The Great Factory

by Tatiana Luna

March 2 I took a rare solo excursion to Macau to attend a workshop organized by the Macau-Ricci Institute called China Trade 1760-1860: Merchants and Artists.  I went intending to observe the landscape of an area of scholarship that I began to study for my Division III and I have considered studying again when I go back to school.  Part of my curiosity was about the scholars themselves and I was not surprised to find that a disproportionate number of those there were old white men, many of them British, perhaps because the British East India Company was the largest company trading with China during this time.  At first, I had this stifled, intimidated feeling I sometimes receive when in contact with academia; The room seemed filled with older men who have spent their lives becoming experts in something rather specific and rather useless.  A formidable task indeed, and one I wish to avoid at all costs.  This really is a mixed feeling, because their expertise is hard earned, and on this point I admire them.  But I was disappointed that none of these experts told me why their research mattered for those living today besides mere interest.

But a window was thrown open.  I received a refreshing breeze from the two youngest presenters: two young women working on dissertations, Lisa Hellman from Stockholm University, and Winnie Wong 黄韵然 from the Harvard Society of Fellows.  Using three micro-biographies of men in the Swedish East India Company, Lisa gave a compelling picture of the social landscape of the thirteen factories area of Canton during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  Her point that good social relationships between traders and between traders and the Chinese were essential for successful trade reminded me of the central importance of guanxi in present day China as well.  Her study provides a look at how this traditional Chinese concept was not only central to foreign trade from the beginning, but effected the cultural interactions between Westerners and the Chinese in ways that still reverberate today.

Winnie was the only scholar presenting who focuses more on contemporary China in her studies, and her ethnographic research in Shenzhen’s Dafen Village brought important insights into her historical research that made it more relevant to modern discussions.  In questioning the legitimacy of European scholars’ use of Canton trade paintings as accurate evidence of their own mode of manufacturing, she also questions the traditional European notion of the nature of art and the artist.

Understanding the production of Canton trade paintings would be necessary to evaluate it against European conceptions of art and ‘originality,’ currently staged by assigning speculative roles of imitation and invention to certain Canton artists, studios and painters….The questions raised by the Canton trade painting illuminate not only the questionable accuracy of European observations of artisanality and artistic subjectivity in nineteenth-century Guangzhou.  They also entail questions of the universality of historical European conceptions of manufacture from which the notion of fine arts emerges as an antithesis.

The message Ms. Wong imparted from her PhD thesis After the Copy: Creativity, Originality, and the Labor of Appropriation—Dafen Village, Shenzhen, China (1989-2010) when presenting at this conference is that the mastery of the mechanics of art while painting a reproduction in a factory setting does not necessarily preclude one from being called an artist.  Outsiders may imagine a human cog in a great machine producing the same brush stroke over and over, while that does not always correspond to the painter’s experience and that image has in itself been manufactured.

While I think there must be a fine balance between originality and the mastery of mechanics when one is defining art and the artist, I don’t think that’s the real issue here.  The painting reproduction studios in Shenzhen and elsewhere provide a specific context for performing art for the artists there, and each individual has his or her own story as to what that context means for them.  And one cannot forget that these reproductions are in high demand; the consumers have defined the work of these artists, the same way that they did in the early Canton trade.  To denounce these artists as nothing but imitators, or even only as simple factory workers, certainly ignores their skill and places the blame for consumers bad taste on artists trying to make a living.  Put in another context, who knows what some of these individuals would do with their skills or what other art they would produce?  Here’s a project by Regional illustrating this point.  Mastery the art of reproduction may be just another way to train an artist.

So although I sympathize with Ms. Wong’s defense of the painters, I do not think this high demand for painting reproductions is valuable.  Winnie Wong introduced her paper with a quote:

There is now to be a great painting factory, in which, they tell us, they intend to copy any painting, rapidly, cheaply, and indistinguishably from the original, by means of totally mechanical operations such as any child can be employed to perform.  If this comes to pass, then of course only the eyes of the common herd will be deceived.

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Kunst Und Handwerk,” 1797

This image of a great factory brings up a very disturbing point that is very relevant today.  Everything, including these reproduced paintings, produced by China and shipped around the world represents a consumer culture that has esteemed unoriginal and low quality goods.  The stuff that most Americans fill their houses with (plus the art in many public places supplied by Dafen) can all be found in thousands of other houses as well.  This question of what can and should be considered art is more important for consumers to answer for than the painters in Dafen.

Winnie Wong’s presentation on trade paintings in eighteenth century Canton grounds her study of Dafen Village, and reminds us that the Western world’s current relationship with China’s manufacturing power is not as new as we think.  More than two hundred years ago, Chinese painters in Canton had already figured out that they could make a lot of money painting what European’s wanted to see, and I imagine many of them were not so concerned about whether or not they were “true” artists.  While Ms. Wong’s study and the video I linked to above both remind one of the importance of looking at individual’s experience whenever making grand generalizations about something in China, they cannot convince me that this great factory of reproductions of famous artwork should be the livelihood of thousands of individuals.  I would rather see blank walls in my dentist’s office than a mediocre Monet.