But is it <i>art</i>?

By Megan McArdle

Kriston responds to my earlier post on sweatshop art:

Now, I get the sense that McArdle is baiting her readers (and this writer) to deliver forth an encomium to Art and Apollo and to denounce the Chinese for this cheapest debasement of the canon. And, because I know McMegan socially, I know that she wants to stake out the counterintuitive ground here and defend these reproductions as desirable against real and perceived critics who abhor them. But the art reproductions aren't the real issue (and not just because they aren't the real deal, though I am tempted to launch into a tangent on the problem of authenticity). The fact is, insofar as the global art market is concerned, a Dafen Holbein doesn't account for any more than a Soundgarden poster—they're both examples of cheap decor you can buy at Wal-Mart.



Which is not to say that China won't or has not already had a massive impact on the market. But with regard to this story, the significant point is that economic conditions in China are such that highly skilled labor can be organized (or exploited, if you prefer) as if it were the most basic unskilled labor. I'm not the professional economist, though, so I don't know whether this collapse of categories is an unprecedented or even significant aspect of the global market. Ryan? Felix? Tyler?



I think there are multiple questions here.

1) Are the workers exploited? I tend not to be interested in that question, assuming that whatever their alternatives are are even worse. Yes, it might be nice if they were paid more money, but if I think it would be that nice, I could just send them the money; there's no particular moral reason that people who buy art at Wal-Mart should foot the bill for their higher living standards.

2) Are the reproductions a bad thing? I tend to think it's nice that Americans of moderate means can have a better grade of cheap art in their houses, at the same time that Chinese art students can have a slightly better job than whatever was previously on offer. But that is crass pecuniuary opinion. I am willing, indeed eager, to listen to an argument from Mr Capps that this is culturally or artistically a Bad Thing.

3) Is it, as one of the people interviewed for the original article argues, a tragedy that their sense of individual creativity is being stifled? That was what kicked off the original question in my mind about how different this really is from the old workshop system; I don't get the feeling that young apprentices were encouraged to express their own, special selves.

4) The broader question, which I didn't ask but Kriston did, of what this means for art markets, and potentially other markets, that China can assemble highly skilled labour into sweatshops. My sense is that it just doesn't matter for the parts of the art market that I inhabit, where pride of ownership is intimately connected to provenance . . . but I might well be kidding myself. And of course much of the art market is not adorable little galleries and Picasso sketches at auction; it's Thomas Kinkade and hotel paintings.

Update By which I do not mean to imply that I buy Picasso sketches at auction. I mean I look at them in museums, and gaze enviously at people who can afford to buy expensive art at auction.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/08/but-is-it-lt-i-gt-art-lt-i-gt/1769/