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Buying an Art Reproduction: The Giclee

If you have been shopping recently for affordable fine art either online, at art fairs or galleries, you’ve probably come across the term “giclee”. This process can produce lovely and fairly accurate reproductions of fine art, usually at very affordable prices. “Giclee” (pronounced “zhee-CLAY”) is a French term referring to the small spray from the ink-jet printer. The emergence of high quality ink-jet printing as the major method for fine art reproduction has brought with it some ethical issues for the artist, and some need for education on the part of the art public.

Currently in the community of artists there is much discussion about the fundamental validity of this medium of graphic reproduction. Many traditional fine art printers argue against presenting the giclée as an art object on the level of other fine print media in the graphics category such as fine art lithography, etching, seriography (silkscreen) and the like. They are correct in stating that these methods of creating original, graphical works are a true fine art, as contrasted with the mechanical and technical reproduction process of giclée. Unfortunately, some artists are blurring the lines in an attempt to sell their reproductions as some version of ‘fine art’.

When the two worlds of original art and mechanical reproduction are kept in strict quarantine the ethical issues are not so messy. Problems arise with the various hybrids of manipulated digital prints, some of which tread on very suspect ethical grounds by claiming to be “painted by the artist’s own hand”. In some cases a forced legitimacy is attempted with rigged names like “original limited editions”. Certainly an ink-jet print that has been painted to recreate the same ‘tactile quality’ and presented as some sort of quasi-original flirts with fraud. And the outrageous price structure of some artists with international franchises that misrepresent giclées in this way as a part of their marketing strategy have to be called to account for a serious ethical lapse. These prints are on the same level as those old mass-produced “texture of real paint” posters that were printed on a paper with simulated impasto brush strokes. But at least with those you still knew that you were dealing with a commercial print.

I’ll leave aside other hybrid creations; Photoshop® manipulations, digital collage, multimedia using giclée prints, etc. These types of work need to be analyzed on their own merits, though my bias towards the physicality of traditional media leaves me distinctly chilled in front of most of these pieces born of the computer.

Having said all this, the giclee has its place as reproduction. It is certainly not a work of art, rather an image of a work of art. It is also not necessarily a cheap reproduction. A properly produced, high-end inkjet print using archival inks is a much higher quality, and longer lasting, print than a cheap offset poster.

My view is that the primary issues here are those of education and honesty. The art buyer must understand the precise nature of what they are buying when they select an inkjet print. I think it is correct to state that the artist is in ethical lapse when the giclee is presented as something more than a reproduction. Issues such as documenting the use of archival inks and paper, the size of the print run, must be addressed. They require the artist to care enough, to have the ethical backbone, to provide proper credentials from their printer and stick to strict, clearly visible limits on the size of their editions (this has a direct bearing on the value of each individual print).

While I understand the potential for fraud, art reproduction plays a vital role in extending the reach and impact of original work upon a larger number of potential art appreciators and buyers. My personal experience is that my introduction to the art world proceeded through a very typical process whereby I first met art in textbooks and even (no!) through cheap poster prints on college room walls. The next level involved seeking out the original (in my case finding Picasso’s “Blue Guitarist” at the Art Institute of Chicago after having a profound encounter with the image in a textbook) and noting the significantly greater impact that the original work engendered.

This process of developing a greater and more intimate relationship with works of art is natural and frequently involves encounters with these lesser quality reproductions. It can continue if the person so engaged enters the market as an art buyer. Now a new set of issues present themselves, among which are: emotional response, price and quality. Here we find the giclée meeting its most important function (if it is properly presented and understood as a high-quality reproduction) and that is; to bridge the gap between the original work of art (with its sometimes imposing price tag) and the desire to own an image of the original that provides a similar emotional impact. We can’t simply say if you can’t afford the original you are hereby banished until you can.

My goal as an artist (you can view my work at cowango: Art with Impact) is to engage the public and to provide more opportunities for them to develop a personal relationship with my art. The fact that that relationship may begin with a giclée is of little consequence. Since it is an economically beneficial situation for both the artist and the art buyer, and since it can provide an “entry level” purchase for an art buyer without unlimited resources, and since the properly presented giclee can provide an emotional focus and connection to the original work (and to the artist) that has the potential to proceed to the eventual purchase of an original work, I find it plays an important role. It is just as important that the art buyer be aware of these issues.