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?”
“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