I was looking at some newer photos of the painters of Dafen and it’s always fascinated me how even though our knowledge of these painting-sweatshops was obscure (it’s only until recently that these painting villages have become a sort of popular attraction to the western public), the paintings produced there were, unbeknownst to us, part of our everyday life. These massively produced paintings are just that, paint on canvas. But I was wondering, how different is this exercise of commerce dictating art, of a life devoted to endlessly copying another’s painting, to that of a “real” painter who produces works with artistic merit, like lets say (for the sake of argument) Neo Rauch or Botero, both of whom have ended up copying themselves.
I guess this is seemingly an unfair argument. Sounds ridiculous to compare Rauch, who is in every contemporary painting book out there, to an unknown Chinese painter, one of thousands, who paints hundreds if not thousands of areas of paintings in a day that will be later sold to WalMart. It should be accepted that an artist, one who we consider to be a “true” artist that is, has the right to decide to devote his or her whole life to exploring the way in which he or she interprets painting; even if that means painting the same painting (not literally, but figuratively) time and again. It is after all, a valid possibility in an artist’s creative process.
I am also aware that many times, it’s desirable for an artist to have a recognizable manner of, in this case, solving a painting. But, and lets be completely honest, many times this desire goes hand in hand with sales. If a type of painting becomes commercially successful, then it is wise for the painter and for the gallery to produce more of the type of painting that is in demand. It’s a simple equation that almost inevitably affects creative processes.
So what’s the difference between copying others work for commercial purposes, and copying ones own work for commercial purposes? In both cases, the original images that spawned the need to copy, had at some point, artistic worth. After that, one painting gets literally copied while the other gets elegantly copied.
If a painter reading this suddenly feels offended, think of this… people will travel thousands of miles to Xi’an to view the terracotta warriors. They consider this one of the greatest objects in history to be unearthed… and yet being aware of thousands of people painting the same painting every day is nothing but a sweatshop in our eyes. One that today we westerners are willing to visit as if it were Disneyworld, but a sweatshop nonetheless.
I very often wonder, perhaps too much, about honesty in painting. I always try and understand where this frank but bizarre impulse resides and how it affects a work of art in an indelible way. And finally, I wonder where is it that this sincere act stops being genuine.
Because in my eyes, I think there’s not that much of a difference between Rauch, or a Chinese Dafen painter that makes a couple of thousand dollars a year, or me for that matter. In the end we are all painters, affected by the same things. The Dafen painter tries to paint like Repin, Rauch tries to paint like a successful Rauch, and I try to make it no so obvious that I look at Phil Hale.
My point in all of this, and I’m not sure I’m trying to make a point but instead question a bunch of things that stem from this act of curiosity, is to ask myself what is it that makes an image more powerful than the others, what is it that makes it a catalyzer, an image that observers throughout history deem as indisputably authentic. Where does that original originality subsist, what intentions made it materialize and why does it appear to fade so quickly, making it hard, almost impossible for a painter to use it frequently. How is the same painter who was at one point aware of the force of honesty quickly willing to succumb to his or her own iteration.
To me it would be fascinating if I could talk to Rauch, but since we’re being honest, I would be far more inclined to talk to a Chinese painter that has painted the same paintings thousands of times for 20 years. I would love to know what he thinks about the "honorable" act of painting. I wonder if he is in awe when he walks into a museum and sees the Mona Lisa through bullet proof glass. I wonder how he feels about the value of creating something unique.
In the end, when you think about it, if Dafen was managed by an artist, it would be seen as an act of massive appropriation fit for any contemporary biennial. We used to be shocked by Dafen, thousands of starving artists working at gunpoint, but now they have dafen.coms and tens of other webpages with paypal transactions, and I’m sure it won’t be long until we see a “real” artist use their services to show something at Basel or Venice.