Thursday, January 12, 2012

Chinese Sweatshops (Re)producing Fine Art Painting

Note the Mona Lisa smoking a joint in the corner. Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

 "Imitation is the sincerest form of Plagiarism" - Oscar Levant

Who of us hasn't at one time or another seriously considered a career in forgery? How many times have you thought "My kid can paint better than that"? We all know that those abstract paintings could be knocked off in no time, and the people who buy them couldn't tell a Vermeer from an anal wart [There's the typical arrogance of a forger for you].

But if I can't sell my copies as high-priced forgeries and am instead forced to make endless cut-rate copies in a down Economy then hey, I'll take what I can get for the most part.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

A suburb of Shenzhen in China, Dafen is an entire village of reproduction painters. Established by businessman Huang Jiang, it sprang up in the '90s and grew from about 300 to 8,000 artists producing massive quantities of paintings for the Chinese Domestic and Global Art markets. The villagers sidestep questions of copyright by (mostly) copying paintings that are older than 50 years, and by not masquerading them as authentic works.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]
Of course, the term 'sweatshop' is heavily loaded. Images of foreign slave labor, children toiling on industrial looms and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire spring instantly to mind. Does it apply in the case of the Dafen painting studios? Painters do "work long hours for very low pay", but the focus of the World Media regarding Dafen has been the public's insatiable appetite for cheap knock-offs, not the working conditions of the painters themselves.

According to Der Spiegel, 29 year old Dafen artist Wu Han Wu "receives the equivalent of €0.30 per copied painting. That means he earns between €100 ($128) and €300 ($385) a month -- barely enough to cover his living expenses and send a little money home. But he doesn't complain: "It's much better in a workshop like this one, without a schedule."

Indeed, the article goes on to say that "the life Wu and his roommates live is not so different from that of the artists whose works they're copying, at least as far as their average day is concerned: They start painting around lunchtime and work until late at night."


Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

We'd like to think of Art as being above Commerce, but everyone from the high-end galleries of Chelsea to the backrooms of Dafen is a slave to money. Dafen Artist Zao Xiaoyong alone estimates he's painted and sold more then 70,000 copies of Van Gogh, and the general estimate suggests that Dafen produces 60% of the World's oil paintings. That's a fascinating statistic, and signifies not only the Walmart-ization of Art production, but the deeply inherent desire of people to possess an 'original' oil painting. 'Painting is dead'? I don't think so.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

John Berger drew on ideas from Walter Benjamin's 1936 The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for his Ways of Seeing. Berger's point, which he made far more explicitly than Benjamin, is that the modern means of production have destroyed the authority of art: "For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free."

He argues that an Old Master's original physical context is essential for it's understanding, and that without it (as with the ubiquity of printed and painted copies) 'meaning' is destroyed. If you have a print of the Ghent Altarpiece hanging over your toilet, then you've removed that painting from it's context and thus killed it's power [I have a friend who hangs a black velvet painting of Karl Rove over her toilet, which somehow seems more appropriate]. Berger is trying to suggest that mass-produced copies are killing painting.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

It's a market analysis that Mark Zuckerberg would disagree with: What's wrong with just spreading content globally? Van Loon would concur. In The Arts, he argued that "two or three really good reproductions of really good masters hanging in their own sitting rooms... would be much better for the artistic salvation of their souls than a dozen original Corregios tucked away in a corner of the local art museum (that nobody saw)." It's not a bad point, but he acknowledged that it corners him as "a busybody who probably imported his ideas from Moscow". [By the way: there is (no surprise) a Facebook page dedicated to boycotting these Chinese painting studios.]

The other question is whether these painters are actually any good. The answer is, you guessed it: Who cares?! If our bovine public wants a painting of a unicorn on a beach at sunset then I say give it to them. Komar and Melamid proved for once and for all that our Global public wants shlocky art. You can keep all yer high-falutin' big-city 'Concept' art for those East-Coast snobs.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

But besides all that nonsense, Art studios have a long and well established history of serfdom and drudgery. There were Siennese sweatshops banging out repros way back in the 19th Century for all those Grand Tourists eager for a souvenir of the Old World. This is nothing new. Tourists in Ancient Rome could get copies of 'authentic relics' outside their fave ruins. I just made that up, but it could be true. I remember a notice advertising Shakespeare's skull for sale: Buy two and we'll throw in Shakespeare's skull as a child.

I bust my ass for billionaires and I still drive a 10 year old car. Am I bitter? Hell yeah!

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

As Meg Greene points out, "It commonly took years for apprentices to learn their craft. For the first year, they might do nothing more than observe others at work and clean up the studio at the end of the day. It might be another year or longer before an artist's apprentice would be entrusted with the responsibilities of mixing colors or helping to fashion a wax mold for the master. In time, the master would give the apprentice additional responsibilities and perhaps even assign him small commissions of his own to see how well he performed the work."

There's also an attitude these days among people (particularly among painters who are called Alan, and who are me), that hard work is to be avoided at all costs and should in fact be made illegal. We're shocked when we hear of people who actually have to work for a living.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

Although Dafen artists can produce anything up to a mind-boggling 1,000 paintings per month, the output of any painting studio back in the day would rival that of Dafen. According to Pacheco, during the nine months that Rubens was in Madrid, without neglecting his important diplomatic affairs and in spite of suffering from gout, he painted a staggering amount of work. Get this:
"In the first place, he painted the king, queen and the infantas, half length, to take these canvases to Flanders; he made five portraits of his Majesty, one on horseback among the other grandiose figures )at Valencia). He then made a portrait of the Infanta de los Descalzos a little bigger than half length, and made of it several replicas.
"He executed five or six portraits of private individuals.
"He copied all the Titians in the possession of the King, to whit: The two baths of Diana and Europa, Venus and Adonis, Venus and Cupid, Adam and Eve, etc., and the portraits of the Landgrave, The Duke of Saxony, the Duke of Alba, of Cobas, a Doge of Venice, and many other paintings besides which the King possessed. He made a copy of the portrait of King Phillip in armor on foot. He made several changes in his painting the Adoration of the Magi, which was at the palace.
He also was commissioned to paint several paintings for private clients, up to two meters tall, and life-size portraits."
Here's the cursory wrap-up paragraph (I do actually have to get back to work): For better or worse, there's little point decrying Globalization, because for every one of us storming the barricades with 100% recycled placards there are 100,000 very industrious poor people eye-ing that Hope poster and thinking of ways to sell us a cheap knock-off.

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]


Photo credit: Jason Lee REUTERS [source]

23 comments:

  1. Al, this is crazy good. Thanks for sharing. I just finished This American Life's episode on Chinese labor issues for electronics: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/play_full.php?play=454&podcast=1

    But, I must say, I do remember our conversation with Rye regarding you and your schemes of forgery...I literally burst out laughing when I read your opening lines to this!

    Cheers, lad

    ReplyDelete
  2. Another article, published only 4 days after This American Life ran its bit: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2398830,00.asp

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post, I enjoyed reading it. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, Jeff! And thanks for the links too

    ReplyDelete
  5. i learned a lot about painting by copying. I know they are there to produce not learn, but can these painters copy so many impressive works without learning a little something? check out some of their self-portraits: http://www.regional-office.com/?p=16 "Self-portraiture and emerging artistic consciousness in Dafen"

    ReplyDelete
  6. Wow, Lynne. Thank you for that! I had heard that 10% of the artistic production coming out of Dafen is original art, but was fascinated to see the artist's portrait photographs and their pro paintings placed together. Fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This post really made me sad. However, as Lynne said, all of us have learned a lot by copying and hopefully these "artists" in Dafen will one day strive to do something more with their learned skills if they can see or grow beyond their current situation. Maybe just seeing the art that they are copying will steer their lives in directions they wouldn't have otherwise found. It's so sickening that these people and the artwork they are copying is exploited and cheapened in this manner and the whole situation really goes to show that techniques can be learned, and certainly copied. But true artistry comes from the marriage of technical skill, concept, and execution. Hopefully there will always be people in the world that know and appreciate that. Of course, it would make me happy if they are also willing to pay for it;)

    ReplyDelete
  8. This is so timely! I was trying to explain the difference of the mass produced Dafen art and "the good stuff". Sometimes, the line is pretty fine! Thanks Lynne for adding to this. Fascinating article Alan.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great post! I really enjoyed it. Two thoughts:
    1) I thought I was the only one who drives a 10 year old car.
    2) Remind me never to ask you to paint me a unicorn on a beach at sunset.

    ReplyDelete
  10. A very interesting post, Alan. Perhaps you've read the theory espoused by Malcolm Gladwell, that creative success comes with 10,000 hours of practice. If that were the case, and if China relaxed its grip on artists (a big "if"), we should see a HUGE artistic revolution in China soon thereafter.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This was a great post, Alan! I read it through several times. Mostly it made me sad....sad to see how they live and wondering if there is any joy for them in what they are painting. It is clear that they are incredibly talented in their own right - will there ever be a chance for them to be known for their work alone? Life and living seem to hold little value in China so perhaps just being able to earn enough to survive there is enough for them.

    I like Mark's comment about the possibility for a massive artistic revolution in China.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I paint and I have an "H. Gailey" - yup, that's right. It even hangs above my bed. It's one of the better ones - Looks like some local Atlanta artist did it back in the day. You other posters might be more upper crust than I, but I have to say I appreciate the work these - yes, I would call them artists - do. I can't wait to see their self-portraits mentioned in other posts. Fritz Lang would have a field day - eh?

    ReplyDelete
  13. If you want to make your home really look really beautiful , paintings are the best way to do it believe home looks very well decorated . If you are looking to find Oil Paintings Reproductions at very economical price or cheap rates, you must visit wahooart.com

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Chinese art. I am glad to stop by your site and know more about Chinese art. Keep it up! This is a good read. You have such an interesting and informative page. You also have a very good choice of flowers and a very good flower arrangements. I will be looking forward to visit your page again and for your other posts as well.
    Based on one of the articles that I have read regarding this topic, artists from the Han (202 BC) to the Tang (618–906) dynasties mainly painted the human figure. Much of what is known of early Chinese figure painting comes from burial sites, where paintings were preserved on silk banners, lacquered objects, and tomb walls. Many early tomb paintings were meant to protect the dead or help their souls get to paradise. Others illustrated the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, or showed scenes of daily life.
    Chinese Art of Qi Bashi from Wen Tsan Yu Collection Brings $2.6 Million Dollars to Break All Records at Kaminski Auctions March Fine Asian Art and Antiques Auction.

    Chinese art Boston

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hi everyone,
    I am really surprised I am just now running across this post and am glad to finally have something solid I can refer to. Thanks for posting this and it's great to see old friends here as well,

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Arthur, thanks for your comments.

      Delete
  16. While on a recent visit to the Louvre in Paris, I was outraged upon seeing the uncooth hords of imbecile tourists flirting from gallery to gallery snapping pictures with their cell phones of the paintings on exhibit. Instead of simply taking the time to "look and actually see something", they could now boast that they now had the photo to prove they "had seen it" -- but had they?. This article above is yet again an example of how this "instant culture" for ninihammers has become omnipresent today. As an aspiring art student, I never really understood the message Andy Warhol was trying to convey with his "Campbell Soup Can". I now do. Instant culture out of the tin!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Interesting art, art paint pictures looking wonderful, really i like it .Art reproduction

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thanks for sharing! This page was very informative and I enjoyed it. chinese art San Francisco

    ReplyDelete
  19. I love this paintings. Excellent.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Eventually, in the event that a'ex girlfriend'in addition to My spouse and i ended up being reviewing diverse art galleries everyone came about so that you can discovered your girlfriend favored must-see on area gallery. Once we liked in addition to tackled the particular propagation, I did to indicate the lake because definitely the portion of “most popular artists painters ".Possibly not up to the point your wife look at text in addition to wanted to know'As to why anyone may get that may straight to the lake?' have done your wife get started in to position the whole works together.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Nice Painting blog with Good information.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Learning new things about photography and paintings from this blog.This is really grateful for me to get this useful information.

    ReplyDelete