Faux Furs and Sunflowers: Troubling Art, Authenticity, and Mass Production

Appropriation, when discussing art, means taking an object, even another’s artwork, and making it one’s own. Marcel Duchamp, for example, famously appropriated a mass-produced ceramic urinal by signing and displaying it as an artwork in 1917. In a recent series of presentations on “The Art of Appropriation,” several UC Davis professors and other distinguished speakers gathered to shed new light on this process. On April 2, the second of two workshops, sponsored by UC Davis Humanities Institute, the Mellon Research Initiative in Digital Cultures, and the Center for Science and Innovation Studies, focused on the act of copying—and the copies—in the visual arts.

Guido Guerzoni, a researcher on economic policy at the Bocconi University in Milan, discussed the social implications of the purchase of faux furs and other imitation luxury goods in early modern Italy. These fakes, made possible by technological advances in materials, allowed consumers to maintain the appearances expected of their social status without breaking the bank. “In renaissance Italy,” Guerzoni explained, “there was no object that wasn’t measurable and measured, valuable and valued, as each thing indicated the occupation of its owner in the social order.”

Rather than forgeries meant to cheat a buyer, these imitation goods, or “legal surrogates” as Guerzoni calls them, included mass-produced statuary, jewelry, tapestries, paintings, tableware, and metalworks. The social function of the display of these “magnificent” objects became more important than the materials of which they were made. The exchange, in turn, stimulated innovations in their production and the “mass market,” in opposition to the traditional luxury market based on patronage.

UC Berkeley Professor of Rhetoric Winnie Wong also spoke at the workshop and considered issues of artistic authorship by questioning the categories that designate “artists” and the “art” they produce. She described the case of Dafen Village, China, where hundreds of painter-workers have built an industry by mass-producing hand-painted versions of the works of Van Gogh. Dafen painters produce over 5 million copies per year, shipped to markets across the globe.

To what extent can they be considered artists? What can we say about the works they produce, and the demand for them? Duchamp’s doubly-appropriative gesture—signing a urinal with a fake name and calling it art—resonates with this story. Some buyers of Chinese Van Goghs request that the painters sign their canvasses in order to prove their authenticity as products from Dafen Village.

Wong described her visit to Dafen, where she learned to paint her own version of Van Gogh´s Sunflowers under the tutelage of Zhao Xiaoyong, a specialist in reproducing this particular painting. As he encouraged Wong not to “look too much” at a photo of the original, Zhao’s cramped studio-home became for Wong “a fruitful site to think about the meaning of originality.” The Art of Appropriation event also bore intellectual fruit, by bringing her inquiry together with those from different fields and time periods.