In the early years of the twenty-first century, reports began to emerge in the Western press of a ‘painting village’ in China filled with workers, rather than artists, assiduously painting copies of the masterpieces of Western art as if on an assembly line. In her recent book, Winnie Won Ying Wong recalls some of the headlines: ‘Van Gogh from the Sweatshop’, ‘Chinese Village Paints by Incredible Numbers’, ‘Van Gogh, Gauguin: Cheaper by the Dozen’. The ‘urban village’ of Dafen—in reality, a high-rise suburb—lies on the outskirts of Shenzhen, the booming Special Economic Zone across the straits from Hong Kong. Here, in 1989, Huang Jiang, a painter and businessman, set up a workshop employing twenty-six apprentices, mainly teenagers recruited from Fujian or Guangdong. The enterprise was successful and expanded fast, selling its products to American retailers like K-Mart and publishing, as Wong explains, annual catalogues containing over two hundred works: ‘French beaux-arts genre scenes, American minimalism, Bouguereau, Thomas Kinkade, and more.’ Huang’s workshop attracted others, and was soon staffed by thousands of painters. As Wong notes, the annual entrance examination for the Guangdong Academy of Fine Arts attracts 120,000 applicants, of whom only 1,225 are accepted; Dafen offered an alternative for those who had already undergone the rigorous preparation for the Academy’s exam as well as artistically inclined young people who never had access to such training. By the time Western visitors began to arrive, Dafen had become to commercial art what Helmand is to heroin, reportedly cranking out more than half the world’s supply. By 2007, as Philip Tinari put it in Artforum, the ‘village’ was ‘a dense warren of alleyways and six- and seven-storey concrete buildings, containing nothing but apartments and workshops dedicated to oil painting’.
Western curiosity about Dafen—in which, Wong suggests, anxiety is leavened with condescension—seems to encapsulate myriad concerns about increasing political and economic competition from China, while wrapping them up in issues specific to the aesthetic field: questions about the dialectic between ‘original’ and ‘reproduction’ that have been unavoidable since Marcel Duchamp and Walter Benjamin, and others that have been manifest since the birth of modernism: what is painting? Who is an artist? Wong, an assistant professor of rhetoric at Berkeley—this is her first book, based on research for her doctoral dissertation at mit—is well placed to untangle the knot that ties aesthetic and political concerns together at ‘the world’s largest production centre for hand-painted art products’. She comes armed with a sophisticated understanding of the complexities and contradictions of the discourse of aesthetics, but hers is also a sturdily empirical study, grounded in five years of field work (2006–2010) encompassing not just Dafen but ‘production and retail sites throughout China, the United States, and Europe’.
Wong’s interest is squarely on the production side. She emphasizes that her methodology encompasses both art-historical and ethnographic aspects. As she explains:
I began my participant observation in 2007 through a typical succession of roles, first approaching the site as an individual consumer, then serving as an interpreter and guide to tourists and buyers (including art historians, curators, and artists). I soon learned to order and sell paintings at a small scale. I then spent several months learning to paint in the workshop of a Van Gogh painter, a typical entry-level training for an aspiring trade painter.
One might wish that she had also investigated the end-consumers of these ‘art products’. What do the people who hang copies of Van Gogh in their homes think of them? How do they choose? Likewise, a deeper sense of the social background of the men and women who make up the workforce of Dafen would have been helpful. Wong characterizes these ‘provincials who faithfully desire the meritorious centre’ as rural migrants, excluded from legal residence in China’s cities; but beyond this, she gives little sense of either the individual trajectories that brought them to Dafen or the larger social and economic shifts that conditioned their life choices.
More than most art historians or ethnographers, however, Wong is able to follow the implications of her research into the more rarefied realms of cultural theory and philosophical aesthetics. As one who has come to know the art and the business of ‘trade painting’ from the inside, as well as through research and theory, Wong evinces a noticeable disdain for earlier commentators whose observations she finds superficial. At times this can be self-defeating, as when she airily dismisses the idea that contemporary art copying might be related to an age-old tradition in Chinese painting—she even encloses the word ‘tradition’ in scare quotes—but in doing so merely draws attention to the fact that the aesthetic concepts she uses are overwhelmingly of European origin. At the same time, Wong’s empathy for the working painters of Dafen, as she takes their side against ‘two sets of privileged authors—contemporary artists and the Chinese party-state’, only sharpens her book’s keen polemical edge.
Van Gogh on Demand begins with a description of an official Copying Competition held at Dafen in 2004, in which over a hundred painters were given three and a half hours to copy an 1883 portrait by Ilya Repin, forerunner of socialist realism, depicter of the Volga boatmen and—for Clement Greenberg in ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’—the personification of everything that modernism meant to bury: ‘Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art. Repin, or kitsch, is synthetic art.’ The Copying Competition, as Wong says, ‘appears at first blush to be surreal, absurd, and almost tragi-comic’. Her aim, however, is to reframe the event—and first-blush responses to Dafen in general—by showing that, just as the Chinese seem to misuse Repin, so too do Westerners appear ‘primed to misunderstand the complexity of such use’. She does so in order to pose a provocative question: