Hanging on the walls of my grandpa’s house are some of the most recognisable artworks from the last century: dotted comic book scenes, discs of spun paint, rows of soup tins .
His collection would be worth billions if he had acquired the works of Lichtenstein, Hirst and Warhol; if he had not made these paintings himself. After a career as a draftsman and engineer, he has spent the last 20 years applying his eye for detail to a gentle retirement in art plagiarism.
My grandpa was a young boy living in a sleepy seaside town in the east of England when the second world war began. He was accustomed to having very little, but did not know anything else. Then the war ended, the economy boomed, markets transformed, and everything was available in excess: televisions, microwaves, airplanes, vacuum cleaners, mobile telephones - the entire world. My grandpa is drawn to it all. His eyes still light up at the sight of Coca Cola, Mcdonalds, or any other primary-coloured conglomerate. This obsession with brand, consumer and popular culture extends into the art world and the work he replicates.
Like my grandpa, the art market had to adapt to a rapidly changing world. It was running out of old masterpieces to sell and taking note of the abundant supply, and soaring demand, for contemporary art. For the first time, it began dealing in artwork created by living artists, whose process could be controlled (and hastened) into a production line running from studio to auction. Gallerists, dealers, and critics needed to construct consumable, neatly packaged narratives around contemporary artists’ careers before making declarations of ‘GREATNESS!’ and ‘GENIUS!’. They justified placing absurd price tags on contemporary artwork, despite its value being entirely subjective. Artists became marketable brands, like luxury cars or watches; their products selling as status-symbols or tradable assets.
Labelled ‘Commercial Artists’, those backed by the herds at Sothebys and Christie’s as possessing a superhuman quality worthy of bidding paddles were also adapting their practice for mass production. Roy Lichtenstein championed methods of mechanical reproduction with his Ben-Day dots, wishing to emulate graphical print. Later, Damien Hirst created spin paintings - the outcome of which was near randomly generated, depending on two variables: how fast a disc was spun, and which colours of paint were used. Andy Warhol set up Andy Warhol Enterprises, coined the job title ‘Business Artist’, and ran his brand like a machine. To amass a body of work 10,000 pieces strong, he tailored his methods to be as reproducible as possible before removing himself entirely from the process and hiring a whole team to push out prints.
My grandpa’s practice is a continuation of the formulas these artists created. When art is designed to be imitated, and ‘assistants’ are introduced to outsource artists’ labour, the line between ‘original’ and ‘fake’ becomes heavily blurred. Plagiarism and forgery become inevitable consequences of a commodity market which manufactures artists into brands, encourages them to churn out work, and attaches price tags so high that only the richest percentile of society can afford. Like counterfeit Burberry coats or Louis Vuitton bags, copied art allows the emulation of consumers that are higher in the social hierarchy by the lower 99 percent.
The fact my grandpa can recreate works for himself with relative ease calls into question the difference in value between the original and his fake in the first place; they are identical down to the canvas, brush stroke, and paint tone. Yet the originals fetch millions, and his fetch nothing. Fortunately, he does not care. His walls are packed full of masterpieces, and they did not cost a dime.