A Unique Tradition of Imitation: Copy-Cat Art in China

A Unique Tradition of Imitation: Copy-Cat Art in China
Mar 05, 2014 By Talbot Leiter , eChinacities.com

There is little doubt that the technical abilities of artists in China are superior in quality. Thousands of years of craftsmanship and calligraphy have built a friendly, accepting environment for artists. China's recent rise in status among international contemporary art markets has proven fruitful for both international collectors as well as the artists themselves. However, there has also been a rise in copy-cat art coming out of Chinese factories. But what is the impact of these “forgeries” and are they just a continuation of China’s tradition of imitation. What happens when technical skill is used for capital gain rather than creative prowess? In China, these opposing goals create friction in and outside the country.

Painting by a Chinese artist in 798, Beijing
Source: storyvillegirl

The greats vs. the fakes

In China, artists like Zhang Daqian (1899 – 1993), Qi Baishi (1864-1957), and Li Keran (1907-1989) are favorites of local collectors. All three specialized in calligraphy and ink painting. Though appearing traditional in style, these painters paved the way for today's modern and contemporary artists and their market value shows it. In the same category as Andy Warhol and Gustav Klimt, these works fetch upwards of $10 million at auctions. Chinese contemporary art is booming and creative giants like Ai Wei Wei, Qiu Zhijie, and Zeng Fangzhi fetch just as much, if not more, as the master painters before them. There's no lack of creative genius amongst art students, sculptors and photographers.

At the same time, Dafen, a town outside of Shenzhen in Southern China, is known for being one of the largest producers of copied oil paintings in the world. In an interview with De Spiegal, one art factory owner, Ruiqi, wants to "get into the business of oil paintings the way McDonalds got into the business of fast food." Copying mostly western masters like Van Gogh and Rembrandt, anyone can buy these paintings online for $100 or less.

Is it a question of forging the international artists while keeping local artwork sacred? Certainly not. In China, any subject and style is fair game for forgery. While the work coming out of art factories doesn’t claim to be anything more than it is, a copy, there have been forgeries presented as real. A museum of fake antiquities in Hebei province was placed under investigation for falsifying everything from signatures to sculptures and paintings. The goal seemed to be the accumulation or laundering of wealth, rather than an appreciation for the arts. Thousands of “artifacts” were collected and mislabeled as works from ancient dynastic periods. Once the government got word of this mockery, the museum was quickly shut down.

A Unique tradition of imitation

And yet, China has a unique tradition of imitation. The building block of calligraphy and character-writing entails a copy, repeat cycle. Children in school will write thousands of characters until perfect stroke order, shape, and consistency is achieved. As mentioned in the New York Times, when a Chinese work sold at auction was claimed as fake: “China’s tradition of copying old works to preserve them but also to learn traditional techniques goes back centuries and makes it difficult even for leading scholars to determine the authenticity of a piece.” This is exactly what Hao Zhenhan questions in his interrogative art project Imitation. Why are we so afraid of the copy in artistic practice? Do art schools in the West not require some form of imitation? Why should it block creativity in China? As his project he asked artists working in copycat factories to create their own works based on their own ideas. The results were unique, yet with sufficient influence from their work-copy routine.

Does it hurt original artists?

Like any job, Chinese copycat artists may find it hard to paint 3-500 paintings a month for less than $100, in addition to creating their own contemporary art works. Expectations are certainly different for those individuals who copy the Western master work in a factory versus those who own the factory and sell the work en masse to an international audience. A CBS article from November 2013 claimed that the forgery business in China “hurt US artists.” On the contrary, if someone is interested in a cheap painting to fill up their walls, they will buy the imitation. If they are interested in an original work of art by someone who is trained in an academy or school, they will spend the money. That goes for artists and collectors in China, the US, and all other countries. Is Chinese forgery stifling creativity? To answer this, one would have to question whether all forgers are in fact artists, or simply skilled workers trying to make a living.

Artists and their art worlds can also exist as machines, creating by imitation and influence through the market. In China, there is a distinct separation between the artists who creates forgeries, and the artists who create art from imagination. Copying is considered a tool in contemporary art. So why not stick to the old adage, that imitation is the best form of flattery, and leave it at that.

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Keywords: copy-cat art in China; artists in China tradition of imitation


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is De Spiegal an initation of the german Der Spiegel?

Mar 05, 2014 13:46 Report Abuse


Is it how the French might say the name

Mar 06, 2014 11:38 Report Abuse


The best form of flattery and the best way to hold back anyone trying to make originals.... About 40% of so called genuine paintings are fake in the world while those that come from corrupt places and without much modern history in the art market, the works can be closer to 90% fake. Many people lose out a lot of money from this but then greed is to blame. If genuine sell for $100,000 and you can pick one up for $10,000, you would be a fool to buy without knowing. You would be better off buying something from a relative unknown artist for $5,000 or $10,000 as the fake would only be worth a couple of hundred and could be seized and destroyed.

Mar 05, 2014 12:23 Report Abuse