Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dafen, China -- Art, Copy for Copy Sake

I recently heard a brief talk by a Chinese architect who is building an art museum in the city of Dafen, China. This is an example of the random things I DO know about modern China. I don't know what it adds up to but here, for other's curiosity is what's going on in Dafen, a city which in the mid-20th century had a population of about 20,000 and now has a population over 10 million! That alone is staggering. The old Dafen is a segment of the new Dafen which has spread like a malignant mold, apparently.

Dafen was a city of artists, and still is. There are surely some original artists there but today it is a city that produces hundreds of thousands of oil paintings which are copies of those that hang in the great museums of the world. Their main market, it seems are hotel chains. This is not, apparently, a matter of forgery but of copies for copy-sake. The picture above is from an annual competition held in Dafen these days to find the most talented painters who are given "scholarships" to move into Dafen and infuse new blood to the production of old masters.

About the new art museum: It has three stories, the ground level will be a market for copies of everything from Mona Lisa to the Van Gogh's Sunflowers and much else as well. The top floor will be studios for the winners of the annual contest. And the middle section will be a traditional museum for "real" art -- which at the moment they don't own but there is a budget for purchasing originals. Nothing in the brief lecture said if the art will be western or Chinese but apparently it will be oil paintings.

The whole thing fascinates me. I've long heard complaints about the forgeries of all kinds of goods from Gucchi purses to golf clubs to Rolex watches, Viagra and other drugs, books, CDs, DVD, pouring out of China. This seems a different take on the idea of copying Western products for Western consumption. What a strange way for a society to grow and prosper! What does this mean in terms of values - theirs and ours? I don't have answers, only questions. Every society produces many "artists" in every creative field who are mediocre or every pretty good but not superlative at what they do, but this is the only society that I've heard of that celebrates copying for it's own sake.

There are some fine artist in China, of course. In Beijing I visited a gallery in the Summer Palace grounds which had a few good pieces by art school/university professors. And I've visited a lovely gallery, The Tao Water Gallery, on Cape Cod which shows art from Chinese artists, mostly representational art, some of it very good work and I'm sure there are similar examples or original art both throughout China and the rest of the world. Still, I'm confused about what to think about what's happening in China.

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