Art, Inc.

by Joy Chen:

Famous for her enigmatic smile, DaVinci’s inimitable masterpiece “Mona Lisa” has been valued at over $700million. But in Dafen, China, “Mona Lisa”pulled in just over $40 in recent sales. “Mona Lisa” is just one of millions of oil paintings replicated each year in this artisticboomtown.

Dafen, an urbanized village in the major Chinese manufacturing city of Shenzhen, is home to about 8,000 artists who specialize in producing remarkably accurate copies of famous artwork. From Van Gogh’s sunflowers to Lichtenstein’s comic book blow-ups, familiar masterpieces appear quite literally on every street corner, meeting the demands of tourists, interior design suppliers, and hotel mass-market orders from around the world.

Originating in the 1980s, when Chinese economic liberalization policies encouraged the migration of the post-WWII Hong Kong painting trade to mainland China, the art hub now claims at least 700 art galleries and produces an impressive 60 percent of the world’s oil paintings. The vast majority of Dafen’s artists work from their homes or rent studios, shops, and galleries on the first floors of brick buildings, where they paint for nine to ten hours a day. After several years honing their skills in local art-specialty high schools, art academies, or through self-study, Dafen artists have no problem churning out copy after copy of idyllic landscapes, stark abstracts, and lifelike portraits.

Hand-painted replicas of Western masterpieces fuel the art market in Dafen, China. (Flickr Creative Com- mons/mandiberg)

With news headlines like, “China’s Art Factories: Van Gogh From the Sweatshop” and “Copying Mona Lisa: The Fake Art Industry in China,” international criticism has focused on Dafen’s mass-production of Western canonical masterpieces. Dafen artists have been described as mere copyists at best, and counterfeiters at worst. Yet according to Winnie Wong, a junior fellow at Harvard who has spent four years researching and writing about Dafen, the claims are not based on verifiable fact or observation in China: “If you were to visit Dafen village once, you would see that the idea that it is made up of ‘copyists’ who have no creativity is not very true.” While some of the artists concentrate on producing over a hundred “Mona Lisas” over two years, other artists strive to create original artwork, including original commissions sourced from customer photographs sent by email. However, these originals amount to only about 5 percent of all the pieces sold.

Accusations of sweatshop labor from the media are often based on Dafen artists’ almost mechanical productivity and relatively low wages. Mary Ann O’Donnell, a Shenzhen-based artist-ethnographer, admitted that levels of exploitation in Shenzhen are increasing. “Part of what has kept the boom going is this level of oppression. In that sense, yes, some places are dirtier than others.”

On the other hand, Australian Bailey O’Malley, artist and owner of Dafen’s Pix2oils gallery, questioned the comparison of Dafen factories to sweatshops: “ ‘Sweatshops’ is a story that will sell, but I have never met an artist who aspires to be a laborer or rice farmer.” He added that as skilled laborers, artists earn sufficient living wages, and exceptional artists can make above-average incomes. According to Wong, an average painter in Dafen can make about 3,000 renminbi (RMB) per month, about $500 and just enough to get by in China. The best earn more than three times that amount.

Some artists, however, disagree with O’Malley’s assertion of job satisfaction: “I don’t think I will do this job forever,” remarked Alice Liu of Shenzhen Yayuan Art Company. Others, like Tony Liu, an artist at Dafen’s Spring of Art Oil Painting Studio, reflected that “it is hard to earn enough money to feed oneself, and fierce competition means luck is important sometimes.” Nonetheless, he remained optimistic about the liberties his job affords: “It is a very free career; nobody will supervise the artist. Artists can explore new areas of visual art.”

This mix of intense work ethic and contested work conditions seems to find a niche in the profitable Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, often dubbed the “workshop of the world.” At the same time, creative exploration is budding as the prospering nouveau riche in China demand more luxuries and the international market widens. In this context, Dafen’s art boom will surely flourish, fueling original authorship along with it. This convergence of an Eastern market with Western art in Dafen speaks to the power of globalization and the experience of artists and their art in contemporary society. The masterpiece and the mass-market are together at last.

Joy Chen ‘13 is in Silliman College. Contact her at