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Is Giclée Passé?


The art market is not immune to using gimmickry to sell product. If ever there was any artist who fully understood this concept, it had to be Andy Warhol. A great part of his appeal was his ability to…

The art market is not immune to using gimmickry to sell product. If ever there was any artist who fully understood this concept, it had to be Andy Warhol. A great part of his appeal was his ability to assess art and popular culture and make art that simultaneously illuminated and poked fun at it.

Warhol died in 1987 on the cusp on the digital revolution. it's sometimes hard to believe it's been two decades because he still represents contemporary art proving Hippocrates truncated aphorism, "Ars longa, vita brevis." (The full text is worth knowing: Life is short, [the] art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.)

It's a shame Andy didn't stick around long enough to see the rise of technology in the last decade of the millennium. One can only imagine what he would have made of and done with the Internet and digital photography, painting and printing developments, not mention You Tube and other social network media. It's easy to believe he would have utilized the new tools to put his personal mark  and make a lasting impression with them. Perhaps in ways we are not seeing today, or which aren't getting the awareness and notoriety he so effectively courted and deployed.

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The term giclée, about which I have previously blogged, is a perfect example of successfully using gimmickry to solve a marketing problem. The problem was that in 1990 using digital print to describe the emerging IRIS fine art printing techniques was certain to stultify sales of prints made with this new medium and hamper its impending impact on the art business and specifically, the art print market. The marketing solution was to come up with a French term and voila "Giclee" was coined for new usage.

You can find links in the above mentioned post that provide the most accurate genesis of the giclee's usage to describe digital print. I encourage any who use giclée in their marketing parlance and haven't read and studied those links to go there and get the education. It will be a service to your collectors and the art industry to be able to offer accurate details about the origin of the usage of giclée and the process it describes.

Today, we (okay I) earnestly ask, "Is Giclée Passe?" The answer, of course, is complicated and a simple yes or no won't apply. Still, as we rapidly cruise toward the 2010s enveloped by and embracing digital technology, the question of whether the art print market must continue to using a gimmicky, funny sounding, hard to pronounce, frenchified word to avoid using straightforward terminology is a valid one.

Transparency is a techie marketing buzz word that is at once accurate and overused. Nevertheless, it succinctly describes a trend whereby companies seek to make full disclosure of their business practices. Consumers are more interested than ever in dealing with companies they can fully trust. One of the best ways for companies to earn such trust is to be as transparent in all their dealings. In the spirit of transparency, I question if continuing to use the term giclée to describe fine art digital reproduction makes sense in 2007? Frankly, I don't think so and I bet most consumers don't either. Don't b.s. or confuse me, just tell me what it is and let me decide if I like it and want it.

I'm one of the mass of consumers that applauds the efforts of any company to be transparent in its dealings. Likewise, I am repelled by the tactics of companies that use obfuscation as part of their marketing and branding. Those found out for such behavior are quickly dropped from my list of preferred vendors. Eventually as it becomes clear there is heavy price to pay for hiding details consumers feel they have a right to know, transparency will become the norm. Today, it's more concept than reality for most companies steeped in aging marketing practices.

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To my ear, fine art digital reproduction may not be as pithy as giclée, but it is far more straightforward and transparent. I'm guessing there will be as much resistance to this idea as there is to my suggestion that limited edition digital prints are a result of an outdated way of marketing and ought to be done away with. Old habits die hard.

A side note here is that digital artists who are creating via bits and bytes versus paint and paper or canvas have yet to come to terms with what is an original? That is, is the digital file on a hard drive an original and then are the digital prints made from it reproductions? There is no clear answer here, but I believe continuing the use of giclée to describe digital art reproductions ultimately hinders the advancement of the medium.

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  1. Hi Barney,

    What happens when you cross a computer with a gallery owner?
    You get a pretty little bastard called a “giclee.”
    In an effort to justify why one piece of art has greater intrinsic value than another requiring the same creative effort on the part of the artist, we call one “fine art” and the other just plain art. A lot depends on where you hang it and how well known and promoted the artist may be. Hang one piece in a museum or gallery; one on a magazine cover and one on a T-shirt and you can guess which will be valued more.
    One way to justify “fine” is to call it something the cognoscenti (another nice high-falutin’ word) recognize and those at the bottom of the artistic food chain don’t. It’s why lawyers can charge $800 an hour and “starving artists” can’t.
    Here are three examples of semantic promotion (one of the reasons buyers may be comfortable paying $10 for one and $1,000 for the other.):
    ● T-shirt design = silkscreen print = serigraph
    ● Computer print-out = digital image = giclee
    ● Poster = four-color halftone = lithograph
    To be really “fine” all top of the art chain reproduction techniques must also be “limited” and “hand-signed.”
    If you mean that a digital image reproduced by a state-of-the-art digital printer on archival paper is “finer” than one I print out on my HP DeskJet you are right. But I assure you I can, in five minutes surfing unknown artists websites, find any number of images, technically superior, visually more satisfying, which required far greater creative ability than Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can. I’m not diminishing his ability (or dumb luck) to access popular culture and ride the crest of the wave while most everyone else rides the trough.
    Because so much of the revolution in print making happened in France, much of the special language we use comes from that country and time, there is a “frenchified” “fine art” language and tradition: Bon a tirer, Chromiste, Ponte seche, EA = Empruve d’ artiste, HC = Hors Commerce, Pochoir and many other terms as “techie” in their own way as pixels and gigabytes.
    As a producing artist and art rep for twenty years I sold thousands of dollars worth of my own multiples made using hand cut stencils. Did I call them “stencil prints?” Not on your life! I called them Pochoir.
    In my own defense, I’ll add that I did workshops at no charge for a number of large Interior Design firms, to educate their young designers on how to tell an etching from a mezzo-tint, a lithograph from a serigraph and a pochoir from air-brush using samples of each from my own sales portfolios.
    In the few years since her conception, that pretty little bastard, Giclee, is now a ‘teen-ager grown into an eight hundred pound gorilla, and I don’t think she’s about to change her name no matter how much sense that may make.

  2. Hi Dick,

    You never lack for opinion as your latest comment proves. You open up a whole other can of worms with your take on what is “fine” art. I’m agreeing with you one can easily find innumerable examples of technically better art than Warhol’s Soup Cans, or Green Car Crash that just set a record for his work at $74 million. One could easily argue some of Jackson Pollack’s work or Cy Twombly’s are equally devoid of technical artistic talent. John Stossel on 20/20 did a segment on modern art that was illuminating and humorous. The transcript can still be found on the ABC Web site.

    Regarding your idea of French words passing into the vernacular, there is one major difference between them and giclee. The former were all terms that came about from common French languag usage. That is, when the Frendh used “pointe seche” it meant dry point and epruve d’ artiste meant artist’s proof. It was natural to adopt some of those terms in their original language.

    Of course, it didn’t hurt to use French to make the product they described a little sexier, but the terms had bona fide origin. Giclee on the other hand is as far from bona fide as one can get. It was brought into play to help overcome the stigma of digital printing at a time when any “computer generated” art was not going to be accepted as fine art, or anything close to it regardless of the beauty and fidelity of the printing.

    I think those artists who are condfident in their work and who realize the true value of transparency in their dealings will have the fortitude to throw out the term giclee, 800-pound gorilla teenager notwithstanding.

  3. To skip the term Glicee does not help. There are big differences in quality and price of digital printing. How shall this be communicated to buyers when even artists and galleries do not understand the technical background ? Is the number of DPI or whatever per inch a quality criterion or only a cost factor in production ? Do we need international digital art reproduction standards ?

  4. While I agree it is important for the customer to understand what it is they are purchasing, I disagree completely that the term giclee needs to be thrown out.

    It is morally and legally important for a seller to be honest with a buyer, but this does not need to be done with less attractive language, even if it did start as a smart marketing move.

    I bet you wouldn’t buy a sweater if it came labeled as sheep hair instead of mohair wool or a car that was called a steel and plastic box, a diamond called compressed carbon or an oil painting described as paint splashed on cotton fabric.

    When I purchase something completely unnecessary to my ability to live, like jewelry or art, I want to be able to discuss it in terms as pretty as it is. I buy it to enjoy, share and honestly get compliments on. I want to describe my purchase (prize) with words as special as it is as I describe it to my friends and admirers. Art is all about emotion and the words used to describe it should help to support that emotion not destroy it. The words are as much for the buyer as they are for the seller.

    I sold jewelry for 20 years. Many jewelers feel disclosure laws requiring you to disclose that stones have been treated, colors aren’t natural, etc cost them sales. I have always been honest and never lost a sale because of it. I use pretty words and nice descriptions to disclose yet enhance my product. When selling a synthetic (man made produced gem stone) I certainly didn’t call it fake (as many uneducated do) because my buyer would not want to describe it to friends in that way. I tell them it is grown (just as a natural crystal is) in a laboratory as opposed to in nature then I describe it as a greenhouse grown rose grown in ideal conditions as opposed to a wild rose hoping for nature to provide what it needs to be beautiful. Every bit as real, in chemical structure, etc only more perfect than almost any wild rose. I did not demean natural, in fact, now a beautiful natural stone is even more valuable, but I did help them to value an object they thought beautiful enough to ask about.

    Art is emotion and needs emotional words.

  5. I can see both sides of the term “giclee.”

    Personally, I like the word because it is pretty, descriptive and has a specific meaning. But it can sound a bit elitist to those who don’t know what it means.

    In simplest terms, my understanding is that it means “inkjet print.” But I think it refers to a higher, more professional fine art quality, as opposed to what someone prints on their home Lexmark.

    So I’d suggest that we keep the term but increase public understanding. I think that would increase transparency and reassure customers. So perhaps whenever we mention the term giclee on our websites, we could provide a popup definition, or something like that.

    Great article, Barney!

  6. I think that as buyers become universally aware of the quality of archival inkjet prints, we’ll start to see a gradual distancing from the term “giclee”, and it will begin to go into quotes as:

    This archival inkjet “giclée” print …

    I think where we are at the moment is that by using the term “giclée” one indicates
    1) a willingness to play the game, and
    2) a capacity to produce accented characters from the keyboard.

    How buyers feel about 1) is personal, but surely 2) must be universally admired.

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