yuboku Mukoyoshi and his team to "make" his 2007 work Hinoki which looks like a fallen cypress tree. It is actually made of pieces of wood glued together and then carved to resemble a fallen tree that Ray found in California. It took the team four years and the makers were credited in an accompanying book.

Not all artists acknowledge their makers so explicitly, though. The German-born American artist Kiki Smith has collaborated many times with the masters of Steuben Glass in New York and is careful to control the process. "I like to make things that are neutral so that the hand of the glass-blower is not in the work", she says. "I always want them to keep a plainness to their work. You don't want to wonder if it is your work at the end."

But, to the expert, it's always possible to spot the maker, says Liam Reeves, a glassblower who works with various artists. "There is always a fingerprint of the maker – even in a factory if two guys are blowing the exact same things. To a trained eye, you can pick out the differences and who made what. And with your art, I can see your conceptual fingerprint in all the projects I make for you."

Yet none of the makers I've spoken to see what they make for artists as their work. "Whatever is made is theirs, if an artist commissions me to make work for them", says Ian Hankey, a master glassblower who has worked with several artists. "It's a bit like classical music. The greatest works are recognised as the creation of the composer rather than of the musician. Although musicians are of course highly regarded, they can't claim to be the author." Most see working with artists as a challenge and say that they would never think of making the things artists ask them to do in their own work, or that artists often push their abilities.

MDM too has learned how to adapt to the "palette" of each artist. "You just set out to give them what they want," says Schofield. Despite the fact that he and his team are the hands that make the artwork, he never confuses his role with the artist's. "It's their work that's being made," he says. "It's not our work. It's theirs."

While some artists collaborate intensely and closely oversee the production process, others provide only the fragment of an idea or a quick sketch. Either way, Schofield says, "They're the ones who have driven it on. You've just got your set of instructions to follow to make the piece."

I use the skills of craftsmen to make the pieces for my large glass installations. I design the objects and then, usually, work with the makers in real time to see the pieces blown. I have to be there to control the process and make instant decisions about the works; glass as a medium does not work like a computer model or a drawing, and has a life and mind of its own. I have worked with makers in the UK as well as in Murano (Venice) at the Berengo Studios, who have fabricated glass artworks for more than 20 years for Jeff Koons, Jan Fabre, Daniel Buren, Tony Cragg and many others.

Each maker has something different to offer as they all blow glass in their own unique way. I have found that the best results come from a true collaboration. I still make works in my own studio – often, as Lijn says, the works that only I can make. Many of the artists here make a lot of their own work but we all understand that there are some pieces or bodies of work that should, or can, only be made by others or in factories.

Working like this is a two-way street. Makers have skills and knowledge of materials that artists usually do not. "I am completely happy with suggestions," says Smith. "They might say, 'what about turning this sideways?'" Some artists even make work for other artists, like Sam Adams, who has worked with Koons and Roni Horn, among others. "People come to you for solutions – they can start with a sketch for an idea and we try to put flesh on it", he says. "That's our role – to make solutions."

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei has most of his work made by traditional Chinese makers. Aside from his 'Sunflower Seeds', which were made by hundreds of villagers in Jingdezhen, he has also employed craftsmen to reclaim wood from religious shrines destroyed by the Communist authorities, and to refashion it into other objects. He is conscious of some of the issues involved with working with traditional makers. "They are liable to feel insulted by requests to direct their skills at such absurd tasks as freezing a flow of urine in fine porcelain, reconfiguring fine examples of classical furniture into dysfunctional forms, or to create lusciously glazed replicas of watermelons. This tension goes to the heart of the 'culture' problem: who decides what is precious, of enduring value to society, and for what reasons?"

Subodh Gupta

Gupta is best known for incorporating everyday Indian objects, such as steel tiffin boxes, thali pans, bicycles and milk pails into complex yet stunning sculptures. His monumental mushroom-cloud sculpture, 'Line of Control', made from cooking utensils, was exhibited at Tate Britain in 2009. "All these things were part of the way I grew up. They are used in the rituals and ceremonies that were part of my childhood." Following in the tradition of artists such as Duchamp, Gupta himself feels that the key component in his art is the transformation of everyday objects. He confesses that he doesn't in fact create anything. "I transform. My job as an artist is to think, to conceive the ideas. My art is made up for me by expert artisans all over the world: the thali works were made in America."

Jan Fabre

When Fabre was given the honour of being the first living artist to be invited to have a solo show at the Louvre in 2008, he knew there was just one place to go for help with producing the exhibition's most striking work. He asked the Berengo Studio to make the small glass doves from Murano glass. He then covered the pieces in ink with an assistant, before installing them on the Lefuel staircase in the museum's Richelieu Wing, beneath paintings by the Flemish 17th-century artist Frans Snyders.

"I only use craftsmen on work I cannot produce myself, or that needs specific techniques, materials or know-how I do not possess. I'm very keen on making things with my own hands. But sometimes you really need professionals. I realised I was never going to be a master glassblower. So I called on the Berengo Studio for help, and I still work with them now."

"I'm curious about how they react to problems I give them. I like the exchange of knowledge and energy. I always make it clear that their technical knowledge, support and/or execution will be credited, but that the idea is mine, and that it will be known as such: 'a work of art by Jan Fabre'. When I depend on craftsmen or professionals to create a piece and it looks like we are not getting along, or if I think that they will not be able to carry out my ideas, I will end our collaboration."

Gary Hume

Hume is well known for his lush paintings that use large flat areas of paint, often built up to relief form. In 2006, he showed his 'Cave Paintings' for the first time. These large and heavy marble tableaux were made from a variety of stone pieces cut out like stained glass and then locked together with lead tracery. Hume's drawings – scaled up to life-size cartoons – were used to imprint the final design on the stone. This image was then laboriously chiselled out, and thin lead rods were hammered into the grooves by teams of workers. The resultant images recall Renaissance marble table-top marquetry or mosaic, as well as Hume's own flat painted surfaces. "It's interesting to see what happens to your work when the materials change," he says.

Maurizio Cattelan

'Frank & Jamie' continues the Italian artist's investigation into the imagery of power and those who wield it. As with most of Cattelan's works, in particular those including stuffed animals or their skeletons, 'Frank & Jamie' was made by skilled taxidermists and craftspeople. "It only takes a minute to have the idea," Cattelan says. "After that, I don't do anything. I just keep eating things. In this case, images and information. And then there's a process of selection and separation that's not really conscious. I work more with my stomach than my brain. It's a digestive process. I don't know what of."

Gavin Turk

Turk creates trompe l'oeil fabrications made of painted bronze. Pieces such as an empty polystyrene chip box, a homeless person in a sleeping bag, or a pile of rubbish bags all seem to be the extreme opposite of beautifully crafted deluxe objects, though that is exactly what they are. Produced by professional bronze-casters, the bags are not without their technical difficulties. "When they come back from the bronze foundry, they are often in two or more sections and so every little fold in the bag has to be treated and burnished," explains Turk. "Then they are sprayed black, while the topknots are cast separately and added on later."

"Whether I am using my own work or someone else's work is no different," he adds. "It is all a matter of interpretation in terms of ownership in art. Artists just simply re-signature, re-authorise the visual experience until another artist does another signature on top."

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'The Art of Not Making: The New Artist/Artisan Relationship' by Michael Petry is published by Thames & Hudson (RRP £29.95)

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Michael Petry is Curator of the Royal Academy Schools Gallery, Director of Moca London, and artist in residence at Sir John Soane's Museum, London