Why China’s art market is evolving from knockoffs to new works

Why China’s art market is evolving from knockoffs to new works

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the past week, we have
been reporting on China’s explosive growth
and development as a world power.
Tonight, we look at how Chinese artists are
recreating what they call the country’s cultural
aristocracy by producing original art.
That is a shift from recent years, when China
produced 75 percent of the world’s art knockoffs.
The story is part of our ongoing arts and
culture coverage, Canvas, and also part of
our series “China: Power & Prosperity,” produced
with the support of the Pulitzer Center.
Special correspondent Katrina Yu begins her
story in the village of Dafen.
KATRINA YU: Artist Zeng Muquan has never set
foot outside China, but he knows a lot about
the streets of Paris.
From his studio in the country’s southern
Guangdong province, he’s painted tens of thousands
of European scenes.
The 44-year-old earns a living duplicating
paintings, and has copied works by some of
the world’s most famous artists, including
van Gogh.
ZENG MUQUAN, Artist (through translator):
You know van Gogh’s Starry Night?
I used to paint three to five copies per day.
Every year, I produced 3,000 to 5,000.
KATRINA YU: Artists here used to produce up
to 75 percent of the world’s duplicates.
These were ordered by a souvenir shop in Amsterdam.
Each canvas earns him just $5, though he knows
they’re sold for much more.
He often spends 14 hours a day, seven days
a week painting duplicates.
ZENG MUQUAN (through translator): People say
painters here in Dafen Village are no better
than copy machines.
We started before things became digital, and
the quantity was huge.
Every copy was almost the same, as if done
by machine.
But it’s not.
It’s done by hand.
And there’s a process.
And by this process, we become better artists.
KATRINA YU: He lives in Dafen Village and
dreams of making his mark on China’s art scene.
His timing could be just right.
Once notorious for forgeries and fakes, China’s
art market is now forging ahead.
This isn’t a mad dash on Black Friday.
It’s the race to grab a seat at one of the
country’s most prestigious auction houses,
China Guardian.
Last year, the firm says it closed $822 million
worth of sales.
One-third of all art global sales are now
made in China.
And the country’s new wealthy class are a
hungry market.
Here, ink paintings, paper fans and calligraphy
can sell for millions.
With traditional works commanding such high
prices, Chinese buyers are starting to see
art as a more reliable investment than the
stock market.
China Guardian is the country’s oldest auction
house, founded with the mission of recreating
China’s cultural aristocracy.
ZHANG QIAN, China (through translator): We
are now living in a flourishing age.
We see more people visiting exhibitions, museums
and collections.
This shows that the level of people’s artistic
appreciation and cultural quality are improving.
PENG LIU, China (through translator): In China,
we say our nation has 5,000 years of history,
and we can understand Chinese society and
humanity through our art and culture.
KATRINA YU: Beijing-based artist Hao Liang
says China is slowly restoring its artistic
legacy, something lost during the cultural
revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, when many
artists were condemned as counter-revolutionaries.
HAO LIANG, Artist (through translator): People
have loved to collect art since the olden
days, whether it was royal collections or
private collections.
China was a country which favored art, but
we had a break in our history.
We are restoring it, this respect for art
and culture.
KATRINA YU: The 36-year-old’s ink paintings
have sold to the likes of New York’s Metropolitan
Museum of Art and the Centre Georges Pompidou
in Paris.
But contemporary paintings such as his aren’t
as sought after in a Chinese market dominated
by traditional art, where some consider more
modern work heretical.
HAO LIANG (through translator): I think it’s
fair and normal for people to criticize.
After all, I’m doing what I want and don’t
think too much about cultural tradition or
what’s popular according to the current climate.
KATRINA YU: But that climate is changing,
thanks to younger buyers.
Beijing gallery M Woods is popular with millennial
art lovers, and often showcases collections
by Western artists, including British artist
David Hockney.
Visitors to this gallery represent a new generation
of Chinese art enthusiasts, educated abroad
and increasingly interested in Western work.
But they are the urban elite minority.
The majority of Chinese art buyers are middle-income,
middle-aged, and buying their art in places
like Dafen Village.
Art dealer Jack Ye serves a man looking to
decorate his home.
Ten years ago, most of his customers were
foreigners looking to buy copies of European
Today, he says they’re mostly middle-income
Chinese looking to buy original Chinese art.
He says the change is thanks in large part
to a government push to shed China’s copycat
JACK YE, Art Dealer (through translator):
Highly skilled painters or art school graduates
were trained and encouraged to create original
Artistic taste and education is improving.
And, in the future, it will be even better.
KATRINA YU: It’s that future that Zeng Muquan
looks forward to.
When his copies are complete, he works on
his own art, a fusion of Western and Chinese
Zeng says China’s growing art market means
it’s now more profitable for him to be original.
ZENG MUQUAN (through translator): These days,
when customers are interested in my work,
they’re more generous in what they’re willing
to pay.
As an artist, I dream of producing excellent
art of my own, and leaving behind influential
work for the next generation.
KATRINA YU: As China’s art market develops,
artists like Zeng Muquan are producing art
that’s more reflective of themselves, and
hoping for a life spent copying less and creating
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Katrina Yu in
Dafen Village, Guangdong.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Wonderful report.
And on the “NewsHour” online: China is now
expected to surpass the U.S. as the number
one film market in the world.
We look at how the Chinese government uses
film industry stars as a form of influence
on their public and what happens when these
stars find themselves in the crosshairs of
Chinese authorities.
All that and more is on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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