bioephemera

Outsourcing “Art”

i-98b4606b53c1a90235ba2dc4a415e294-Picture 1.png

Back in October, there was an interesting article by Peter Hessler in the New Yorker about Chinese painters who make a living painting western scenes (Venice is popular) that they neither recognize nor are particularly interested in. Unfortunately the article is subscription-only, but if you have access it’s worth a read. If not, you can check out a brief audio slideshow here.

The article raises some discomfiting questions about how America is perceived by the outside world, and how concepts we view as central to our culture are utterly meaningless when seen from outside. First, our small-town, Bedford-Falls-esque American scenes unsurprisingly mean nothing to the Chinese painters. As far as they’re concerned, a picturesque barn may be “a development zone” with silos full of chemicals. Second, the Chinese painters don’t consider themselves “artists,” or particularly care what scenes they paint; one of them, Chen Meizi, tells Hessler,

“I had bad grades, and I couldn’t get into high school. It’s easier to get accepted to an art school than a technical school, so that’s what I did.”
“Did you like to draw when you were little?”
“No.”
“But you had natural talent, right?”
“Absolutely none at all!” . . .
“But did you enjoy it?”
“No. I didn’t like it one bit.”

What exactly are we buying when we spend our money on these paintings? How exactly Americans do value a $25 oil painting commissioned from a Chinese painter who doesn’t care one whit about the scene they’re painting, beyond copying it exactly, nor about the faux-European artistic style they’ve been requested to use. Isn’t an artist’s active creative input, his or her emotion and imagination, or at least some degree of innovation, essential to create “art”? If that aspect of art is either invisible or dispensable to American consumers, where does that leave artists in this country?

Of course historians of art know that assembly-line production of commissioned art is hardly a new thing. And the Chinese painters at least are doing everything by hand, unlike mass-produced “special limited edition prints” with only tiny touch-ups of real paint, that often sell for thousands of dollars here in the US. But this practice does have interesting implications for the American art market, which is being outsourced in dribs and drabs (like everything else).

My favorite part of the article – what pushed it over the top – was when Hessler met another group of Chinese workers who play World of Warcraft for a living, collecting loot and turning it over to a middleman – a practice called “gold farming.” In WoW, gold farmers are identifiable because they immediately sell anything of value; their characters are very poorly equipped. Why would you put any effort into customizing a character, if you get no enjoyment out of playing the game?

While I knew of this practice before, the juxtaposition of gold farming with the outsourced painting was somehow synergistic: artists who aren’t creatively engaged, gamers who aren’t having any fun. When our valued pastimes and culture are mere piecework to another nation, what does that mean for globalization? It’s interesting, if a little scary, to ask.

Photograph by Peter Leong/New Yorker

Comments

  1. #1 Mind Over Splatter
    January 16, 2010

    As the saying goes, “It’s not one world.” I guess if someone is desperate enough they will do anything for money. Wouldn’t it be nice to get people into those jobs that enjoy doing them ? ! ! ! . . . and get those Chinese employees into something that they would like as well.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 16, 2010

    Very interesting. This reminds me of the “controversy” surrounding Mark Koastabi’s painting factory where workers painted his paintings to his specifications and he signed them.

  3. #3 Art
    January 16, 2010

    In a culture that pays more for doing a job you loath; where talent and flair are dangerously outside the business model that values consistency and predictability (the consistent but uninspired output of drones who care nothing for their work is far easier to predict and plan for); where anyone experiencing joy in their work is seen as a kiss up and potentially dangerous to other employees; it is entirely consistent that the system will tend to put people in jobs they hate and keep them there.

    The holy primacy of money means that it is money that must be the only source of happiness. People who experience happiness outside the spending of money are inherently anti-capitalist and dangerous to the capitalist system. In all things it is the application of money that must control the level of pleasure. To have it otherwise would violate the right of those with money to enjoy their money and would undermine the central motivational system of capitalism: money is good, more money is better.

  4. #4 llewelly
    January 16, 2010

    “But you had natural talent, right?”

    The concept of “natural talent” is mostly pig excrement anyway. Practice is what matters.

    How exactly Americans do value a $25 oil painting commissioned from a Chinese painter who doesn’t care one whit about the scene they’re painting, beyond copying it exactly, nor about the faux-European artistic style they’ve been requested to use.

    Most of the Americans who buy those paintings are incapable of asking such questions.

  5. #5 Jessica Palmer
    January 16, 2010

    MindOverSplatter: I’d like to get Chinese painters who actually *want* to be artists doing the kind of art they *want* to do, and see what that’s like! But I suppose there wouldn’t be a big export market to oblivious Americans for that.

    llewelly: Oops, I made a typo there. :) You’re right about the American buyers not asking these questions – but they do value the paintings: they commission them and are willing to pay some amount. It’s just that the artist appears irrelevant to that valuation. Is the *only* thing relevant to that valuation how similar the painting is to the photo? Scary.

  6. #6 History Punk
    January 16, 2010

    I think it says that all the nonsense about art being high culture, a mark of sophistication, and the other dribble put out by uppies is nonsense.

    Then again, I am in discussions with a store in the mall by my house to purchase an Thomas Kinkade original, so maybe I am wrong.

  7. #7 prelevent
    January 17, 2010

    There are many Chinese artists, and even a cursory exploration of the art scene in any of the large cities would reveal a very dynamic culture in several media. They do “do” what they “want to do”. As far as an export market, yeah it’s there and the works can be found in galleries all over the US. Are you aware of this, or do you count yourself among the “oblivious” Americans that you so casually snidely scold?

    The paintings produced by the people in this article are part of a business that has a very good market for people from the west. There are a couple reasons for this, and one is that for less than the price of a full tank of gas you can get a hand painted and incredibly detailed painting. In the US, a person who could do this would likely charge 25 times the price for the same work, and thus there is no market for those types of painters to economically survive here.

    I bought a painting like this for my grandmother on my last trip to Beijing because it reminded me of a photo she had from when she was a child (and because I get a kick out of bringing “western-esque” gifts to friends and family after I come back from China). She loves it, and it is framed and on her wall. The joy that she gets from it has little to do with any expectations of the artists intentions. It is not really a piece of art, it is more like a decoration. It is a remarkable painting, and when you look at it, even up close, it shows delicate care and obvious technical skill.

    People do what they do because it is a way to make a living, have a family and a place to call home. The choice to become a painter in this context is not too different from becoming a mechanic despite the fact that they don’t really like cars. People build furniture and houses without caring about design or architecture. It is possible to do all of these things out of love or passion for the process and result, but for the majority that follow the road of passion they only wind up in failure. We like to think about the people who follow their hearts and minds into what they love to do, but we tend to not think about those who don’t make it. Perhaps it is a sense of guilt from us because we have managed to succeed (at least a little) at doing that which was our dream to begin with.

    I think that the most amazing part of the article was a display of industriousness. Doing something that would generally be viewed as a complete waste of time without the love and passion that we want to associate with these activities, and finding a way to live life as a result.

  8. #8 stripey_cat
    January 17, 2010

    There’s a long history of Western buyers sending preferred designs out to local workers in the applied arts (Chinese pottery and Indian cottons spring immediately to mind). It didn’t kill artistry in either situation (although some of the individual products were just as banal as these paintings).

    I think it’s the fact that the sort of people who buy these paintings *don’t* view them as fine art that’s upsetting people – if paintings are just something pretty to decorate your house, like wallpaper or curtains, what is the place for “art”. Whether this disturbs you will vary a lot based on your position on the purpose of art; also, whether you believe that fine art can coexist with applied art/craftwork/design in the same medium.

  9. #9 Lab Rat
    January 17, 2010

    I find this article interesting because I’m not entirely sure why it’s focused on Chinese painters. Lots of people do jobs they don’t partiularly like because they need the money, and for many people what they’re actually *doing* in their job has little meaning: bored estate agents who speak like computers, and who don’t give much of a damn about actual people or houses.

    “The article raises some discomfiting questions about how America is perceived by the outside world, and how concepts we view as central to our culture are utterly meaningless when seen from outside.”

    What, you mean the way many American’s feel about concepts central to other people’s cultures? :p

  10. #10 Jessica Palmer
    January 17, 2010

    Prelevant, the fact that Americans can buy a painting from China for “less than a full tank of gas” does disturb me, because it’s an artifact of radically disparate wages and quality of life. Of course the same disparity applies to outsourcing any type of job, from making clothing to making transistors. But the difference to me is that we think of “art” as occupying a special place in our culture – a place that transistors don’t. Outsourcing art to people who do it only as a craft is going to have several repurcussions – most obviously, you undercut the market for domestic artists and craftspeople, who already have a hard time making a living and can’t work for two days for $25. I think that’s sad, because domestic artists and craftspeople are often doing what they do for the love of it, as well as to make a living.

    I’m not going to predict that outsourcing these types of commissions to China or anywhere else will destroy the market for high end, million dollar art. But I am concerned about the market for smaller independent artists. Your comment suggests you think being happy in a job is unnecessary, but I happen to think that there are certain creative jobs where that passion is necessary to produce a certain type of quality or innovation, from artists to singers to filmmakers to programmers to scientists. I guess it depends how important you consider it to have domestic artists who understand the cultural context and significance of the subjects of their paintings and love what they do. If you don’t think that’s necessary, either for the health of our culture or to produce artworks you or your grandmother enjoy, then outsourcing isn’t a problem. I’m not telling you what to think or what to buy – that’s up to you. It is a very interesting question, though, which is why I brought it up.

    PS. to keep things simple, I’m differentiating between artists and craftspeople in this comment, but I think the exact nature and cultural significance of that distinction is actually worthy of a long debate unto itself.

  11. #11 Deborah Berk
    January 17, 2010

    Ive earned my living as an artist (until my work was outsourced to China), a crafts person and as an art therapist. I wouldn’t call what they are doing art, it’s copying. There is no self, no emotion, no discovery in it. It looks vacant.

  12. #12 Jessica Palmer
    January 17, 2010

    Lab Rat: “What, you mean the way many American’s feel about concepts central to other people’s cultures?”

    Yup, that’s one level, although I think there are several other interesting levels as well.

  13. #13 prelevent
    January 17, 2010

    I am not saying that enjoyment of a job is not important or necessary, if anything I might be going a bit further and saying that for the mass of humanity it might be irrelevant. Joy and happiness comes from many other things.

    “there are certain creative jobs where that passion is necessary to produce a certain type of quality or innovation, from artists to singers to filmmakers to programmers to scientists.” Do you really think this? Or do you simply hope that it is true? I am not denying that passion is an incredible motivator, and in super competitive markets it is often the flare that puts people ahead of the rest. The job types that you mention are not generally things that can be outsourced, though components of them can be very easily sent abroad (think of companies that contract people to write code to do very specific things generally conceived by others, or companies that sequence DNA). Passion does not equal success, and the ability of an artist to live off of what they do (be it singer, painter, dancer, etc.) is not hinged upon whether or not people from a foreign market are flooding the local market. Often it is because there is already a flooded market. Local artists who are lucky enough to have passion that they can channel into something that people want can still do very well for themselves (as opposed to the mass of artists who produce works that cannot find a connection with any audience… hehe, and then blame the audience).

    As far as the economics involved I chose the cost of a tank of gas because it was a basic number that most people can relate to (somewhere between $30 – $50), but also because it related to the price from the article you were writing about. The painting that I purchased cost me about 400 RMB, and it was the first asking price that the vendor gave (which translates to about $60), from her point of view she probably figured she was ripping the dumb american off, because as the rule of thumb goes the first price offered to an american is 3 or 4 times what they would accept from a Chinese person. This same quantity of money may be enough to feed your family fairly well for a couple weeks in many parts of China. The income disparity is quite shocking to those who spend this amount on lunch for a few people on a Wednesday afternoon. The first revulsion at it spurs the question of “why are they paid so little?”, when the far more appropriate question might be “why are we paid so much?”.

    The radically disparate wages and quality of life is a very broad subject, and one that people can spend a lifetime discussing. However, the one thing that would not be a solution would be a fiat parity between our countries at a level that the painter in China could receive the same amount that a person in the US would request. This would simply mean that the people in China would no longer have a job doing this, without resolving the problem that a person in the US can’t live on this job either anymore.

    The health and vibrancy of a culture is complex and unquantifiable thing. One of the things about jobs and interests that require and cultivate passion and drive is that people will do them despite the material gain that may or may not come from it. The high failure rate in these types of fields may be part of why we are so captivated by the success stories. Domestic artists who can capture the spirit of the times in a way that people can relate to will always have a place, but this is a world of difference from a person who masters a technical skill to be able to produce something.

    The author of the original article seemed to be dumbstruck that a person could do these things without the passion and drive that we associate with “art”, and almost seemed to be insulted that the woman did not see what was being done as being art. Perhaps there was a certain revelation that the things that people used to produce in other western markets were not actually art either, despite all the pretenses.

    Your responses to a couple of the comments shows that you hold a strong association between the concept of art as a whole and that anything that may use the methods used by artists to produce anything should be viewed as being a part of the “artistic”.

    “You’re right about the American buyers not asking these questions – but they do value the paintings: they commission them and are willing to pay some amount. It’s just that the artist appears irrelevant to that valuation. ”

    ” I guess it depends how important you consider it to have domestic artists who understand the cultural context and significance of the subjects of their paintings and love what they do.”

    “I’d like to get Chinese painters who actually *want* to be artists doing the kind of art they *want* to do, and see what that’s like!”

    There seems to be a conflation of process with philosophy. An image of a quaint farmhouse in an idyllic scene is not something that necessarily requires cultural context to produce, unless there is something that is part of this that speaks to a specific cultural reality. A Chinese painter will likely not be able to capture these almost intangible qualities because they do not understand the cultural context that would be required. However, a domestic artist who paints these types of paintings that lack the cultural uniqueness might hope that they can live off of their efforts, but the stark reality is that unless they ask a price equal to the weekly wages of the average person they are not going to be able to do so, and even then most people would not buy them.

    I think the reason that I reacted so strongly to your posting was that it was a mixture of disgust for American culture combined with a faux concern for the people who were the subjects of the original article. There was also the idea that you seemed to link two fairly different groups of people as though they were the same thing: The painters who make a good living using a learned technical skill and the Chinese artistic community.

    In other contexts and with other examples the ever ringing phrase of “unexamined privilege” found on so many other blogs on this site would have been proclaimed for what you wrote here and what it meant.

  14. #14 Jessica Palmer
    January 17, 2010

    “I think the reason that I reacted so strongly to your posting was that it was a mixture of disgust for American culture combined with a faux concern for the people who were the subjects of the original article.”

    Then you misread my post, prelevant.

    I actually think American culture has many great things about it – including people who do art and crafts without hope of becoming wealthy or famous, but just for the love of what they do. I think that makes our society richer in a profound and intangible sense. And I’m not a bit concerned for the painters in the original article – they are clearly hard workers who have successfully found themselves a niche where they can earn a living. Good for them. It’s too bad that they some of them don’t seem to enjoy what they’re doing, but as you and Lab Rat note, many of us don’t enjoy our jobs. In an ideal world we’d all be doing what we enjoy, wouldn’t we? (Or not? Another interesting question.)

    I shared this New Yorker article because it raises *many* interrelated questions, about globalization, about what art is, about how Americans perceive “art” or “artists” or the importance of artistic expression to our culture, etc. I didn’t try to limit those questions by making a bulleted list of them. And I don’t necessarily agree with the author of the article on every point. But I do think it’s thought-provoking. But what you seem to have missed is that my post didn’t argue any particular position, other than “this article touches on many really interesting and important questions.” Now, if you don’t think these are interesting and important questions, then we completely disagree. But if you’re “reacting strongly” because these are interesting issues, then that’s exactly what I intended.

    Unfortunately, you seem to be invested in tying me down to one perspective or argument. But culling out-of-context snippets from an open-ended conversation about many different aspects of this issue is not going to get you there. That’s why you think there is a “conflation of process with philosophy”: because you are conflating statements about different aspects of this extremely complex situation as if they are all part of one issue. For example, my comment in response to MindOverSplatter (“I’d like to get Chinese painters who actually *want* to be artists doing the kind of art they *want* to do, and see what that’s like!”) was specifically about what I, personally, would rather see in art – and I’d rather see work by Chinese artists who are passionate about being artists (who I am well aware do exist), than copies of photographs painted by people who are just doing it for a paycheck. That is my personal preference, which I have a right to, just as I already acknowledged that you have a right to yours. But not everyone in the US agrees with me. In this post, I raise the question of why that might be – and then don’t answer it, since I’m interested in raising the question, not in closing off debate.

    When you say,

    “Your responses to a couple of the comments shows that you hold a strong association between the concept of art as a whole and that anything that may use the methods used by artists to produce anything should be viewed as being a part of the “artistic”.”

    You seem to miss the point. “Art” is in scarequotes in the post title precisely because “art” is a very hard concept to define, and means different things to different people, including the artists themselves. “Art” and “artistic” can’t be defined simply; they’re ever-changing concepts, so I have no idea how one would implement a litmus test for art. On the other hand, asking the creator if they think it’s art might be valuable information. One of the best ways to begin to get a handle on what a society considers “art” is to look at what elements they consider essential to “art” that they buy and sell and treasure and write about. Do American buyers consider the paintings in the article “art”? That’s totally unclear. Some probably do, some don’t. But if they do, then they don’t agree with the creator of the painting, who views it as mere craft or home decor (again, the distinction between art and craft and decor is its own fraught debate). That’s very interesting, isn’t it?

    Since you seem so intent on reading subtext into my conversation with other commenters, I’ll return the favor. You give yourself away with your closing statement, prelevent:

    “In other contexts and with other examples the ever ringing phrase of “unexamined privilege” found on so many other blogs on this site would have been proclaimed for what you wrote here and what it meant.”

    So. . . you showed up at my blog expecting it to conform with “other blogs on this site,” and read what you wanted to into this post in order to satisfy your preconceptions? That’s why you are so quick to accuse me of “faux concern” and call me “snide,” isn’t it? If that’s not what you meant to suggest, then you didn’t express yourself very clearly.

    Contrary to your assumption, this post (and this blog) is not about “unexamined privilege.” Quite the opposite: it’s about examining economic forces and situations that affect us in what seem like small, unimportant ways, but actually invoke bigger concerns about globalism, economics, defining art, and what we find essential in our society. I’m glad you found the post provocative. I think blogs can bring out the different sides of a situation and elicit good conversation on topics, which is why I posted this article – because it made me think and I hoped it would be similarly enjoyable for others. But trying to pin me down so you can argue with me is a waste of your time, since on many of these interrelated questions I haven’t even begun to make up my mind – I am, as you put it, in the process of “examining” what preconceptions I have about art as an American, and how that fits into the reality of globalization. I have no prescriptive agenda here.

    I’ll end this non-argument by answering the one direct question you asked me:

    “”there are certain creative jobs where that passion is necessary to produce a certain type of quality or innovation, from artists to singers to filmmakers to programmers to scientists.” Do you really think this? Or do you simply hope that it is true?”

    I really think this (or I wouldn’t have said it). I don’t think passion can make you good at something you have no gift for. But I do think passion sets those who are truly great apart from those who are very good. I may be wrong, of course, but that is what I believe.

    Enjoy your weekend.

  15. #15 Esmeralda M Rupp-Spangle
    January 17, 2010

    mind whirling

  16. #16 MadScientist
    January 18, 2010

    For the poor starving artists, they only want to make a living. As for the subjects of the paintings, why do people expect the artists to care? Have you spoken to many sidewalk artists about their work and why they do it? As for replicating art, that’s been done for centuries at least. Most people buy paintings because they think they’re pretty – not because of whatever hubris the artist claims to have imbued into the painting. Only the pretentious “connoisseurs of art” care at all about the artist’s name (I doubt they give a damn about the artist); most people only care about the subject. Most people don’t even care to have the original (it costs too damn much) so even today, as it was 400 years ago, replicas of paintings are extremely popular. The chief difference I see is that the replicas are not usually made in the time-consuming manner that they were 400 years ago – i.e., acrylic paint machine printed onto canvas rather than oils laboriously applied in layers to mimic the original as best as possible.

  17. #17 mad the swine
    January 25, 2010

    In WoW, gold farmers are identifiable because they immediately sell anything of value; their characters are very poorly equipped.

    Well, it’s more that gold farmers don’t run instances or PvP, from whence the best equipment comes, since the rewards from those can’t be sold/auctioned for gold.

    Isn’t an artist’s active creative input, his or her emotion and imagination, or at least some degree of innovation, essential to create “art”?

    Artists who think like that die in poverty. Imagination and innovation are the kiss of death to marketability: the most successful living artist in the United States is Thomas Kinkade.

  18. #18 Salina Christmas
    January 25, 2010

    Plato whinged about such ‘reproduction’ artists yonks ago. Read The Republic, Chapter 13, Poets and Unreality. It’s the bit where Plato famously said “poets should be banished from the republic”. Oh, and Walter Benjamin picked up on it and wrote “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

    Nothing new, I am afraid. All this has been covered by our digital anthropology course at UCL.

  19. #19 Dave
    January 25, 2010

    just as a off the wall aside,when i was in the Army,Korea,in 1968 every guy had a painting done from a photo of his girl friend by the local artist.he came around to the barracks dressed as a western style artist in beret and sport coat.the quality was not as fine as the girls in China are doing and it was obvious he was self taught but he made a lot of GI’s happy for $10..looking back on it i wonder what his real work was like.great Korean landscapes and the face-on Western girls just payed the rent?

  20. #20 Thumalan
    January 26, 2010

    Speaking as both an artist and a WoW-addict, there is a bit of a difference between the painters and the WoW gold farmers though: one is deemed by most to be relatively harmless, the other is not.

    Most Americans probably wouldn’t care how the painting they just bought for 25 bucks was made, or how it screws over local artists who are trying to make ends meet. The only thing they care about is that they got a pretty painting to hang on the wall for cheap.

    On the other hand, gold farmers are almost universally reviled amongst the WoW community, because the players recognize how badly they can screw up the in-game economy. (Which makes things worse for everyone.)

    They are also reviled for the fact that gold farming/power leveling companies are the ones making the keylogger viruses that cause people to get their accounts hacked. (They steal your account, log onto your characters, and proceed to steal or sell everything your character has and send the money/items to the gold farmer’s character. And Blizzard will only return to you the items that were “bound” to your character. Anything else you might have had, anything that is now resting is some innocent person’s hands who didn’t know they were buying from a gold farmer, is now gone for good.)

    One of my guildmates, after having his computer infected by a keylogger and losing a huge chunk of all the things he’d worked so long for, went vigilante and started making life miserable for the gold farmers on our server, to the point where it was near impossible for them to do their jobs because he was killing their characters so often. Everyone who learned of his situation was more than supportive and often helped him get revenge. Nobody in WoW who knows about gold farmers likes gold farmers. If you see one of them spamming advertisements, you report them to Blizzard. If you see one of them out and about, you kill them if you can.

    And you can also be banned from the game for both selling or buying gold if you get caught. Nobody was ever arrested for buying a cheap painting. :P

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.