China's Dafen Village and the Nature of the Art Object

It's difficult to get one's head around the sheer volume of objects in our lives that are produced in China. It's a bit like trying to imagine the number of hydrogen molecules contained in the sun. But we don't need to count the hydrogen to know that the sun comes up every day. It's a little easier to grasp China's global economic impact by examining it one niche at a time. Take Dafen, for example. Dafen is a suburn of Shenzhen in China's Guangdong province where the bulk of the world's paintings are made. Here is an image to help bring that idea home:

Painters in Dafen, Shehzhen, Guangdong Province, China

Dafen raises all kinds of questions in my Western mind:

  • Is this a sweatshop? Does that make the purchase of these paintings unethical?
  • Are they feeding a public hungry for the same old, same old thing?
  • Why do people want reproductions that they know are reproductions? (Oh, yeah, because they can't have the original.)
  • Does Chinese culture have any appreciation for original works of art? (Some answers to this question can be found in Philip Tinari's article on Dafen for Art Forum, October 2007.)
  • Are the paintings forgeries, reproductions, imitations, products, or art objects?
  • What exactly does or does not qualify as an art object?
  • Is art a commodity? Should art be bought and sold? How often, for how much, to whom? How expensive does an object have to be before it's considered art?
  • Are the Dafen painters artists? (These ones certainly are.) Do they have talent as well as skill? Does it matter for what they're doing?
  • If I learn a bit of the language, do they have any job openings? Might they subsidize a few oil painting lessons?

Dafen's customers are shopping for paintings instead of prints, and reproductions (of public domain works) rather than forgeries. A quick Google search for "Dafen oil painting" yields a variety of digital storefronts through which one can browse works sorted by artist name, subject, style, or size. No one is trying to fool anyone here. I don't seem to be upset about an art industry that shuns originality. In fact I enjoy anything that contradicts the twentieth century artist-as-lonely-genius mythos.

The Dafen example calls the nature of originality into question. It's a common conception in the Western world that artists create original objects, and the objects speak are an expression of the artist's individuality. We generally think if the artist isn't creating something from the heart, it isn't really art. But I don't consider myself an originator. I have never been good at creating images out of thin air. (After several years in art school I learned that the out-of-thin-air idea is a myth. Using models and references will make your art, whether abstract or realistic, better every time.) I absorb information from all around me, process it, filter it, and send it back out in the form of drawings and paintings. It's been a long time since I was interested in trying to come up with the "next big idea." I can tell you this: if American art education was more concerned with technique, skill, and discipline rather than expressing individuality, we might be a little cozier with the Dafen model. Like it or not, their paintings are very well-made. Whether or not you want to call it art is up to you.

Follow these links for more about Dafen Village: Dafen at Wikipedia Chicago Tribune article about Dafen, February 13, 2007 Self-portraits by Dafen artists Life of Guangzhou, with an introductory essay on Dafen Kevin Kelly's take on Dafen Dafen Village Online