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Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade Paperback – April 8, 2014
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Ben's copy came from China, probably from Dafen Village, which is the setting of Ms. Wong's treatise. That's the setting: the *subject* would have to be summarized as "Challenge everything you ever assumed about art, the artist, creativity, originality, Chinese social structure and politics, and WalMart."
When I ordered the book, five months before it got far enough into production to reach my door, I wanted a popular explication of how (possibly) thousands of painters produce many tens of thousands per year of van Goghs, Utrillos, da Vincis, Bougereaus... well, virtually any famous artist you want to name.
What I got instead is a mix: insightful anecdotes from conversations with painters and bosses; compelling discussions of painting factory methods and organization (many exploitative, some humanistic, avuncular); massive tugs at assumptions around originality; and, frankly, boring excursions into angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin types of things.
Anecdotes? While watching one, er, artist (re-)producing one of van Gogh's sunflower paintings, the artist stood back toward the end, then said, "Time to sign it." Ms. Wong pointed out that van Gogh had not signed the original. The artist: "Oh. You own one?"
Sort-of an anecdote: Ms. Wong quotes from the marketing copy of a van Gogh reproduction sold by Amserdam's van Gogh Museum: "It seemed a dream, but this replica makes it possible: a painting [in reality an inkjet - glicee - print] by Vincent van Gogh on the living room wall, and almost indistinguishable from the real thing... This amazing reproduction is delivered rolled-up, affordable and safe, just as van Gogh sent his own canvases to Paris."
Anecdote: A Dafen van Gogh artist who, chafing under the low wages, exclaimed that he was not making much more than van Gogh did.
Anecdote: Always open about her objective to study Dafen for scholarly purpose, Ms. Wong was interviewing one artist, who pointed out that he was also an "excellent and prolific writer." "...since he had been in Dafen far longer than I, it would be much easier for him to write my dissertation for me.... In the hands of Dafen painters and bosses [and writers], it [ghost-painting, ghost-writing] is a habitual and ubiquitous phenomenon, and recalls a condition in which painting and writing do not constitute any sort of special labor...."
One commentator on the Dafen scene wrote, "I realized that most of Dafen painters remained kind of detached and regarded painting more as a labor job." Of course, for hundreds, maybe even thousands of Europeans artists prior to the Romantic age, painting *was* a "labor job," and not a sort of special labor.
Throughout you'll all sorts of tweaks, all sorts of unanswered and possibly unanswerable questions. For the most part, this book is a sort of high-level page-turner. All this said, however, there are times that I wish a competent copy editor had made some suggestions -- and that Ms. Wong had complied. Take that last sentence in my final anecdote above: could it not be expressed less syllabically: "In the hands of Dafen painters and bosses [and writers], it [ghost-painting, ghost-writing] is ubiquitous. For them, there is no special labor in painting and writing."
Scholarly language aside, what happens when -- the very thing we conceptualize as golden fruit of glorious individual vision -- Art becomes a mass-produced object on an assembly line? Is it automatically schlock?
Ben's little van Gogh is all master strokes done by a master hand with crystal-clear colors. It is, as Ben immediately saw, equally beautiful to both the eye and the hand.