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.


jimserrettstudio said...

The division of fine art and commercial art has always been a blurry line. In this era the term commercial art has been lost, or at least side lined in a new type of art game. Daily painters are copying each other and their own work, everywhere you go gift stores have added the word gallery to their name, the print from home and “glicee” print industry, art as a product has added so much confusion that the average patron has no idea as to what is authentic. “I’m sure it won’t be long until we see a “real” artist use their services to show something at Basel or Venice.”… That has already happened. Great post, many thoughts here that we as visual and creative artist should be discussing.

Nicolás Uribe said...

At one point, artists that I really enjoy, Razvan Boar, Daniel Pitin, Adrian Ghenie, Justin Mortimer and Julien Spianti, were making paintings that were just too similar. Some of them working for the same gallery! I can't understand why a gallery would accept or even promote this.

I do have to say that I saw Boar's latest work recently in NY and it look quite different from what he was previously doing. It still looked very fresh, it still talked about the things he enjoys in painting, and it's clear that he's steering away from this type of vintage-contemporary figurative-expressionist painting that is very popular nowadays.

Andy Borehol said...

Very interesting approach, thanks for writing it up. I've been doing similar research on these kinds of places as part of a project I'm putting together to raise money for local art students here in Canada;

I see your concern with honesty in painting; you want to do it with some kind of sincerity--but within the system of the economy, that becomes an 'include it or not' feature like perspective, texture, etc. doesn't it?

Work on the project is early yet, but being concerned with the interpretation of the image of life and how to depict what's actually there, I did this past winter the first in a series of pairs of portraits comparing the 'East and West' (it's admittedly a fraudulent dichotomy): http://www.flickr.com/photos/andy_borehol/8524234711/
At roughly $140--plus $3 extra for the stripes on the shirt, and $7 for the background--it's hard to beat that 'bargain' haha.

I didn't have much luck obtaining details of how these places operate day-to-day or how the artists come to work there, let alone much chit-chat with the staff of the firm I'd commissioned to produce the work. Have you tried to contact these places?

Unknown said...

I think this is a very interesting topic, to which can be discussed at great lengths and to an extent seems to be what Baudrillard called the "Conspiracy" of Art if one so chose to take it to the pata-physical realm.

Sharon Knettell said...

Painting is what you paint when you are driven. This often ends when the rent check is due or to please the critics.

Survival and art are two different things.

Richard Prince's appropriation of Cariou's Rasta photographs is legalised theft. Jeff Koons doesn't paint- he produces products for billionaires. Neither are artists, they are businessmen.

The Chinese copies of great art are in the same league as giclees- disposable, the originals are not- but at least they gave someone a living.

Unknown said...

A few of the thoughts I had when I read your piece:

I believe that there is a strange duality in art: artists are both individuals and a part of a collective system, a human system.

In my mind, copying a master is almost always less genuine than stumbling upon honest and specifically personal methods. One of the many reasons I look at paintings is to relate to a painters honest and specifically personal struggles, whether they are conceptual, psychological, or simply techniques in problem solving with paint. I also think that a "master" can be yourself five years ago as much as it can be Caravaggio or DeKooning.

I believe in relating to master, who has found his own eloquence, and then thinking about yourself and attempting to use the knowledge that has struck you to create something genuine, and a painters earlier paintings should, as Cheever put it, "be a naked history of one's struggle to receive a history in love and economics"

I would say that the Dafen paintings are that, although they are not in the upper crust of capitalism where we are able to be rewarded by pursuits that are so personal and intellectual, they are painting to live and to avoid suffering, even if they are not allowed to be so clumsy as more "true artists."

Stumbling upon your own words and methods is a unique feeling that many artists get addicted to, but all paintings have some record of valid human life, whether specific parts of a capitalist system accept them or not.

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Garu said...

There is such concept - a way of the artist. An ideal way of the artist when one picture follows from another. If it doesn't occur - it is always noticeable. Forgive for my English.

Garu said...

Plus, I think
Painting can't be a compromise between the photo and a live expression.
Beauty of the image - isn't a painting problem.
Painting is a precedent and the invitation to glance more deeply, behind images and forms -
on a possibility of a meeting with the fundamental reasons of a catharsis.