Who Made This?

The nature of creativity has been given a bit of extra scrutiny lately, with the rise of AI art. Which (you may be relieved to hear) I do not propose to discuss. But the question of who is the creator of a work – or what involvement counts as creation – is one that isn’t limited to interactions with bots, algorithms, or any of that other techy stuff.

I read a book recently, about a garden called Federal Twist. James Golden, the man who wrote the book, lives in the house in the garden (at least part-time; I wasn’t sure if it’s just a weekend place or what), and designed the garden. And he identifies very closely with the garden. So much so that he says, “I am Federal Twist.” Well, he wouldn’t be the first human to identify with place, and he’ll be far from the last.


As Golden himself says, most of the actual physical work of the garden, for most of its existence, has been done by someone else (who gets a half dozen or so mentions in the book, including in the acknowledgements). So when Golden writes that he did this or that in the garden, I wasn’t sure if he meant that he actually did it himself, or that, like the kings of old, he “caused it to be done”.

An illuminated manuscript page, with a miniature painting of a castle and its garden, with four men working in the garden, and a richly dressed man giving instructions to a middling man.
Feudal Lord’s Diary: Today I made excellent progress in the garden…

Now in some areas of creative endeavour, this distinction may not be considered important. Architecture, for example, though there the hands that do the work generally belong to a large number of people.

Are there other forms of artistic creation in which the designer is viewed as the creator, regardless of whose hands did the work? What about sculpture? I don’t think I’d consider a beautiful 3D printed object to be sculpted by a human. Designed by a human, yes, but sculpting suggests the work of hands. And, as we have recently seen, people tend to get cheesed off with people who tell a piece of software what they’d like a picture of, and claim the results as their own creative work.

Where does gardening sit in all this? I suppose it could be viewed as analogous to working with a ghostwriter, where one knows what one wants produced, pays for someone with the necessary skills to carry it out, and puts one’s own name on the cover. But it does not sit well with me.

"Your Name Here"

Because as a person who thinks of stories and then writes them; who designs bits of garden and then creates them by the sweat of my brow; who thinks up ways of making things and then makes them, I firmly believe that the doing is the hard part. (Although I am prepared to admit that in the case of ghostwriting, having a famous name on the cover probably helps with the sales, which is also a hard part, though not requiring a lot of effort for a celeb.)

That is not to say that there is no skill in designing or devising. There absolutely is. But it is not the same thing as creation. And to claim that the one who thought something up is the one who did it – albeit by the sweat of another’s brow – seems to me disingenuous at best, and frankly elitist and exploitative at worst.

Of course, I don’t know how the man who made Federal Twist (with his late father) feels about all this. Because Milton Najera isn’t the one who’s writing books about the garden he made.

What do you think?

2 Replies to “Who Made This?”

  1. A friend who does microbiological labwork tells us she is now included in the list of authors of an academic paper when she is the one who does the benchwork for the research – a legitimate recognition I think that both the designer and the creator/worker have made a significant contribution.
    I have also been told of sculptures where it has taken an engineer to realise the artist’s vision, but where only the artist is identified with the work – normal practice apparently.
    As someone who has ideas but whose body lacks the skill (and/or physical attributes) to execute them to the mind’s demands, I rate skill highly.
    Where is skill rated more highly than design? Not in many places. Sport comes to mind. Dance and music maybe.

    1. I’d call that legitimate recognition too.
      Engineers for sculpture?? The mind boggles. (Query: is the Statue of Liberty a sculpture or a building?)
      The mention of sports reminds me of a thing I read in a book recently, about beauty pageants giving winners university scholarship money. The author pointed out that the only men who get scholarships in swimsuits are on the swim team. And I sat there and thought: that also is pretty weird. Aren’t universities supposed to be institutes of higher learning, not higher swimming speed?

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