These days artists are receiving emails like this: “We like to do business with you. We are skilled painters in Shenzhen, China. There are lots of talent painters working together in our studio. We can paint oil painting at every grade of different style, our price and service are very competitive, you can make more money than before if you buy oil paintings directly from us. The FOB prices can be $7 per copy for 20″ x 24″ and $12 for 24″ x 36″, if you are interested in, we can send some photos of our works to you, we also can paint exactly according to your any email pictures, it is very easy to do the international business now, looking forward to your reply.”
As well as cheap copies of famous paintings for the world’s supermarkets, what these chaps have in mind is that you go golfing while they make your stuff — at less cost than you might normally pay for a couple of golf balls. They’d like you to think it’s the new reality of free trade.
I’ve seen a few fairly good copies of my own work, done without my permission. At first glance they look okay. At second glance the painters haven’t figured out the order I do things, and they’ve not rendered well the deviations and mannerisms that make my work somewhat distinctive. As clever as these guys are, they’ve not lived my struggles, and they’ve put in unpleasant struggles of their own. Can others see this? People tell me they can recognize my work from across the room. Many other painters can say the same. How sophisticated does a collector have to be to spot a phony? How greedy does a dealer have to get to sell one? How stupid do artists have to be to let themselves be cloned?
As many know, I’ve worked long and hard to thwart the Chinese copyists. A couple of years ago we managed to have replicas of more than 1200 Western painters removed from Eastern clone-sites. The various levels of governments were of no help in this fight. Direct email appeals to the decency of the cloners worked, if only temporarily. These are talented, well-trained painters. Our efforts brought to mind some of the great principles: Put the devil to work in your work. Fill it with private magic. Use techniques and processes that are yours alone and tough to master. Do things that others can’t.
PS: “We can do good job for you and save you time.” (Chinese cloning website)
Esoterica: In China, the word “copyright” currently means the right to copy. We need to help the Chinese understand that world citizenship means more than a fast buck — it means respect, honour and integrity. There are more than 10,000 clone-painters in Shenzhen — all of them poorly paid. Artists need to reply to these Chinese emails and let it be known that they do not want their work cloned under any circumstances. Chinese artists need to be encouraged to be their own artists. Many have seen this light and have achieved international acclaim at prices that do not perpetuate poverty in either art or ethics.
A Great Leap Sideways — The Problems with clones
Merit in originals
by Michael Mayer, Hong Kong
I was recently in the painter’s village in Shenzhen where they make these copies. It is truly amazing what they can do, and the prices they offer. Much of it is obviously rubbish, and the discerning buyer knows the difference. I was, however, also able to get a nice, original watercolour for around US$15. There are many artists producing original work in the Western style that merits more than a second look.
Personal vision is paramount
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA
I’m often asked to give artist presentations on my work. Afterwards, there’s always someone who, inspired by my art and words, comes forward and asks if they can make horses, too. (Or combine fiber with polymer, or some variation of my work.) I’ve learned this desire must be addressed kindly but honestly, and immediately. I tell them if they feel the need to make horses, that’s their own personal decision. But I don’t need help getting MY work out into the world — I can make plenty! And what the world really needs is their very own, very personal vision made real — not more copies of mine.
Judge the buyers
by Tamsin Stead, Phuket, Thailand
I live in Thailand and there are copies everywhere. But the type of customer who would be content to put one of these copy paintings on their walls, are most decidedly not the kind who would buy an original painting! Of course there are always going to be the people who don’t mind spending a small amount of money on a copy for their homes! Hey, each to their own, if they don’t mind the embarrassment. The people who really know about art wouldn’t be seen dead with one of these things on their walls. You can’t really blame the copyists; they’re just trying to make a living — usually under some artists’ version of a pimp, for very little money. I think it comes down to who you personally want to own your art. You may very well, of course, prefer your potential customer to have the good taste to buy an original, or, you don’t give a damn about the total lack of taste that some people possess. And no, I’ve never been tempted to buy one of these copies here. Although, just for a laugh, I asked one particularly hustling Madam, who’d grabbed hold of my arm and asked what artist I liked, if she had any Rothkos! You should have seen the green blob, no under-painting, with a white blob slapped underneath!
by Kristin Newton, Tokyo, Japan
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the East & West really don’t understand each other at all. Rather like the right and left brains, they are on completely different tracks. It’s quite true that in China, the word “copyright” currently means the right to copy, but historically that is how art has been taught in Asia. They don’t feel that it is cheating. In addition, that is how each child learns the Chinese “alphabet” of 4000 characters, which is an art in itself. According to Oliver Sacks, something like 90% of Chinese have perfect pitch, as opposed to 20% or less of English speakers. This is due in large part to the fact that Chinese is a tonal language, rather like music. Learning Chinese is great exercise for the brain!
Looking at Western capitalism from a different viewpoint, it seems like making a fast buck is a desirable quality, to be admired. I think America, in particular, really needs to understand that world citizenship means more than a fast buck — it means respect, honor and integrity. Canada is a better example. The Chinese are very materialistic and making money is one of their most admired goals in life. I’m sure the Chinese artists feel they are performing a needed service in the world. As you said, there are more than 10,000 clone-painters in Shenzhen — all of them poorly paid. Most laborers of any sort in China are poorly paid compared to our standards. They are just trying to make a living and since they are just considered laborers, not “artists,” it’s probably hard for them to understand the emotions we feel toward our art. But just think, there are no doubt more than 10,000 painters in the West who are poorly paid. What parent is happy to hear that their child wants to become an artist? The first response is usually, “But how will you make a living?” — a valid concern.
When I was in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago, the biggest art fair ever held here was the talk of the town. Thousands of people were attending. I’ve been coming to Hong Kong since 1981 and I’ve never seen anything like it. Maybe China will bring renewed appreciation of art to the West. Are people buying art because they genuinely like it or because they think of it like the stock market? Direct communication is the best way to achieve understanding. I wonder if there is any way to have an international artists’ gathering in Shenzhen or would it just cause fist fights? Or someone could set up a factory in the West to make reproductions of Chinese artists’ paintings? The clash of cultures always brings change!
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by Pixie Glore, Spain
Sometimes we must take a stand. I once refused to put work in a gallery that was selling Chinese copies even thought they were well done and very cheap. There was an incredible copy of a Pino — reputed to be by the smiling face in the photo from China. The gallery owner didn’t know who Pino was and I suggested she look him up. Then I had her look at the painting real close where she could see the digital pixelation that had been painted over. She was selling it as an original for $200. I never went back to that gallery and they have since gone out of business.
Protest for needed change
by Anna Payne, The Woodlands, TX, USA
What gives anyone the right to sell copies of others’ artistic endeavors without permission! That is theft. I think the world art community needs to have its voice heard. Maybe when all galleries hang a black flag in protest. I recently heard about an artist that was on a US government sponsored trip to teach artists in China to paint and to be creative. Your tax dollars and mine, earned through long hours at the easel, pay for such trips and then certain Chinese artists turn around and sell our work for nothing. After all, their government seemed to be shocked when the international community spoke up about their human rights violations. We need to make these changes through protest.
Weakening of the spirit
by Mary Chang
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
It is our own greed for a fast buck that can give someone the permission to go ahead and reproduce our work — unless they steal it. This is a global problem, from corporate America to sweatshop factories around the world. It is the weakening of the spirit, desperation.
Slight alterations in replication
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I was at National Sculpture Society gathering in Loveland, Colorado several years ago and they had a session on this topic. The clones in this case were changed very slightly. The organizers of the session had photos of well known sculptors’ work. We viewed slides of the cloned work along side of the originals. As I remember, one of Jane DeDecker’s sculptures with several children and a dog was copied quite closely. The dog, however, had been moved and one of the children’s heads was looking in a different direction. I could see big differences in the way each piece had been executed, but I too wondered if the average person could tell the difference.
Art is a unique journey
by Loraine Wellman, Richmond, BC, Canada
What a bizarre idea! The whole point of being an artist is to make art.
As Ted Orland says in The View From the Studio Door, “Making art, like having children, is one way of making life worth living. And artworks, like children, are assays of our lives and a measure of the things we hold important. For those who would make art, the basic proposition is crystal clear: Finding the work you are meant to do is the central challenge of artmaking — and making that work is the central challenge of life.”
No clone can have the same spirit of the artist that is in the original. Most of us can’t really copy our own works! Who can remember exactly every decision that was made in the throws of creativity? My daughter now has the large painting of “Albert,” her cat, while she is living elsewhere and Albert stays with me. A friend, who has never met Albert, looked at the painting and said “He is very loyal.” That’s true — and somehow, it came across in the painting. A “clone” would just be another cat without personality.
Feeding the demand for decorative paintings
by Jancke-Christoff Combrinck, South Africa
The marketing of art, like most other commodities, is subjected to market forces of supply and demand. As an artist, one should ask oneself how one creates an appreciation (demand) for one’s work.
In our very limited South African market for instance, the snake of mass-produced poor quality Far Eastern art has reared its ugly head, distributed amongst others no less than frame moulding companies that ironically make a large cut of their profits from local artists! As you are probably aware a new previously disadvantaged middle class has emerged with little or no background pertaining to art. Guess where most of this “junk” (excuse the pun) is destined for? Not the sort of art education to build good cultural and aesthetic value systems. This does not mean that many members of our middle class are not educated, thinking and appreciative individuals who can recognize good art when they see it. For the top class earners who can not, it may be a case of “you get what you pay for,” and a new Mercedes is higher on the priority list than a good work of art, but then, it has always been like this. It boils down to personal values. If one has not grown up in a climate of art and art education, where will you get art appreciation from?
As far as copies of art are concerned, I am of the opinion that they seem to replace prints to a certain extent. I ask myself: Who are the buyers of these copies, and are they sold on price as major enticement? Will these buyers buy my work at the prices I demand instead of the copies? Do these works have any positive merit to the public buying it, i.e. are they not more acceptable than the “junk” that has no meaning beyond the pre-iconographic? Could copies of good art consequently contribute to the owner’s awareness of better art, and his subsequent investment in good art? To the uninformed, owning a good copy painted “originally” at a low price could surely be pretty tempting as a status or decorative possession. At best some poor craftsman is making a living somewhere instead of starving.
We live in a throwaway world, and paintings could also be subjected to this culture. Is it not perhaps a case of buying a cheapie now, and throw it away when you change furniture, and buy another cheapie to go with the new decor. Millions of copies are sold annually because of a very real demand. This is the reality. Can we as artists do anything, not only to stop the wave of mass reproductions to reach our markets, but to educate the people to buy better art? Good honest art has an energy that will be recognized and experienced by the informed and sensitive spectator. Quality shows.
Most of the world does it
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
Teaching abroad for 16 years: Czechs, Uzbeks, Sudanese, Kahziks, etc, all of my fairly westernized students have led me to believe that the Western concept of intellectual property is a bit esoteric in most of the world. Plagiarism, computer translation in an English writing class, and “helping,” are accepted. The goal is only result, process is unimportant. Part of it is that the western concept of the individual, his work, his ideas and consequent rewards are a bit odd for many societies. A pair of business psychologists, one American and one Japanese, were discussing books about leadership. The Japanese commented on JFKs, Profiles in Courage, that in Japanese society these ‘heros’ would be locked up as pathologically dangerous, because of their obsessive individualism. There is great variation around the world in values and how values become integrated into action.
Then many years ago in California I sent drawings of a furniture project to an interior designer with my bid. Everything had a copyright notice on each page. She gave the drawings to two fellows who knew the local market so they could to take the drawings around to competition to get a better price. Fortunately they took them to my best friend. When confronted with the situation the reply was, “There are no new ideas, why are you upset?” I left a quick nasty message on one answering machine, the fellow’s lawyer calls me and warns me about making threats and when I explained what had happened, he too was blaze about it. Yes, being ripped off is a pain in the neck or lower but most of the world does it.
Famous American artists doing it
by Karen Baker Thumm, MI, USA
I had a very unpleasant email exchange with one of these “We’ll paint your art for you” people just this week. I asked specifically whether they were offering to paint paintings for me to sell as my own or if they were offering to sell me paintings to fill my booth at shows. The answer was that they were offering to paint paintings that I would sell as my own. When I protested that this would be highly unethical for me to do and a few other comments about their lack of respect of copyrights, I got a hot reply.
The guy claimed that he does business with many well known artists in this country whom he is personal friends with. The Chinese artists paint 80% of the painting, and the American artist finishes up the 20% and sells it as his/her original art. He claims this is a long tradition in art history for assistants to do part of paintings. Then he told me to go to art school for ten years and THEN try selling my art. Ouch!
I told him that I’d rather keep my integrity than indulge in such a deceptive and unethical practice since MY government doesn’t pay to send me to art school for ten years. I didn’t hear from him again, and it makes me wonder how many other artists he hears from who take issue with what the Chinese are doing.
Do you suppose that what he says is true; famous American artists are hiring the Chinese to paint their paintings for them? Or was that a lot of face saving bologna?
(RG note) Thanks, Karen. If they are, they’re not letting on. Wouldn’t be good for business. We’ve never had a letter from anyone, even from “anonymous,” claiming a relationship with a Chinese cloner. Maybe that type of “famous American artist” doesn’t subscribe to the Twice-Weekly letter. But if we ever do get such a letter, we will certainly publish it, whether the relationship was found to be positive or negative. Anonymity is always protected if we’re asked.
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Life is a Mirror
acrylic painting by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Amy Goodwin who wrote, “I spent two weeks at the painting factories in Shenzhen, China. I have a little photo album of my trip in my blog.”
And also Coulter Watt of Quakertown, PA, USA who wrote, “You mean to tell me I could cruise the Caribbean all winter and be an artist too?”
And also Kit Miracle of Jasper, IN, USA who wrote, “To deter cloning, I hide secret symbols in my paintings, known only to me. I’ve heard of other artists signing with a thumbprint or other identifying method. It’s worth an extra step.”
And also Dorit Pittman of New Orleans, LA, USA who wrote, “If a painting can be scanned and printed as a giclee then I don’t see a way that it can not be cloned. Other than collage or other surface embellishments, how can one avoid this possibility of cloning?”
And also Kate Lehman Landishaw of the USA who wrote, “What an insane concept! Making art is a solution to the unemployment situation? Hello? I understand the Dollar Store buying ceramic junk; when did artists become retail merchandisers?! I can’t even grasp the concept! Egad!”
And also Dee Milliken of New Brunswick, Canada who wrote, “The Chinese painters need to let their own inner creativity fly and not be boxed into ‘painting factories’ cloning well known works for Wal-Mart!”
And also Hannah Pazderka of Edmonton, AB, Canada who wrote, “If these guys are so talented (as they do appear to be!), why are they not out there ‘fighting the good fight,’ producing their own works, and making a name for themselves?”
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