Are We Witnessing the End of Fine-Art Printmaking?

By: Mike Booth

Are We Witnessing the End of Fine-Art Printmaking?

Wagging Tail, Severed Head

Is unscrupulous competition killing fine-art printmaking? Or has it killed it already, the movement we're seeing today being just the tail wagging after the head has been severed? Either way, we are seeing the disappearance of the fine-art print as we know it. It's being accosted on all sides by an insidious digital-copy business which has illicitly co-opted the language of printmaking and made it its own.

The digital revolution has given rise to two notable novelties which affect printmaking. Let's start with the good news. Computers, clever image-creation/modification software and high-quality inkjet printers have enabled artists to create original digital images and print them with astonishing quality on a variety of substrates. These "digital prints," did not enter into the generally-accepted definition of original fine-art prints elaborated by the French National Committee on Engraving in 1964, because they didn't exist at the time, but today they have a legitimate claim to being considered fine-art prints.

That 1964 definition stipulated:

Proofs either in black and white or in color, drawn from one of several plates, conceived and executed entirely by hand by the same artist, regardless of the technique employed, with the exclusion of any and all mechanical or photomechanical processes, shall be considered original engravings, prints or lithographs. Only prints meeting with such qualifications are entitled to be designated Original Prints.

The down side of the digital phenomenon is that this very same technology is being used by unscrupulous dealers to create high-resolution reproductions of existing artwork and commercialize them as "fine-art prints." Some of these operators are knowingly violating the canons of the centuries-old fine-art-print tradition. Others are simply ignorant. It's not easy to tell which is which. Whatever the case, there is no excuse either for ignoring the tradition or for knowingly violating it.

Neither Moralizing Nor Nostalgia

This insistence upon respect for printmaking traditions is neither vapid moralizing nor luddite nostalgia. Over more than 500 years of proud history the term "fine-art print" has acquired the status of a trademark for artist-made serial-original works of art. What those works of art include may be up for discussion, but what they certainly do not include are art reproductions, regardless of the degree of sophistication of the copying methods employed.

What's at stake here are the livelihoods of thousands of contemporary fine-art printmakers whose valuable, exclusive handmade original prints-whether created with etching tools or computers-are being unfairly undercut by dealers who, in a classical example of dishonest, disloyal competition, refer to their inkjet copies as "giclee prints" or even more brazenly, "limited-edition giclee prints." As if the techniques and terminology of fine-art printmaking were not arcane enough already to the often-ingenuous art-buying public, along come digital sharp operators to confuse them even more with the deliberate usurpation of printmaking's traditional vocabulary. They would have us believe this is simply commerce. It is, I submit, simple larceny.

This is not to say that there is not a legitimate niche in the market for inkjet or other types of art reproductions. No one in her right mind would sustain that. It's just that those reproductions are not fine-art prints, any more than an offset art poster is. While it's undoubtedly printed, it's hardly a "print." To affirm otherwise in order to commercialize digital reproductions at fine-art prices is fraudulent and should be treated as such in the marketplace, the media and the courts of law.

The Question of Big-Bucks Vested Interests

The issue is further complicated by the multi-billion dollar financial interests in play. All the giant inkjet printer companies have discovered the potential of the giclee market and are fomenting it with a vengeance. They make billions selling not only the large-format inkjet printers used in making art reproductions, but also the inks and papers. They manage to remain largely above the fray, however, as their communications usually to refer to their printers' utility in terms of "graphic art" and "photographic" applications.

I want to share with you an anecdote which will give you an idea of the kind of clout the fine-art printmaking community is up against. Two summers ago a giant computer company (like a quarter of a million employees worldwide) flew some 60 American art-and-design-world opinion leaders to a charming European capital to stay in a five-star hotel and preview their new-model large-format inkjet printers. The "preview" consisted of an intensive three-day course at the factory including the most intimate technical details of the new printers, and hands-on practice sessions. The daytime workshops were accompanied by a series of sumptuous meals and excursions in the evenings. The visit to the factory was followed up by an all-expense-paid weekend at the Arles Photography Festival in France.

This astute manufacturer spared no expense to convert these imaging opinion leaders to its own new state-of-the-art large-format inkjet printers (and don't forget the inks and papers) for use in all sorts of design, industrial and art applications. What, in fact, is the principal use to which these printers are put, in terms of volume use? You guessed it, fine-art reproductions. Though in the vast majority they are not sold as "reproductions" or "posters" but as "fine-art prints."

A Simple Experiment Confirms the Trend

How serious is it? I recently did a simple experiment to gauge the extent of this printmaking death-watch-beetle phenomenon, an experiment which you can repeat yourself if you're inclined. On Saturday, July 5, 2008 I did a Google search for the term "fine-art prints." I had to wade through 15 websites offering "fine art prints and posters" and "giclee prints" before encountering on page two of the search a site (ObsessionArt.com) dedicated to signed limited-edition photographs, but I had to trudge on to the 42nd entry on page five to find a hand-pulled fine-art print (Maria Arango's original woodcuts). After Maria's work I had to slog through four more pages of reproductions described as "prints" before finding another genuine printmaker, Laszlo Bagi, a screen-print artist. He appeared at the bottom of page nine of the Google search results for "fine art prints," 97th on the list. I had to continue on to page 11 to find the next sellers of authentic fine-art prints, Santa Fe Editions.

In all, my Google search turned up just two purveyors of genuine fine-art prints out of the first 100+ results. That's less than 2%. The other 98+% are misrepresenting the lithographic, offset and inkjet reproductions they're selling as "fine art prints." Considering this preponderance of fraudulent competition, it's no wonder print buyers and potential print buyers are confused. Given this state of affairs, how is an honest printmaker supposed to make a living?

What to Do?

How might the worldwide fine-art printmaking community combat this onslaught? Obviously it must begin by recognizing the reality of the situation and opening a debate on the subject. In the meantime, it occurs to me that they could start with a worldwide program to educate both actual and potential art buyers-as to what is a genuine fine-art print. They might also put some pressure on the search motors, who are, in all likelihood, unknowing collaborators in the online print-fraud operations. Why do Google, Yahoo, and the other search motors index art posters and giclee reproductions under the search term "fine art prints?" It would seem to be quite a simple matter for them to oblige sellers to present honest descriptions of their wares, under penalty of being banned.

There also seems to be obvious work to be done on the legal front, in the courts and legislatures. Some places, such as California and New York, have legislation to regulate and protect both printmakers and print buyers. Nor would some political initiatives seem out of order. Why don't more countries and U.S. states have legislation in place to protect printmakers and print buyers? What can printmakers do to promote the enactment of that legislation? What other initiatives might professional printmakers undertake to recuperate their legitimate rights in these matters?

I don't have the answers to all these questions, but I think it's legitimate and necessary to raise them.

About the author:
Mike Booth wrote for WorldPrintmakers.com. The original website is no longer online.


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