Tuesday, September 21, 2010

But is it Art ? Some Thoughts on Mass Produced Abstract Paintings

So there I am having breakfast one Saturday morning with Leo and Claire, when I spied some abstract paintings displayed all around the walls of a nearby furniture shop. While waiting for the breakfast to arrive I took my two year old with me for a closer look, and noticed they looked original – actual paint on canvas and not only that but that they looked good too – the elements of design were superb.
I was interested because recently I decided to have a go at creating abstract art. It’s not as easy as you think – design elements play an important role if you want it to look good, it’s not about just randomly splashing colour onto canvas - even if your name is Jackson Pollock !
It wasn’t long (about 30 seconds) before a salesman approached me – no doubt hoping to sell me one and we ended up having a long discussion about art – having studied art himself he had some knowledge on the subject. He told me that the paintings were mass produced overseas –that they somehow print the design but then go over it with real paint in some way to make it look like an original.
To be honest I could not tell the difference but this explained why the prices were so low.
It was clear to me that an artist or artists with real talent did the original design but sadly no credit as to who that might be was given on the paintings – I guess since they were not originals anyway. To the shop’s credit – they don’t try to make out that these paintings are originals and it seems they sell like hotcakes – my friendly salesman told me they sell approximately thirty a month.
Yes they are good, yes they are inexpensive and yes they will look damn good on your lounge wall.
Would I buy one?
If it was original at that price? Maybe. In fact, I would happily pay more if I knew it was an original and if I had the money of course.
Here’s why – part of the mystique of owning art is the uniqueness and originality – it is more than having something that looks good on my wall.
Knowing these are mass produced left me disappointed – maybe because I am an artist.
Yet – I happily buy a mass produced lounge suite and are these paintings not the same thing – décor for your home?
I guess it all comes down to your reasons for buying art – some people want something to fill up their wall space and make their home look good and there is nothing wrong with that.
So now I have to ask – is the abstract art I am trying to produce just décor or is it more than that? Is there in fact anything less artistic or wrong in making wall decoration?
Should I care?

There is great freedom with abstract art – you can play with it and experiment a lot – it is a wonderful way to get creativity flowing and sometimes you may just come up with something that is truly beautiful to look at.
We artists will aim to give it more meaning with esoteric names like “Interlude” or “Emergence” – but is this not just our way of making it seem more significant than just wall décor?
Is there in fact any meaning at all in an abstract work any more?
In the early days of modern art artists found the photograph taking over their role as portrayers of life and they found new ways to express what art is – always pushing the boundaries of what people would accept as art. We have crossed that bridge and gone beyond – it is as though anything goes these days – so are we saying anything new?

What’s the big deal – should we be bending over backwards to find some new way to express ourselves or is simply expressing ourselves enough?
Art can be so many things – it can be a means to amaze, shock, make one think, be a political statement, be a beautiful object or make us see something in a new light.
Whether we produce something representational or abstract – I think there is value already – we are creating something that did not exist before.
My own answer to the question of meaning in abstract art is yes – it is a form of exploration – playing with the medium and finding ways to get new effects and elements of design. It is has meaning to the artist who creates it and it has meaning to the person who likes it enough to purchase it. I have looked at a lot of abstract art lately and am astounded at how many different ways there are to explore this subject.

I just can’t help but feel that when it gets mass produced on a big scale that it loses its essence of what it is – an individual expression of one person’s vision.


  1. Hi Karen,
    Check this – http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,433134,00.html
    and this – http://www.flong.com/blog/2009/pedagogic-resources-on-chinese-painting-villages/
    or just google "chinese painting factories".
    My wife and I used to provide paintings to poster publishers. When we would go to trade shows, there were always vendors with long tables filled with two foot piles of unstretched canvases of every kind of image and style you could imagine. They were the competently painted productions of sweatshop operations, but they had nothing to do with creativity or art. There was no way to underprice them.

  2. Hey K, nice blog, for my 5cents worth, I'd say anyone who is serious about art wouldn't go near mass produced copies, however there is a market for that kind of buyer. The abstract issue, in my opinion should move you in any one of the emotions you describe, mainly it should elicit a reaction in your phsyche, any reaction, even if its rejection. There a full 5cents worth lol. Love your work!!!

  3. Thanks for the comments.
    Mark - those links are fascinating - what is also interesting is one of the first jobs I ever had back in the early eighties was doing exactly that - copying existing paintings that were imported from Hong Kong. These paintings were pretty bad to begin with, but there was definitely a market for them. I worked with another artist called Gary, and the two of us would line up 10 canvases in a row and paint the exact same scene on each of them. We were supplied with very cheap, poor quality paint that was difficult to work with and I do not remember a single painting I did with any fondness.
    We earned about R10 per painting ( that's about $7 or $8)
    I was so exhausted at the end of the day I would fall into bed without bothering with supper.
    Fortunately it was just holiday work and I did not do it for very long.
    Flirting with Gary made the day more fun so it wasn't all bad.

  4. You have a beautiful blog Karen. I like your paintings and your thoughts on abstract art. I have been thinking about writing on abstract art myself on my blog and hopefully I will do that some day. It was a pleasure to read your blog. Have a great day:)

  5. Thanks for your kind words Narayan.