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... On Limited Editions ...

'At the Gallery - Part I'

A conversation with a guest at one of my exhibitions ... (This was originally written in 1998, but is still an accurate representation of my thinking on this topic.)


Guest: Excuse me, Mr. Bull ... May I speak to you for a minute?

Dave: Yes, of course. Thank you for coming this afternoon.

Guest: I've been enjoying the prints on display, but I'm a bit curious about something I've noticed here - your prints don't have any edition numbers; are these real limited edition prints?

Dave: Well, yes they are real, but no they are not limited editions. I never limit my prints. Carving those blocks takes a long long time, and I would never destroy them after printing is finished.

But actually that's not the reason - it's that I simply don't believe in such numbering.

Guest: Why not?

Dave: The 'quick and easy' answer is that traditionally, Japanese prints never had numbers. If you think back to the Edo-era in which they originated, prints were a simple article of commerce. They were not 'art', and the very idea that they could be considered as 'investments' would have seemed absolutely ridiculous. I simply follow the tradition.

Guest: Well, that's all very well, but we're not in the Edo-era any more. Print buyers today are somewhat more demanding.

Dave: No, not more demanding. It is simply that a custom of using edition numbers, and a custom of limiting the number of prints available have grown up around us, and most people in the field, both creators and consumers, have accepted it without thinking about what such habits signify.

But prints are multiples. It is their whole and only reason for existence - to allow the 'message' to be communicated to as many people as possible. And when you are dealing with a medium like woodblock printmaking, where the blocks are capable of making thousands of impressions, the very concept of a 'limited edition print' is an oxymoron, a perversion of that idea ... and dishonest to boot.

Guest: Why do you say 'dishonest'? It's the accepted way of doing things.

Dave: It is dishonest. It is an attempt to maintain an artificially high price for a commodity by restricting the supply available. When people in other fields try tricks like this, they are castigated by society, and perhaps even find themselves in trouble with the law. How on earth is it that the world of prints has allowed itself to be caught up in this ridiculous practice? A practice that ultimately, over a century of incremental subversion, completely destroyed the world of printmaking.

Guest: Destroyed?

Dave: Yes, destroyed. Just look around and count how many people are able to make their living as printmakers ... what percentage of the population owns even one woodblock print ... You know the answers.

Guest: But print buyers demand those numbers at the bottom of a print. They help give the print a tangible value.

Dave: What kind of value would a printmaker want his prints to have? Should he really care what financial value they have? Should he want people to collect his prints as investments? If so, then he should be selling stock certificates, not prints.

I make prints because I like using my skills to make beautiful objects out of beautiful materials - cherry wood, fluffy paper, and soft pigments. Both the process and the result give me great pleasure. As it happens ... no, not 'as it happens', but because I have planned well ... people seem to enjoy looking at the prints I make. Human nature being what it is, a number of these people also feel the urge to own some of these prints, to take them home and have them available to look at from time to time. I am happy to sell them to such people. Neither they nor I are concerned in the slightest bit about the size of the edition, or how much these prints will 'appreciate' over the years to come. These prints stand simply as ink-smeared pieces of paper. The only value they carry is that which exists in the eye of the beholder.

Guest: This is all very well, and very idealistic, but there is no way that people will pay reasonable prices if the prints don't have numbers!

Dave: Reasonable, eh? There are two definitions of a 'reasonable' price for anything - that of the producer, and that of the consumer - and in the world of printmaking, these seem at present to be impossibly far apart. Almost everywhere that I see prints for sale - in galleries, at exhibitions, on internet web sites, etc. - I see them marked with very high price tags. These prices are not 'reasonable' from the consumer's point of view - as a result, very few sales are made, and very few printmakers are thus making a living by their art.

Guest: But the prices have to be that high. So few prints are sold, that if the prices were lower, there just wouldn't be enough revenue to support the printmaker.

Dave: I think we're going to start going around in circles here. To my way of thinking, dropping the price to the point where 'normal' people (not just wealthy 'investors') could easily afford to buy the prints, would result in greatly increased sales. Instead of only a few sales - at a high price, a far greater number of sales would be made - at a lower price. You just have to find the right combination.

Guest: But that means the printmaker has to make many more copies of each print. He turns into a labourer - not an artist.

Dave: Now you're talking! That's what printmaking is all about! To be a printmaker means to enjoy the process of making prints! One ... two ... three ... four ... Look at them all - they're beautiful! And I'm making them with my own hands!

You can't be afraid of the work. Michelangelo didn't just have an artistic 'concept' for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He got up there on the scaffold and painted and painted and painted, for month after month after month ... I don't climb any scaffolds, but each month I make 200 copies of the current surimono print. Some of them are around 20 impressions each ... Labourer? You bet!

That's what it means to work in the arts - to have the creative conception, and then to work with your hands to turn that concept into a real object - no matter how long it may take. You must do both! And if you don't like doing it - then you've chosen the wrong field. And think about the result - instead of just a few prints being sold, mostly to banks and offices to stick up on the wall as useless decoration, 'real' people will be collecting your work, purely for personal pleasure.

Guest: I've got to warn you, without edition numbers not many galleries are going to carry your prints ...

Dave: I don't want galleries to carry my prints. What have most galleries come to signify these days: 'fine art' and 'elitism' and snobbishness ... Maybe somewhere in the world there might be galleries that really do act simply as a 'conduit' between artist and consumer, explaining each side to the other and truly adding value to the transaction, but I think they must be very few and far between.

Guest: So how will the works be sold? Should every artist open his own gallery?

Dave: Well, how about the example you see here? Every single print that I have sold since I first started has gone from my hands directly to the hands of the collectors. Once each year (in January) I rent this exhibition space, show my works, and collect orders. I rent the physical space only - you may have noticed that none of the gallery staff comes out 'on the floor' during this exhibition; I handle all transactions myself. What happens during the course of this week determines my income and living standard for the balance of the year. In the early years when I was completely unknown, the print income wasn't enough, and I had to do other work as well, but since the early 1990's I've been able to survive on printmaking. So I know that this is possible. Produce attractive work, keep the prices reasonable, publicize and promote yourself well, and nobody will ever care about those damnable edition numbers.

Guest: But it's easy for you - you live in Japan. As you said, traditional Japanese prints never had edition numbers. But overseas it's different ...

Dave: This is the first objection you've raised that I can't answer with absolute confidence. Yes, my method is working well here in Japan - but will it really work anywhere else? I have to say that I think it would; the Japanese tradition of no edition numbers was a practice of an era long long gone. Ever since the early part of the 20th century, printmakers here have followed the numbering habit, and none of them would ever think of doing otherwise. The entire printmaking and marketing establishment here works in just the way it does overseas - everything is based on limited editions. So if I can survive here, I think I can survive anywhere. But of course, that is only speculation. If it is of any value to the discussion, let me mention that just about 25% of my collectors are non-Japanese (American, European, Australian ...) It really doesn't seem to make much difference ...

Guest: Well Mr. Bull, good luck to you in the next few years... With the economic situation looking pretty shaky these days, I hope you can survive alright.

Dave: Thanks. Who knows - perhaps I'll be back teaching English again soon! I don't think any of us ever expects it to be a 'piece of cake' making a living as a woodblock printmaker. But so far, so good ...

Thank you for coming over to talk to me, it's been a pleasure!

Guest: I'll look around a bit more, if I may ...

Dave: Please do ... Relax and enjoy your visit.

Update (summer 2008): Nothing in my thinking on this topic has changed in the intervening years. I mentioned about 25% of my collectors being overseas; that number runs about 50% these days (thanks of course to the internet).

'At the Gallery' - Part two ... On Subscriptions ...