Several artists have written to complain that offshore painters, mainly Chinese, are doing such excellent knock-offs that they present a real threat to our livelihood. The phenomenon, they point out, may eventually destroy hard-won lifestyles in the Western world. “Free trade be damned,” they say. “We need tariffs.”
The Painter’s Keys has been active in preventing offshore shops from cloning some of our works (e.g., in 2006 we removed the work of some 800 Western painters from Chinese clone sites and closed down two of them completely). Copyright laws and tariffs won’t work on those guys. While cheap art in parking lots has always been with us, the Western artist who wants to stay the course has to realize that a name is also an asset. Art is not like shirts, for example, where buyers may not care about name or brand as much as quality and price. Art is not like accountancy either, which is now delivered over long distances by anonymous accountants in India. In art, the name is the name of the game.
Artists and the art they make are personalities within communities. These communities may be the whole world, or The Trail Riders of Podunk County. It’s a fact of life that one competently painted horse doesn’t sell for the same amount as another competently painted horse. Reasonably decent prices are all about context and perception. Anonymous and “in the style of” work has little context and consequently low valuation.
As an outsourcing candidate, art suffers from Baumol’s Disease, named for the economist who first described the condition. Some goods and services, he found, resist outsourcing because of their individualistic nature. Further, works by personalities, when they meet certain criteria, are condemned to grow ever more expensive. No matter the idealism or the art maker’s joy, investment is part of our game. Just as common stocks are no fun when they don’t go up, art needs to at least pretend. Pitching art down to a price fills only college dorms.
Professional artists who put their DNA into their work need not fear the offshore cloners. Even if the Chinese wizards succeed handily, a fake is still a fake. Art is not just art, it’s a life, lived by an individualist with a personality, verve, and a deep respect for human relationships.
PS: “A lotta cats copy the Mona Lisa, but people still line up to see the original.” (Louis Armstrong)
Esoterica: Artists who would make their way need to see themselves as individualists, sovereign islands and unique brands. Besides the art, what is known about the individual can also be loved. The artist can make his life a work of art. Apart from all the predictions to the contrary, individualism is the key, and individualism will be with us for awhile yet. “Like a snowflake we are the beauty of one.” (Kathleen Arnason)
A genuine threat
by Roger Cummiskey, Dublin, Eire
The Chinese paintings that are being produced are indeed in many cases of a very high standard and the fact that they are not produced by “names” matters little in the commercial marketplace. The abstract paintings that they produce are particularly good and are original and not prints in many cases. However, where they do score really high is on price. A local furniture chain where I live told me recently that he had a container load of Chinese paintings on the high seas that he was able to purchase in the region of $40.00 each for 1.5 meter square paintings. We cannot even buy the canvasses for that price. His customers that will buy these paintings in most cases really only need to cover walls cheaply. For the “names” locally to compete we must be extremely flexible in our output and aggressive in our marketing. Chinese imports are here to stay. Two local galleries closed around here in the last 12 months. The effect is huge.
Customers don’t appreciate the difference
by Catherine Stock, France
I used book tables in Christmas fairs at places like the New York Junior League to present my children’s watercolor portraits. At the last one I attended, I was horrified to see a local woman representing a sort of portrait painting factory in Shanghai. Some of the sample paintings on display were pretty competent. They charged 700 dollars for an oil painting done from a photograph, and the customers weren’t obliged to purchase or pay for the painting if they didn’t like the result. I paint from life, charge 1800 dollars for a watercolor portrait, and ask for 600 upfront. I never thought that I could be a victim of outsourcing, but even at this high-end event, people didn’t seem to appreciate the difference in our “products.”
We do need to worry
by Scott Menaul, Clearwater, FL, USA
The situation is a lot like the Wal-Mart phenomenon. Many manufacturers and retailers in the U.S. have gone out of business because they cannot compete with Wal-Mart products manufactured by “slaves” working for 50 cents a day in a country that has no environmental regulations or tax structure like the U.S. Innovative and high quality U.S. products will always be around, but the lower end and the middle portion of manufacturing has gone to China. This situation is ruining our country with lost jobs and growing foreign ownership of American assets. The same phenomenon affects artists. Only the innovative and “collectable” artists can flourish under such circumstances. This means fewer professional artists supporting themselves in our country. Like the Wal-Mart shoppers, the standard of acceptability for artwork among the general public is dropping. Many artists, despite the “DNA” in their work, do have to worry; they now have to get a day job to support themselves. A culture is led by artists who have a vision and create the future look and feel of society through their art: painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater, architecture, poetry and other art forms. A decline in the number of free artists in a society is a decline in the society itself. We should do whatever we can to promote, help and protect our artists. I recently joined a group of artists in my area with just that purpose called Artists in Action International. Readers are welcome to join or should consider starting their own groups with similar goals.
Cheap competition now being felt
by Barrett Edwards, Naples, FL, USA
I respectfully disagree that cheap knock-offs are not cutting into the bottom line of hard-working professional artists in the West. I’m represented by five galleries, and all five are feeling the double whammy of our economic turndown and incredibly cheap competition. Galleries are closing left and right here in one of this country’s most upscale locales (Naples, Florida). I absolutely agree that among the art collecting cognoscenti who seek the work of top-tier “knowns,” knock-offs will never make any inroads, for the very reasons you outlined. And many collectors up and down the scale do still value the “human relationship” in the art they purchase. But for the majority of us who are also often collected by people who simply want something that appeals to them — or, heaven forbid that matches their sofa — the cheap competition is being felt. In my pre-gallery days, I did a very large, well patronized show in an upscale North Carolina venue. The knock-offs somehow were there too, and those $200 30′ x 40’s — “Frame included!” — were just flying out of there. I had a pretty good show anyway, but imagine if that competition hadn’t been there?
Two different markets
by Joseph Jahn, Nibe, Denmark
Those that buy and hang factory art and clones in their house are not our customers. They only degrade their homes and signal to others that they know nothing of art and have simply shown that fact to their guests. Here in Denmark there is an art factory, turning out art for supermarkets and furniture stores. I’ve never experienced any form of rivalry because those that buy this kind of art never go near a gallery or bother to learn how to see real art. Let them buy whatever they like. I sell art, they buy junk.
Nothing to fear
by Rich Williams
I was one of those artists copied back in 2006. I just returned from China three weeks ago, and while I was there looked in on several galleries where art was produced and sold or had collections of paintings from numerous gallery artists. What I saw there but did not realize at first was I was seeing the same paintings in several different parts of the country. All were copies of the same traditional works or had the same recurring themes. The other pieces of original work were mostly inferior lacking one or more of the essential elements of good paintings — the values, composition, the color temperatures. In all I think that there were probably only about 3-4 that I felt were really good paintings and only one that stood out like a beacon when compared to the rest. The outstanding piece was a non-objective landscape. Now I do not know if it was a copy of someone else’s work or not. All I know is that the artist captured something that as artists we all would like to see in our work. At this point in time I don’t feel that we Western artists have too much to fear as long as we continue to maintain our high standards and only put up works for sale — works of art that meet or exceed these standards. Look with a very critical eye at a piece of art and only if it is very good, put it out there. If it is not then maybe it should stay in the studio until it meets those requirements. The Chinese are outstanding at copying so remember it takes that DNA of that artist to impose those subtle elements into a painting that are hard to copy if you’re not inspired by the original thought.
(RG note) Thanks, Rich. You might also consider the possibility that the academically trained Chinese painters may produce better work than the average Westerner who paints with “soul.” The downside of Western democratization is that anyone who wants to call himself a painter can do so — with the result that quality suffers in the West as well. For the most part the Chinese system is based on high quality technical training and the careful selection of young people with significant talent.
Give of ourselves
by Karl Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA
The “copy art” phenomenon is another reminder that we, as visual artists, need to give of ourselves and our personalities to the general public and our clientele. That doesn’t mean that every visual artist needs to be extroverted and magnetic but, whatever we have, we need to share. That realness of the artist as an individual human being, each with our own place in our community and in history, is what sets us apart from anonymous copycat artists. The sad thing is that some of these Chinese factory artists may, if their creative potential matches their technical skill, have the ability to be artists in every sense of the word. They are just in a much tougher circumstance than those of us in the western industrialized world as far as being able to build an art career. It might seem hard for artists here, too, at times, but I think this is a fitting season to count our blessings in living in this time and place. May the New Year be a fulfilling and profitable one for us all!
by Carol Hama, Edmonton, AB, Canada
While we blame some unscrupulous Chinese in their quest for Western riches, we should stop and think about our own greed. We send our dirty factory work over there so we can sell and buy goods more cheaply. But the underdogs have learnt a few tricks of their own, now they are copying us! They are so greedy they will sell anything in order to gain a profit… even shoddy stuff. The only way this can be solved is politically. Educating the Western art collector isn’t going to do it… a good piece of art is a good piece of art regardless of the signature. We have to lobby politicians to force the Chinese government to increase the valuation of the yuan. Jobs are being lost and factories are closing all over the world because of the influx of cheap goods made in China. The only thing we have going for us so far is that most of those goods appear to be inferior. Factories here are closing and our artists are beginning to starve.
No more plastic prints please
by Hannah Brehmer, Ashland, OR, USA
Your letter about China clones and copies brought to my mind a strong feeling I have about prints of paintings, giclee or otherwise. I don’t see any difference between those and what you are writing about in your letter. They are copies and not done by the artist. Yes, they allow people to enjoy paintings who otherwise could not afford an original. But I don’t see any difference between those and calendar art. The giclee copies are so good that I often can’t tell the difference between them and the originals, but still I feel a little cheated when I find out a painting I like is just a copy. It’s similar to a very well done artificial plant or flower. At first it looks so real, but on closer inspection you can see it’s just plastic. They even add wilted leaves or flowers to foster the illusion. I love a living, breathing plant, not plastic. True prints are certainly a different matter. Lithographs, woodblock prints, etc. are done by the artist or personal assistant and the run is limited. Photocopying can reproduce the image perfectly forever and the artist never does a thing. I have never talked with anyone who dislikes prints as much as I do!
Chinese factory art
by Anand Channar, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
I am a fine artist and a business man doing advertising at the same time living in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. 140 different nationalities live peacefully here. It is a Muslim country ruled by wise and educated rulers. I am from India living with my family for the last 30 years. Dubai is the world’s fastest growing city and will be the next Las Vegas soon. Art is in good demand as many luxury properties and hotels are ready or coming up. We have some good art galleries here. Many Chinese copies are also available. There is an art village in southern China near the Hong Kong border where 5000 artists work as daily laborers. The cheap art originates there. There in one company sending about 80,000 paintings per month all over the world including America and Canada. The average salary of a skilled artist is about 3 dollars per day (10 working hours). This is why they can beat every other on price. The oil paint they use is also very cheap and often of low quality. Some European wholesale art dealers are buying their art from them and sell them at 20 times more prices. Who is to blame, first of all the actual buyers, then the wholesalers and retailers who shamelessly encourage these Chinese art factories. If the respective art dealers and end users stop buying these imitations the inflow will automatically reduce if not stop completely. Most of the art publisher’s works are copied by these Chinese companies as the images are easily available on their web sites. In my opinion the actual original creator of the work must be suitably rewarded.
Seeing the real thing
by Elsie H. Wilson, Fitchburg, WI, USA
We cannot wave a magic wand, no matter how just it would be, and get rid of those who would profit by another’s honest art. We can affirm that the act of art is in the making, the communication to the viewer, the dialogue with the viewer. It is sort of a two-phase process: we dialogue with the paint, paper, canvas, stone etc. and in turn dialogue with the viewers. Yes, I’ll line up with the rest to see the Mona Lisa and know that fakes are fakes. I remember fondly waiting in line at the Chicago Art Institute to view the Monet show, then inching slowly by each one in a thick pea-soup crowd. While I would love to spend an hour in front of each, I gladly took my place in that crowd. Over 40 years ago, I did my part as a tourist in Amsterdam before Rembrandts. All these years later, viewing them remains a highlight of my life. No print, no copy, no image in an art book can replace the impact of suddenly being in front of the huge canvas of the Night Watch.
Love Letters to Art
by Teresa Hitch, Saltspring Island, BC, Canada
Robert’s latest book, Love Letters to Art, arrived in my home this week, and it is absolutely beautiful! It’s an exquisite collection of Master Artist Robert Genn’s paintings and letters, based on the more than 600 he has written about art, the artistic process and artists, to his international readership. The selection of paintings, which spans several decades, exemplifies the depth of Genn’s extraordinary accomplishments. What touches me most deeply about his work is his ability to enter the viewer’s sacred place, where awe, rapture, and tenderness reside. Experiencing his work, I frequently feel a tear of joy running down my cheek. The book is truly a reflection of Genn’s intentional creation of life, that life is art and art is life. As he wrote in Postscript, “We are a work of art in progress. The end is never attained, nor is perfection found. Like the mountains, we are in a state of evolution.”
(RG note) Thanks, Teresa. And thanks to everyone who has written unsolicited book reviews, some terse, some lengthy. This is one of the nicest.
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 Angela Drysdale who wrote, “I see traffic on my website coming from countries like China. I do wonder how many clones or prints of my work I would find if I knew where to look.”
And also Suchitra Faroz who wrote, “Artists are individual in nature, they are the expressions of life itself. One may fake a piece of art but how can one fake an artist. Every piece of art is an expression of his individual nature.”
And also Diane Overmyer of Goshen, IN, USA who wrote, “When you purchase a piece of original artwork, you are investing in a piece of history and in another person’s life.”
And also Liron Sissman of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “An artist cannot even fake his/her own work. A second original of the same painting done by the same artist does not come from the same emotional place and therefore as similar as it is will look nothing like the original. Art is not just about skill, it’s also about soul and spirit.”
And also Doris Osbahr who wrote, “The market is growing and segmented. Every artist has to find his/her own niche. Those who copy art might be good artisans but lack creativity and are, therefore, not artists.”
And also Kathy Farmer who wrote, “Artists need to know that most of their sales can come from local buyers… it’s important to get connected… and volunteer at these new art incubators. When they see that you are a swell person, those around you want your art.”
And also Beth Deuble of San Diego, CA, USA who wrote, “Perhaps we need personal discernment more than tariffs; discernment is a form of integrity (soundness of mind and judgment). I think those who appreciate art and surround themselves with artwork know instinctively whether the piece has soul, whether they ‘connect’ by what they see and feel. I have no worries over Chinese influence in art… rather, I am very concerned with their world view, their consumption of natural resources, and rising economic and political power.”
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Port Moody, BC, Canada who wrote, “I recently attended a seminar on technology outsourcing. The presenter was asked to advise how to avoid having your job outsourced offshore. The advice was to move to specialized products and stay away from anything that is mass market.”
And also Ray Johnson of Aventura, FL, USA who wrote, “The value of art is in the personage, not in the picture. There are many Asian artists that do beautiful paintings and are very valued in their countries. Not all of them do knock-offs for a living.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Offshore art…