Contemporary art in the West is buyer-driven. Even if artists are not thinking about what folks might want to buy, the power-broker galleries are selecting artists based on what they think they can sell or foist off on others. This determines what ultimately gets donated to museums and what winds up in art history books, and this involves a complex and mysterious process of reputation-building, or, some might say, chicanery. In the US the most influential buyers are actually quite sophisticated - they know about the history and significance of art and seek to buy pieces of consequence often based on the advice of experts or trusted dealers. Collecting “meaningful” art is a part of their lives and identities. Art is first a love, yet financial investment is a close second.

But what if you suddenly build a megacity from scratch and the wealthy people there simply do not care about contemporary art? You will have lots of people who possibly want to and can create “meaningful” art, but you will have no real galleries or market for them. What if the only possible buyers are hotels and restaurants looking for decorations? Well, you get the Dafen Oil Painting Village in the 40-year-old metropolis of Shenzhen, China (population 12 million - one of the four Tier-1 cities in the Peoples Republic).

You can look Dafen up on the Internet and it will say it is an oil painting village which provides replicas of famous art works and decorative pieces. Nobody has, however, really nailed the real significance of what Dafen is. Dafen is, in essence, an extreme example of what can happen in a buyer-driven market when you do not have buyers who are interested in the creation of what we folks in the West call art. Indeed, it shows the extreme dependence that “real” art might have on the marketplace and economy.

A place like Dafen shows that the gallery/buyer dynamic that gets criticized so often as the engine which is killing art may, in actuality, be driving artistic innovation and excellence. Basically, Dafen shows how intertwined contemporary art is with contemporary economics. If you do not have meaningful buyers, very simply, you probably will not have meaningful art. Art is more than just folks creating – there is a whole system that takes a work and gets it out there for people to see, and the process may stink to some, be unfair to many, but it also works to an extent that allows the process to be successful and sustainable.

I discovered a 2008 National Geographic article about Dafen, by Shamus Sillar, under the title of Copycat, Inc. At that time, exports from Dafen to Europe and the US amounted to tens of millions of dollars annually and paintings could run from $4 to $100. Exports from Dafen currently exceed $500 million per year and the individual pieces are still dirt cheap. One artist in Sillar’s article asserts that an authentic artist would never condescend to copying while a copyist bemoans the fact that economic circumstances prevent him from creating his own work. In Shenzhen the wealthy seem to have little artistic taste in the Western tradition of visual art, but, ironically, seem to find their identity and prestige in conspicuous consumption of luxury Western items. They seem to have no apparent desire to help fund or support a type of artistic community. Shenzhen is, basically, a city without much of a cultural soul (yet), and Dafen, a place famed for knock-off art, thrives in this business Mecca.

Indeed, the Dafen community was first established by an art copier from Hong Kong who moved to the mainland to save money and who began hiring cheap labor from the mainland to complete his orders. Business boomed and at one point he literally had an assembly-line process in operation where each painting would be finished by multiple painters on a type of conveyer belt system, until the copy of a Van Gogh, Ingres or Jacques-Louis David was completed to be shipped out to a restaurant, bar or hotel somewhere.

Shenzhen was literally created from scratch in 1978, when China was struggling, and its purpose was to provide opportunities for foreign investment and partnership in China’s economic development. So the city has bought into models of Western development up to and excluding the development of art, which usually comes along with affluence in the West. In Shenzhen we see a phenomenon where culture does not necessarily follow affluence. In Shanghai and Beijing, Western auction houses are trying to remedy this type of situation and have actually set up tutorial programs on what constitutes “meaningful” art, literally trying to create an art market of informed buyers because some strong galleries have developed in those cities. Buying art to demonstrate that one has other interests than the accumulation of wealth is, of course, a very Western thing that has not hit this 40-year-old city. Shenzhen was created to bring money into China during desperate times and the energy here still seems to rotate exclusively around the entrepreneurial spirit.

So am I being too harsh and perhaps unfair to Shenzhen? Probably. While wandering through China’s National Museum in Beijing one afternoon, I felt that I learned a big difference between Asian and Western art. Great technical skill seemed valued among the visitors in Beijing because that technical skill revealed a state of being, a sense of equanimity, in the artist that allowed for the expression of amazing skills. The perfection in a painting seemed to model a type of emotional or spiritual perfection in the artist which was admired by the viewer. Taoist landscapes are Taoist landscapes because they could only be created by people of a certain level of humane development. In the West, we seem to want “meaning”. We do not seem to care how flawed our artists are as long as they give us something thought-provoking or stimulating on a deeper level.

The reflection of the artist in a piece (beyond meaning) is very recent in Western art history and perhaps this was taken from Asian or non-Western trends: Jackson Pollock got the idea of expressing his inner state on a canvas while watching Native American artists. We seem to relish the expression of anxiety and conflict, however, more than equanimity. There is no doubt that there is a difference between Western and traditional Asian art and it could be this difference between “meaning” and “being”. So, just because there is wealth in Shenzhen, it doesn’t mean that a Western art scene is going to suddenly sprout. What is so peculiar to me, however, is that in lieu of a Western art scene we get Dafen.

There are some articles indicating that Dafen will ultimately morph from a copying community to an artistic community… there is competition now and computerized techniques that do not require people with the greatest painting skills. Well, for this type of morphing you need creators, galleries and buyers. In Dafen it could merely be a case of the old dying and the new not being born. Things have not changed much since 2008 as both original artists and supportive, sophisticated galleries and buyers seem lacking.

Of course, if a Western visitor to Shenzhen craves his art fix, that person can go to Hong Kong, right next door, to see Larry Gagosian’s gallery or any number of other famous Western galleries. One can go to Guangzhou, 30 minutes away, to visit art museums and galleries of consequence that have bought into the Western model (Guangzhou was once the only Chinese city where Westerners could do business). Furthermore, in Shenzhen, there is the amazing Hive Art Gallery which decided to give Shenzhen a chance and OCT Loft tries to present meaningful shows. The Dafen Art Museum is also making an effort to show “real” art in the midst of surrounding shlock. So the city created to draw in Western business does seem open to Western art, but only time and money will tell how far things will go.

I would like to thank my former student Fan Yining who assisted me in this article as we wandered around Dafen one afternoon chatting folks up in order to really try to get to the bottom of this place.