If we consider China’s art history, and where it would fall in within the history of Western art, China is as an example of a country considered by the West as the ‘other’. It was a generation of artists that emerged in the mid-1990s, uring the time China was still mostly a rural nation, under Mao Zedong, and experienced the decade-long Cultural Revolution that started in 1966.
Art was prolifically propaganda-oriented paintings, prints or portraits reflecting not only conditions at the time, but also a Chinese identity formed when the country was isolated from the rest of the world and its influences. Leng Lin, an art critic and curator from Beijing, thinks China in the 21th Century is now luckier: “for this younger generation, Chinese identity is not the most important thing, because the artists exist in a globalized world”. There is a surmountable difference that has slowly evolved from artists in that generation, to the current generation. Chinese artists might have an innate need to be within their own, but their work is still very Chinese-culture oriented, despite Western exposure through education.
“They [artists under Mao] experienced the Cultural Revolution and the expression after such suppression. But for our generation, our reaction would be more concrete, more prosperous, more various, and more heterogeneous. The reality we are facing is not a post-revolution situation. We are more connected to a materialistic world. We have different actions, more subtle” is how Li Qing, one of China’s most successful artist sums it up.
China has reportedly been the biggest art market in terms of art revenue. Sotheby’s Institute launched an Auction House in China and the auction earners’ revenue has far surpassed some of the West’s greatest artists like Andy Warhol and Picasso.
The auction house is for timeless, provenance-rich pieces that guarantee an investment turnover a good 10 years later. If Chinese artists are producing pieces that sell at auction for over $100 million, yes, $100 million, then why is there a significant decline in investor interest?
Authenticity has long been a debate within the discourse of art; what is authentic, who creates what idea, did Warhol ever have any of his own ideas or did he simply just create a commodity out of already existing consumer products? When it comes to Fine Art, and the multi-billion dollar market that is High Art, counterfeits is an act of forgery. China’s forgery of art dates from at least the Sung Dynasty (960-1280) when the wealthy began to collect art. Forged paintings were mostly made by students seeking to imitate the masters, and those who can’t buy the originals, will settle to buy the imitated ones by the students. And this created the market for fakes.
Picasso highlighted the notion that the name of the artist would become more of a commodity than the art he produced. By the time Picasso reached his popularity, this is exactly what happened – the artists name on an art work can increase the value tenfold, and Picasso inspired this notion to carry on into Modern Art today. But this also saw the breeding of counterfeits, because people want to see the name on the painting and pay less for it than an original. This is why the market for ‘genuine fakes’ is rapidly growing.
China’s work ethic to create mass production in the cheapest, fastest way is directly reflected into the art market. But these counterfeits of high-end pieces are becoming a major problem. When these get exported and sold in other countries, a huge collection of counterfeits are globalized. And this is a problem for foreign investors interested in innovative and creative pieces not seen yet. This is not only happening in China though. All over the world there are people looking to buy great art works, but don’t have the six digit bank account to do it. So they settle for fakes. It’s why people buy the ‘Made in China’ copy. They buy for the name. Not the quality. Catering for the domestic market.
The world’s art market is in dire search for new artists’ work that can topple the Old Masters. The art market now sees itself wanting a change, an injection of new movements and artistic minds. It’s a risk that has already paid off. Chinese artists have created works of art that sold for triple that of a Warhol or a Picasso. The world is interested in China, and more so, in Chinese Art. Art could become the front runner in the Chinese economy.
Chi Peng, a Chinese artist, says that “China has the attention of the world on it, so you think it is lucky. But China is really naked in front of the world, so it actually is unlucky.”
Although the smaller art market sees some success in the selling of counterfeit artwork, it is not a sustainable practice. It is only a matter of time that it blows up and those creating and buying fakes are exploited. The smaller market of selling counterfeits is slowly affecting the larger, global art market. These works need to be eradicated so that the Fine Art market, which is dominated by galleries and auction houses, can claim back the reign of being spaces where art as a commodity is respected and appreciated for the skill and intelligent matter it is.
If China continues the production and distribution of counterfeit art, over that of producing authentic Chinese art, foreign investors are going to develop a sense of ‘Caveat Emptor’; a Latin phrase for “let the buyer beware”. If China can turn this practice through adversity, the growth of their economy means continuum prosperity in the economy for the rest of the world. The wealthy sees the art market a solid investment as a result of the works selling for well over the $100 million mark. There is a melt-up in the art market; meaning a tremendous surplus of capital. Todd Levin explains that high-net-worth individuals are investing their surplus capital in assets that will appreciate. And these assets are authentic, high end works that include some of China’s new-generation artist’s. In China, any art work over 50 years old is ‘ripe for the copy’. China’s wealthy commission Chinese artists to create copies of Western masterpieces. This takes away from them reaching their own artistic excellence. An archeologist would agree that art is fundamental to understanding generations and civilization. Each artist of its generation should represent the generation and its changes they find themselves in. China must let their artists create more of their own art pieces. It’s imitation versus imagination.