Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: Still Second Class

Two years after Andy Warhol's death in 1987, Graham Nash [PLATE 69], of Crosby Stills Nash & Young fame, and David Coons, an Academy Award-winning animation engineer from the Walt Disney Company, produced the first digital IRIS fine art print.[1] Given the historical tensions and developments previously outlined, it is not surprising that the pioneers of digital art printmaking would be a rock star and a California-based film technician rather than a New York visual artist or master printmaker. Nash Editions has spawned a digital reproduction industry that could end the underexposure of visual art. The remarkable print quality that cost Nash $126,000 for an IRIS Graphics 3024 printer in 1989—an amount that only a celebrity could afford—can today be replaced by a wide-format Epson or HP inkjet printer for a few thousand dollars. Despite the potential, the art world is far from universally welcoming the full implications of this new technology, and instead displays the contradictory tendencies of elite resistance and avant-garde experimentation that have long been the twin trademarks of Western art history.

More than a decade after the first IRIS prints, digital printing and reproductions remain near the periphery of the fine art world, infrequently seen at Chelsea galleries, London auctions or even fine art print fairs. Great importance is still given to limiting the edition of digital prints, even though there is no technical reason for doing so, nor even the physical possibility (any digitally printed output can be rescanned and reproduced at virtually the same quality and size). Fourteen states have fine art print disclosure laws specifying detailed contents of certifications of authenticity, even though many parameters are nonsensical in the context of digital reproduction (such as status of plate or master).[2]

Consensus on nomenclature for digital applications remains elusive even in the most traditional media such as works on paper. Many try to distinguish between (a) "digital prints" of art created originally on a computer, (b) "digital reproductions" of art created with a different media then digitally photographed or scanned, and (c) a "fine art print" that directly involves the hand of an artist and master printmaker in some aspect of the process of reproduction. The problem with such distinctions is that all manner of combinations of these processes are possible, and all kinds of quality can result from any one, in terms of both artistry and materials. Jack Duganne, Nash Editions' first printmaker, coined the term "giclée" in 1991 based on the French verb "to spray" (gicler). Many American artists refrain from using the moniker, because of its simultaneously pretentious whiff of European origins and kitschy connotation of highfalutin sales-slick gimmickry hiding what may otherwise be an ordinary poster. Here we begin to stumble into the contraband terrain of inauthentic work, along with fakes and forgeries, among the most disreputable neighbors of reproduction.[3]

The unrivalled master of giclée is universally reviled by art-world aficionados, who call his work "schlock" and "a big turnoff."[4] As the top grossing artist in the world today—and by far—Thomas Kinkade, the self-described "Painter of Light™," can laugh all the way to the bank [PLATE 70]. He has reportedly sold more than ten million copies of his paintings (not one original!), earning more than $100 million per year for his corporation over multiple years (before taking it private in 2004), and generating more than $500 million per year in licensed product revenues.[5] His empire includes not only a finely articulated product schedule of signed limited edition prints that mimic art historical hierarchies (including various proofs, certifications, hand highlights, etc.), but all manner of goods from calendars to candles, greeting cards, furniture, wall paper, a novel (Cape Light), and even a real estate development ("The Village at Hiddenbrooke"), not to mention thousands of gallery franchises throughout the country, a 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in California, and hundreds of employees, including several executives who earn six- and seven-figure salaries and bonuses.

Many may doubt that Kinkade will ever be considered the Rembrandt of our times, or even looked back upon as a contemporary Norman Rockwell. Kinkade is the single most disliked artist by American art critics, according to a recent Columbia University survey.[6] (The critics give similarly poor ranks to LeRoy Neiman, another bestselling artist of reproductions.) Even an acclaimed champion of popular art such as Dave Hickey, who is famous for reviving previously discounted concepts such as beauty and artists such as Rockwell, says of Kinkade, "one of my 'heroes'[,] he isn't."[7] In addition to his 2001 MacArthur "genius" award, Hickey ranks as the fifth most influential writer among U.S. art critics in the same poll, above Walter Benjamin, Meyer Schapiro and Harold Rosenberg.[8]

There is no argument, however, regarding this indisputable historical fact: licensed sales of Kinkade's work are substantially greater than the revenues of any other organization in the visual art world today, including Sotheby's (the largest publicly held auction house), and double the revenues of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest museum in the United States (including all of its sources of revenue: gift shop sales of reproductions and other paraphernalia, admissions, donations, art sales, etc.). It is even more incredible that broadly scanning the vast literature of contemporary American art—from academic books to glossy magazines to art websites—you might never even know he exists.

In return for his art-world anonymity, Kinkade, who graduated from the well-regarded Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, not only ignores the intellectual interests of the art-world elite, he unapologetically embraces exactly the kind of work held out for ridicule by the likes of Soviet émigré artists Komar and Melamid and their "America's Most Wanted" polls [PLATE 71].[9] So much scorn has been heaped on Kinkade and others who have pursued this populist approach to reproduction, that their enormous enterprise is all but invisible to participants and onlookers of the international art world. Wildlife artist Terry Redlin—who despite selling more than $20 million worth of Americana each year, single-handedly raising $28 million for Ducks Unlimited [PLATE 72], and building a $10 million museum for the State of South Dakota, still does not rank among the top ten art licensors—calls these contemporary masters of reproduction "a hidden industry."[10]

What historian Lawrence W. Levine terms the "cultural bifurcation" of America between high and low arts is most extreme in contemporary visual arts.[11] This is not just a matter of the general public's difficulties understanding and accepting the most challenging avant-garde work, which happens in all fields of artistic endeavor. More significantly, the connoisseurship that rules the visual art establishment disregards the largest segment of its own industry, discounting not only the aesthetics of such popular work, but its technological and fiscal underpinnings. The former is a matter of taste, the latter, financial suicide. In a single-minded pursuit of value through the monetary appreciation of celebrity output, the arbiters of contemporary fine art have ignored the very mechanism by which superstars are created: large-scale systems of reproduction. By snubbing individuals who have most successfully pursued the latter strategy, the art world has conspired with the art market to conflate reproduction with poor quality. Upon reflection, however, does not this equation seems so passé, rooted in early Twentieth-Century American anti-immigrant sensibilities (distinguishing between highbrow and low), and even back to the anti-photography sensibilities of the Aquafortistes?[12]

1. Graham Nash. Self-Portrait at the Plaza Hotel, New York. 1974.
Courtesy of Nash Editions, Manhattan Beach, CA.

2. Thomas Kinkade. In the Garden of Hope. 2005.
Giclée, sizes: 16x12 / 24x18 / 34x25.5 inches. Artist's statement: "Hope is the great gift of a loving God. For people of faith, hope is symbolized in the dawning of each day, the assurance that God's love is new every morning. Hope lights our spirit in the midst of despair; it is the life force that 'through the green stem drives the flower;' it keeps a divine vision alive in the hearts of the weak and needy." Courtesy of The Thomas Kindade Company, Morgan Hill, CA.

3. Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. United States: Most Wanted Painting. 1995.
Oil on canvas, dishwasher size. With the support of the Nation Institute, the artists hired Marttila & Kiley, Inc. to survey 1001 adults for America's most and least wanted paintings, which were exhibited as the "People's Choice" in New York at the Alternative Museum. With the sponsorship of the Dia Center and Chase Manhattan Bank, they expanded their market research to other countries, and created most and least wanted paintings for each. Courtesy of the Dia Center, New York.

4. Hayden Lambson. Clear Landing (Ducks Unlimited Catalogue Cover). 2004.
From print, limited edition of 5,500; frame size: 22"H x 30"W. "Chosen to adorn the cover of the Ducks Unlimited catalog, 'Clear Landing'… [is] now exclusively available as framed and matted prints. This is the perfect chance to begin a distinct one-of-a-kind collection. A winter landscape, morning’s soft light, mallards cupped and ready to sit - Hayden Lambson’s artistic vision is that of a dedicated waterfowler and it’s strikingly apparent in this work. With 'Clear Landing' hanging in your home or office, you’re only a glance away from momentary freedom." Courtesy of Ducks Unlimited, Kearney, NE.

[1] Johnson 2005.
[2] Art Publishers Association, nd.
[3] Elkins 2004.
[4] Davis 2004; Lazarus 2002; Miller 2002.
[5] Brown 2002; License! 2004; Media Arts Group 1997-2003.
[6] Szántó et al. 2002, pp. 40 and 44.
[7] Hickey 1993, 1997, and 2000; Dewan 1999.
[8] Szántó et al. 2002, p. 36.
[9] Wypijewski 1997.
[10] Cray 1999.
[11] Levine 1988.
[12] Gans 1999; Kammen 2000; Keller 2004.

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