LEAVING DAFEN


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EPISODE 005:
LEAVING DAFEN

There is a village in China where thousands of painters make their living together, painting away their days in spartan studios, covered in paint, surrounded by canvases. The village is called Dafen, and it intrigues me because, for all the technical prowess possessed by the painters in that community, it is not known for its art. Not really. That is to say it’s not known for its own art. It’s known for being the world’s largest source of counterfeits and copies of art. Want a Mona Lisa but don’t have the 500 million it might cost you? You can get one in Dafen for a handful of dollars, relatively speaking. And it’ll be a very good copy. But is it art, and was it made by an artist? And why does it matter? This is episode 5 of A Beautiful Anarchy, let’s talk about it.


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FULL TRANSCRIPT

There is a village in China where thousands of painters make their living together, painting away their days in spartan studios, covered in paint, surrounded by canvases. The village is called Dafen, and it intrigues me because, for all the technical prowess possessed by the painters in that community, it is not known for its art. Not really. That is to say it’s not known for its own art.  It’s known for being the world’s largest source of counterfeits and copies of art. Want a Mona Lisa but don’t have the 500 million it might cost you? You can get one in Dafen for a handful of dollars, relatively speaking. And it’ll be a very good copy. But is it art, and was it made by an artist? And why does it matter? This is episode 5 of A Beautiful Anarchy, let’s talk about it. 

Music / intro

Hypothetical questions about what is or isn’t art interest most everyday creative people about as much as the debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We’d rather just do what we do and let others decide if it’s art, and I’m so with you on that. Sort of.

But the thing is, if art is more than just technique and imitation, no matter how perfect that imitation, then it requires something more than just years of practice. It requires us. It requires interpretation. It requires that we bring something of our own to the table, preferably something that means something to us, something that’s a part of us. It requires vulnerability and soul and thoughts of our own. It takes courage.

I spent years, at least metaphorically, living in Dafen. I think many, if not most, artists who require some level of competency of craft do the same. We learn our trade there; we take the first steps to mastering our craft there. And if that’s all we want, we can spend our lives there, happily copying the ideas and art of others with increasing perfection. The paintings will get better with time. But they will not come any closer to being yours

If you want to get really, really good at your craft, stay in Dafen. if you’re a photographer, go where every other photographer is going. Do what they are doing. Put your tripods in their holes in Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Make yet another photograph of Antelope Canyon or Half Dome that is indistinguishable from the previous ones. You could become extraordinarily skillful in your craft. But it won’t be art; it won’t be more than just a copy until you leave Dafen. The same is true of any craft that can become art the moment you put yourself into it.

I suspect many of the craftsmen who live in Dafen do so for much of their lives and they make a living there and find joy in other things; I’m not for a moment trivializing that, if that’s enough for them. And it might be—the painters in Dafen are extraordinarily good at their craft. 

I’m speaking to those who keep putting their brushes to the canvas and wishing with all their souls that they could bring their own thoughts and ideas to the work they create; to the ones who want to explore something more with their paint, who want so badly to try things their way and see if it sticks.

Maybe you have no idea if what you make is art and you don’t care, but you know you long for it to be distinctly yours. If that’s you I think it’s probably important that we recognize the danger of a place where we tend to camp out and make more of the same because it’s safe and requires little more than that we strive for excellence of craft or some version of perfect. There’s a danger even when we’re not copying the work of others but copying ourselves, repeating what we’ve done in the past because it requires no risk on our part, except of course the risk of never moving forward. 

Leaving Dafen is not easy, not in this metaphor. There’s no bus to another province. No clearly marked path from the imitation stage in which we all cut our teeth and learn our craft. But it’s necessary if you want with this one short life to do something other than do what others are doing, and instead to colour outside the lines with blazing colours of your own choosing. 

It takes one thing to leave Dafen: courage. But where will you go? I have no idea. What will you paint if not the Monets and the Dalis and Turners that you’ve imitated over and over? I haven’t a clue. But whatever it is, it’ll be yours. And there will be wide margins for error and experimentation and exploration: frightening to anyone who’s never made so much as an imperfect brush stroke. It doesn’t take courage to paint by numbers, to do as we’re told, or to serve our social media audiences with more of the same stuff for which we know we’ll be rewarded the dopamine hit of likes and benign comments. It does takes courage to point the camera the other way, to trust your own taste, to do more than what is expected. To write what you feel and not what you ought to say. To open yourself up to the world through your art by saying, “Here it is—here I am—take it or leave it,” knowing that far more people than not will choose to leave it. You can’t please 7 billion people, nor should you try. But you can please you.

There’s something different about you, as there is with all of us. Probably something that kids at school saw right away and teased you about. Kids have a way of finding that thing that makes us different. And now there’s a good chance you’ve spent considerable effort to hide that, whatever it is, from the world. Whatever it is, or maybe it’s a collection of things, they’re the weird-shaped edges you keep trying to iron out, but they’re part of you and are there for good, so they keep springing back. They’re the things that make you feel a bit like a freak. By definition, they’re also what make you extraordinary. Exceptional. Sure they made childhood a little tough, but my friend James Victore wisely observes, its the things that made us weird as kids that make us great as adults.

We’re all trying so hard to blend in that we have no chance at standing out. And that’s a shame, because if you just let your freak flag fly, you’d find it was that very thing to which people were the most attracted. The real you. The messy you. The you who had the courage to leave Dafen and try it your way. Not just to be different or contrary, but to be you. Imperfect, weird, intriguing, fantastically human you. That’s the kind of person who makes art, not copies: someone who is truly him or herself, not a copy of someone else.

I don’t often do disclaimers, but I feel it’s needed here. Dafen is a real place, driven by real economics where real people labour with great skill. I am using Dafen purely as a metaphor, and in the knowledge that in the real world we do what we have to to put food on the table. This episode in no way seeks to deny those realities, nor do I mean to imply that there might not be those in Dafen who are doing their own thing, living life on their terms and creating art. But as a metaphor, I think it’s helpful to imagine a place where imitation is the norm and to understand the courage it takes to leave that place if you long for more. I hope you’ll forgive me if I have oversimplified that metaphor in the interest of making my point.

Practice your craft with all the skill you can muster, but if you want to make more than skilled copies of something you’ve seen before then you’ve got to do it your way and figuring that out is a messy business. Don’t camp out on craft and copy if you long for more. Don’t settle. And don’t, whatever you do, get too comfortable because that comfort zone is the place where art goes to die, where we lose momentum and forget what it feels like to experience the frisson of trying something new, being a little less apologetically ourselves, and exploring unfamiliar ideas. It’s on that less-comfortable ground and in that uncertainty, far from the metaphorical Dafen, where not only are we able to make our art, but our art begins to make us. Art is about transformation, and nothing will change us into the people we are becoming like the courage to make art that is yours, and yours alone. 

Thank you so much for joining me, I’m David duChemin and this A Beautiful Anarchy. You can find all my episodes, and more at ABeautifulAnarchy.com. If you enjoy this show I’d be so grateful if you’d leave a short review, or subscribe. Thanks again for spending this time with me. Now go make something beautiful.

Music in this episode: Acid Jazz (Kevin Macleod) / CC BY-SA 3.0