Fake It or Make It
Beginning next week, London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery will use its exhibition space as the venue for the art world’s most thought-provoking amateur detective investigation. In collaboration with multi-disciplinary artist Doug Fishbone, the museum will open Made In China, a show consisting of 269 of the 270 pieces in the Gallery’s permanent collection–plus one unlabeled fake, commissioned from a Chinese painting “replicator."
Copying masterworks is a bustling industry in the world’s second largest economy, particularly in Guangdong province’s Dafen Oil Painting Village. The Daily Mail reported in 2013 that the thousands of painters living there produce as much as 60 percent of the world’s fake paintings each year, and the Guardian equated that output to roughly five million works annually.
According to HyperAllergic, the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s reproduction cost a grand total of 120 GBP, or about $182–a figure that actually places it at the higher end of the price spectrum for fakes. (The Daily Mail reported that the average reproduction from Dafen cost only 40 GBP, or about $61, in 2013.) The "extra” expense is justified, since Fishbone and the Gallery want the fraud to be as difficult as possible to distinguish from the true classical paintings on the museum’s walls.
Made in China isn’t just an abstract game, though. The public will have a little over two months to try to identify the impostor. Any successful sleuths will be entered into a drawing to win “one of five print-on-demand replicas of chosen works from the Gallery’s collection.” Pick out one commissioned reproduction, take home another.
Then, after revealing the fake, the Gallery will install it side by side with the original, so that visitors can see firsthand just how different they are–and whether that difference matters. The conceptual circle completes itself.
You don’t need me to drone on about the types of questions Made in China raises. I’ll hand that responsibility off to Fishbone, who told Hyperallergic that it comes down to examining “the role of the original in the digital age.” I think it’s one of the most relevant issues an artist or analyst can explore in the visual arts in this era, which is one of the reasons I wrote about it through the lens of the Van Gogh Museum’s licensed, 3D-printed replicas in one of my first blog posts.
While I’m happy to see this debate happening in the art world, I’m not the least bit surprised that it’s been largely contained within the nonprofit realm. Especially as more and more museums waive their general admission fees and explore new ways to disseminate their collections, I think the for-profit art market stands to lose far more if the temple of the original loses stability. Strip out the mortar holding scarcity, aesthetic value, and monetary value together, and the structure collapses with the galleries, dealers, and auction houses all inside.
This is not to say that artists aren’t wrestling with these issues in a commercial context. Joseph Beuys and his Fluxus cohorts were slyly raising hell about it half a century ago, and plenty of others have followed in their footsteps. They’re just not the names you’re going to see at the top of, say, artnet’s list of which artists conquered the auction market this year.
There may be an intellectual, even spiritual, bounty to be gained by separating fine art’s value from the sanctified original–or at least asking if it can be done. But there’s very little money in the effort. Why bring up the possibility of a weak link in the value chain if you need the chain to winch in cash? That’s why the blue chippers would rather leave that exercise to the nonprofits and the academics. The others have revenue projections to meet.