Painting Blog > Artist-Art, Painting > Sweatshop Challenge: assembly line fine-art painting

Sweatshop Challenge: assembly line fine-art painting

Originally posted on August, 18, 2007

"Dancing Tree", oil on canvas, 65cm x 50cm, August 2007.

In case you missed it, a couple of years ago attention was drawn to one of China’s most unique export businesses, fine-art painting (see link and also link). Or, more accurately put, cheap art. I am sincerely happy that tens of thousands of poor Chinese painters have found employment. I am not happy that they are doing this for near starvation wages. One painter estimated that he earns 18 cents U.S. for a painting that may sell for several hundred dollars in Europe or in the U.S. How’s that for sweatshop labour?

It is not known exactly how many paintings, or how many container loads of paintings are being exported. We do know that it is a big number. One community (Shenzhen) which is the largest paint factory town has an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 slave painters. They are part of organizations with the largest having 500 to 600 workers. Collectively they are exporting more than 5,000,000 paintings each year. Another community Xiamen, has about 7,000 working painters doing close to this amount. The paintings are sold to the art dealers by the container load and are shipped to Europe and the U.S.

I want to backtrack about 40 years to the end of the 60’s. Close to where I was living in the Pacific Northwest in the U.S., a new art gallery was being installed. It was well located, large, and smartly remodelled. I talked several times to the apparent owner. He took a liking in me and decided he wanted to recruit me to run the gallery. I declined the offer for many different raisons: one being that I could not determine if he was legitimate. I talked to people who believed he was a Mafioso or in the CIA or both. The reason I bring this up, he explained to me how his art gallery was going to generate a huge income. The paintings were imported from Europe: probably Italy. Where exactly they were painted, he did not say. They had an eastern European or Russian feeling to them. They were representational paintings done in a classical style. And they were costing this guy just a few dollars apiece, nicely framed. A money laundering business?

Apart for the obvious disadvantage in which the current honest artist finds himself is the blatant unfairness of the whole thing. It is one thing not to honour and respect creative effort. It is another thing that we have a system that does his best to sabotage it.

A last word about the Chinese imports: some of them appear not to be of bad quality. Considering the conditions under which they are done this is an amazing achievement. On the other hand they are not very good quality either. The message hear, if you are an artist or painter, you need to dig ever deeper for quality; sharpen the “message?.

Long life the artist painter.

Published in french as Défi des ateliers de la misère : chaîne de montage de la peinture artistique

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