Header image: Bunny Queen by mononoke_artt

Smart contracts and the growing crypto art movement have ushered us into a golden age of collaboration. Collaborations between artists are not only becoming more common, but it’s also so much easier now for artists from different backgrounds to cross-pollinate skills, styles, and ideas.

But why should you collaborate with other artists? 

Maybe you have a creative vision that is so singular and focused that you believe a collaboration would only dilute your body of work. Maybe you’re a control freak. Maybe you don’t like the idea of potentially wasting your time if the collaboration fails. 

These are all valid positions, and I hope to encourage you to (at least for the time it takes to read this essay) lay aside those concerns and consider more the expansive possibilities that only come with collaboration.

Cross-pollinating skills

“… (Warhol and Basquiat’s Collaboration Paintings are) a physical conversation happening in paint instead of words. The sense of humor, the snide remarks, the profound realizations, the simple chit-chat all happened with paint and brushes…There was a sense that one was watching something being unveiled and discovered for the first time.”

— Keith Haring

When artists from diverse backgrounds, styles, or mediums join forces to create something new, each individual can learn from the other while adapting their process to a new challenge, leading to new ways of thinking, working, and viewing one’s own output. In this way, even a commission can be seen as a collaboration in that the outcome will reflect the artist’s and the client’s tastes. 

Collaboration gives you a window into another person’s creative process and a perspective on it that you wouldn’t even get from looking over their shoulder. Because collaboration is an iterative process rather than a competition, you both have a vested interest in the outcome, incentivizing generosity of spirit and time between collaborators. 

For example, take a look at Olympic Rings, one of the abovementioned collaborative works created by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, painted in 1984 and inspired by that year’s Olympic Games. The painting hints at each artist’s signature style but doesn’t strongly represent one approach or the other. It’s more minimalist than you’d expect of Basquiat and far less straightforward than you’d get from Warhol. 

Collaborating with an artist you admire can be akin to a free art lesson. It also can function as a prompt that pressures you to adapt your process and explore new techniques and creative strategies. 

The most creatively profitable collaborations occur between artists, cultures, and styles that are naturally opposed. Consider early jazz innovators like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus synthesizing influences from both the jazz tradition and the Western orchestral canon, fusing an inherently improvisational approach with an inherently through-written approach.  

New perspectives

Collaboration offers the unique opportunity to see your work through the eyes of another artist in a way that is perhaps more profound and informative than a write-up from even the most thoughtful art critic. Imagine you’ve created a new piece — whether partial or more or less complete — and you hand it off to another artist. 

What that artist adds to the project will likely represent an approach you never would’ve used and probably one you never would’ve considered. Seeing your work absorbed into this alien approach is a perfect opportunity to interrogate your process and carry forward some new way of seeing that you couldn’t have otherwise gained. 

“The Simple Things,” a 2012 collaboration between Takashi Murakami, Pharrell Williams, and Jacob the Jeweller, is a great example of this.

We don’t know who did what, but we know what we’re looking at. The piece incorporates Murakami’s unmistakable visual style, though the character is more menacing than his usual fare. The shoe on the right is a Billionaire Boys Club shoe (Williams’ brand), and the sculpture itself is embedded with 26,000 diamonds and gems.   

By challenging your assumptions and preconceptions, you expand as an artist and discover new styles to explore in your personal practice. In this way, collaborations can be seen as (for the artists involved) essays on one’s own style and suggestions for personal innovation. 

Professional growth

There’s probably no better way to build your reputation and widen your audience than collaboration. This is precisely why the music industry prioritizes collaborative singles between newer artists and established artists. It builds the brand awareness of newer artists. Another common approach in the music industry is for a first single to be a cover song, another kind of collaboration.

Gjon Mili did exactly this when he persuaded Pablo Picasso into a collaboration of light paintings, creating iconic images for a Life Magazine shoot that would represent both artists’ respective genius well beyond their lives.

You don’t need to collaborate with an artist of blue-chip stature to grow your audience. No two artists will have exactly the same following, fan base, or collectors. At any stage in your career, but perhaps especially on the earlier side, collaborations will get you and your work in front of people who may not have found you otherwise. 

Personal growth

Collaborating with other artists can also be a great way to challenge yourself and grow personally. It can help you develop new skills and stretch your creative muscles in ways that working alone might not.

Collaboration, by necessity, requires you to try new things. Even if the structure of the collaboration involves you handing a finished piece over to someone else, that will be a new experience, and the outcome will be unexpected. This newness is even more apparent when you exchange ideas and incomplete elements to incorporate into an agreed-upon final piece. 

One example of collaboration leading to personal development and artistic discovery is the 12-year relationship between Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) and Marina Abramović, two performance artists whose collaborative partnership from 1976 to 1988 elevated them in the art world and pushed the entire medium of performance art forward in terms of development and public awareness.

From Light/Dark by Marina Abramović, Ulay (1977)

Collaboration fits into a category alongside creative prompts and art assignments as a means of stretching your creative capacities. The best collaborations challenge you to try new things and experiment in ways that wouldn’t organically arise in your usual creative practice. 

Don’t be afraid of collaborating with artists from different backgrounds, styles or mediums — those differences are exactly what will lead to the most creatively profitable collaborations. 

To conclude this post, here are a few of our favorite creative collaborations on MakersPlace.

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