China's low wages and hunger for exports have already changed many industries, the art world, at least art for the masses, seems to be next, and is emerging as a miniature case study of China's successful expansion in a long list of small industries that when added together represent a huge chunk of it’s economic activity.
With the art market seen as a lucrative area, China continues to rapidly expand its art colleges, turning out tens of thousands of skilled artists each year willing to work cheaply. In the village of Dafen in particular, just outside Shenzen, factories have been set up purely for these art students and graduates to work, where the assembly line paintings are produced and sold throughout the world via the Internet.
The artists working on the assembly line divide up the colour, each possibly only using 2 or 3 colours. Working their way briskly along a line of up to 20 identical contemporary-style paintings, the artists will apply perhaps a few strokes of brown, while the next worker along applies the red, and so on.
The fact that the country is producing hand painted copies of old masters is only a small part of it. The main push by China has been in the broad market for works that retail for anything up to £200, with painters who work from postcards or images on the Internet. Due to the amount of interest the original works gain, popular artworks on all levels from across Europe and the US, are being copied in China and then exported back into the Western market. China's ability to turn what has long been an individual practice into a mass production industry will no doubt affect small-scale artists, as well as many galleries and various art colonies in the West.
When someone purchases one of these ‘Original Oil Paintings’, they are acquiring a piece that could have been painted by 10 different artists. So what is the advantage of owning such a thing? If all you want is something to decorate the walls and something that has no individual meaning or worth, surely a £1.99 poster would suffice.
So what can be done about the influx of copies arriving from China? As an art gallery, we are always trying to take steps to protect our exhibiting artist’s work, but the volume of artwork on the Internet is staggering and realistically impossible to keep track on what is being copied. The main aims are to protect the artists that create the original work and help the buyers protect their investments.
Perhaps copyright laws need to be more stringent. Previous laws were set up prior to this mass-production industry, so the principals and practice of copying art in general has changed considerably. If the laws on copyright were to be updated someway then that could go a long way in protecting the artist’s work.