Fine And Commercial Art: The Freedom of Limitations
Leo Segedin   |  5/8/2002 |   Print this essay


Several months ago, during a discussion at Harold Berlinger’s, someone asked me what I thought about the relative status of commercial and fine art. I responded, half joking, that there was no intrinsic difference between the aesthetic quality of a work of fine art and commercial art; in fact, if you put equivalent images side by side, you could not tell the difference. Harold immediately responded with, “Bullshit”, and, except for one person, everyone agreed. I accepted this response as a challenge, and decided to try to prove my point. Little did I realize what I was getting myself into. Before I knew it, I became involved in such heavy issues as definitions of art, the relative status and histories of the fine and commercial arts, the nature of limitations in the arts, judgment and aesthetic standards, morality and ethics, context and the changing social functions of art, techniques and materials, reproduction and originality and many others. Compared to some of these issues, the original ones became less important than I had intended. For example, I could demonstrate that, technically, fine and commercial artists are equally competent, that aesthetically, fine and commercial art objects are comparable, even that there is no ethical difference between selling religion and automobiles, but why is a painting by a fine artist worth so much more than one by a commercial artist? Is the status of the fine arts in our culture based on a higher, aesthetic quality or is there a basis for any other kind of superiority (and I do believe that they are superior)? On what criteria can we compare the fine and commercial arts? What are the differences between the creative limits imposed by the fine and commercial arts? Let me say that I’m not even sure I agree with all the positions I’ve taken.


Until recently, it has generally been accepted that the fine arts include painting, sculpture, the graphic arts, such as etching, lithography and serigraphy and more recently, video, installations and computer graphics. The fine arts are distinguished from advertising, as well as the crafts, the sciences, religion, and other human activities that have practical pursuits. The Random House Dictionary defines fine art as visual art primarily subject to aesthetic criteria or judgments of beauty and meaningfulness”. The Standard College Dictionary says the fine arts are “those arts considered purely esthetic or expressive.” The implication of such definitions is that, other than emotional or aesthetic pleasure, fine arts have no intrinsic social, moral, ethical, political or historical function. For all practical purposes, they are useless. According to these definitions, they also have no intrinsic economic function, either, or, at least, that such considerations are irrelevant. They are not intrinsically commodities to be sold in the marketplace. A saleable work of art may be aesthetically or expressively failures. Fine artists are supposed to be creative, expressive and original without consideration of outside pressures such as the marketplace.

Commercial art, on the other hand, is defined by Random House as “graphic art created specifically for commercial purposes, especially for advertising, illustrations in magazines and books.” We can include posters, billboards and now, of course, video and computers. Materials and techniques include not only traditional materials such as drawing, painting, film and photography, but now, also, digital manipulation, computer graphics, animation and such. The function of commercial art is to sell products, regardless of the intrinsic qualities of the product. Success is determined by sales. An aesthetically beautiful or expressive image may fail as commercial art. The limitations of a commercial work of art are set by the client and the advertising agency (a creative or art director or committee) that hires the commercial artist, who may work for the agency or work freelance.

On the basis of such definitions, the fine arts have been considered to be aesthetically and ethically superior to commercial art because they are pure, uncontaminated by crass commercialism. The experience of the fine arts is aesthetic and therefore spiritual, akin to religious feelings. They have an aura that commercial images do not have. Because of this aura, fine artworks are far more valuable than commercial artworks. Aside from fluctuating economic trends, the value of a fine artwork generally increases with age and that of a commercial artwork decreases. (For some young people, objects like posters, record album covers and comic books have developed a similar kind of aura that also makes them ‘collectibles’, but not to the extent that fine art objects do.) Whereas the fine artist has an exalted status, (the name of the artist alone is enough to create value), the commercial artist is anonymous, paid by the job or hour. Commercial images are materialistic, concerned with making money for the client. We also assume that a commercial artist is not free to express his true feelings. He is salaried and therefore not independent. A fine artist who does commercial art is said to have ‘sold out’. We object to the idea that a creative artist must be limited by the need to satisfy such objectives.

How accurate are these assumptions? I am going to argue that many of these assumptions are wrong. If we look at fine and commercial art in a neutral context - in a print, a museum exhibit, a book illustration or slide projection – esthetically they are comparable, in fact, often visually indistinguishable. If there is a superiority, it must be based on other presumptions. What we now call the fine arts have not always been considered superior to, or even distinct from, the functional arts. Until recently, despite their status, they have always been subject to limitations not that different from those imposed on commercial art. Contrary to the romantic myth of the fine artist genius being totally free to be creative and to express himself, artists have always worked, not only within self-imposed limits and, today, not only within the limits set by the gallery system if their works are to be exhibited and seen, but also within those created by the dominant style or styles of their period. When artists revolted against established forms, they set new limitations. The French artist, George Braque, said, “Art is the exploration of limitations.” And the art historian, Heinrich Wolfflin said, “Every artist finds certain visual possibilities before him, to which he is bound”. There are only certain things possible at certain times. Such limitations have not necessarily reduced the quality of the work produced. Because in recent years, artistic limitations in the fine arts have all but disappeared, there has been a loss of aesthetic quality, even the disappearance of a concern with the appearance or the art object. We could argue that without such limitations, there is no art, or, considering what seems to be happening in the art world, that traditional notions of quality have been replaced by other assumptions. But we can also argue that this loss of traditional limits gives the artist who works in any style a freedom and potential institutional acceptance never before possible.


For more than 2000 years, Western culture had nothing called the fine arts, no distinction between what we now call fine art and craft, between paintings, sculpture, stone-cutting, decorations, furniture making and graphic arts. Although by the end of the 15th century in Italy, some painters and sculptors had achieved status and wealth, artists generally were considered craftsmen and employed as such. During the Medieval period and most of the Renaissance, the subject matter of painting and sculpture, the style and even the quality of the materials used were determined by written contract between of crafts guilds (which also included saddle makers, apothecaries, paint and beeswax dealers) and the patron, usually the Church, the civil governments, the aristocracy, the bankers and merchants. Most, if not all great Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque artworks in Italy, Spain and France were done with such very specifically proscribed limitations. The function of paintings and sculpture was to promote - to advertise - the dogma of the Catholic Church or to glorify the artist’s patrons.

As late as the 17th century, there still was no distinction between painting and functional objects. Paintings were still considered the product of craft, not genius. “…Artists were held in no higher esteem than chair makers.” (A masterpiece by Antoine Watteau, The Shop Sign of Gersiant, was actually used as a sign for Gersaint’s art store.)

With the Protestant Reformation, previous kinds of patronage ended in Holland, and artists had to find other means of economic support. The new patrons were the newly rich burghers, merchants and bankers who wanted to represent their wealth. Subject matter was now limited to genre, portraits, still life and landscapes and had to be small enough to hang on the walls of private homes rather than in churches and palaces. This was the beginning of paintings as a marketable commodity. Artists often sold their products from booths in the general marketplace, or in special buildings on market days. “Art was very popular in Holland, but although “the demand was great, the supply was even greater. (Artists) learned to specialize their output. If an artist had luck selling a certain kind of painting, he adhered to that subject or style, often to the exclusion of all others. This imposed a limitation on the artists, and it made them even more dependent on the whims of the art buyer. But it also may account for the great skill they the achieved in their chosen field.” Certainly, Rembrandt and Vermeer were not handicapped by such limitations.

Thus, the idea that art is primarily aesthetic, that it, therefore, had a higher, more spiritual status than functional objects, does not have a long history. Although philosophers had discussed this issue previously, fine art as separate from functional objects, the philosophical notion of aesthetics as a “disinterested science of the beautiful”, was first articulated by Baumgarten in 1750. (He did not emphasize the visual arts and included music and other arts in this category). And it was the Neo-Classical painter, Jacques-Louis-David, when he was put in charge of the artistic affairs after the French Revolution who elevated painting and sculpture to its present exalted, aesthetic status. The fine arts become the Major arts and functional objects, the Minor Arts and it is this spiritual aura of their higher status that gives them the cultural and economic value which commercial art does not have.

By the end of the 18th century, subject matter required by the Neo-classicists involved civil morality, Classical mythology and nationalistic history. The official, government-run Academies now set limitations. Later, in the 19th century the Romantics added the idea of expression to the mix. After the Impressionists rebelled against the Academy in 1863, new limitations were established and once these new styles were accepted, with some exceptions, financial success and fame was limited to those who worked within them. Before the Impressionist Salons, the work of artists who ignored the major styles and subjects did not appear in the Academy exhibitions. Afterwards, the works exhibited were primarily Impressionist and Post-Impressionist. Even artists such as Van Gogh and Gauguin tried to develop strategies to establish a place for themselves within the styles dominant in Paris at the time.

Those who assume that times have changed, that during the 20th century with the advent of the so-called avant-garde, artists had the freedom to express themselves as they wished, are only partially correct. In this new art world of dealers and galleries, museums and curators, private and corporate collectors, auction houses, art magazines and critics, artists had more options, but they still worked within limitations of the new styles. To over-simplify, fine art first became geometrically abstract, concerned with formal issues, then abstractly expressive, concerned with brushstrokes and surface, then pop, then minimal, and so forth. Artists who did not work within these limitations could exhibit and get reviewed only with the greatest difficulty. The catalogues of museum and gallery exhibitions for the most part were limited to such works. It was what was taught in the art schools, accepted by exhibition jurors, reviewed by the critics and recorded in the art history books. If, in 17th century Netherlands, artists became inn-keepers, footmen, tax collectors and brewers to support themselves, today, without a gallery, they become teachers, bartenders and commercial artists.


Despite the changing status of the fine arts and these rapidly changing styles, good work was produced. There are fine abstract, abstract-expressionist, pop, and other contemporary artworks in our museums. Anyone familiar with such works can judge and compare them in terms of their presumptions - their form, color, technique, originality and significance of concept - whatever criteria is appropriate. Limitations did not interfere with the quality of the work. By the 70’s, however, the number of styles available to a striving artist became so large that a book published in 1984 referred to the period between 1968 and 1981 as the “Pluralistic Era” and by 1997, the philosopher and art critic, Arthur Danto, published a collection of essays called “Art After the End of Art”, meaning, not that artists would not continued to make objects, but that there was no longer a master “narrative”, a discernable historical or formal commonality to the art objects being made that would allow us to tell what was and wasn’t an art object. There are no longer sufficient limitations to what an artist can do so that we can tell what is or isn’t art by looking. There is no dominant style or even styles. There are no essential ‘art’ materials, no identifying ‘art’ concepts. Painting has all but disappeared from major art exhibitions. In fact, in today’s art world, we can say that there are no limits. A work of art can be any object exhibited in a museum or gallery.*

It is apparent that under these circumstances, the notion that aesthetic quality is an essential characteristic of fine art is no longer valid in the art world. If there are no common assumptions underlying any of these works, no limitations, nothing with which to compare them, it is impossible to make any judgments of quality. According to Danto, the notion of quality has been replaced by “embodied meanings”. The difference between the original Brillo Box, designed by Steve Harvey, in a store and Warhol’s in a museum is that the one in the store is intended to sell scouring pads by communicating cleanliness and brightness, whereas Warhol’s is a reaction against abstract expressionism, a reflection on contemporary American society, “the poetry of the commonplace” or whatever. When, in 1991, Mike Bidlo ‘appropriated’ Warhol’s “Brillo Box” in a work called “Not Warhol”, it was a reflection on Warhol, not Harvey, even though you might not be able to tell the difference between the objects themselves. Bidlo was part of an art movement of the 80s which could be called “Appropriatism”. The artists in this movement also appropriated the works of Picasso, Braque, the photographs of Walker Evens, even Duchamp’s readymades. (Can you imagine a handmade readymade?) Such works may ultimately be more interesting to talk about than to look at since quality is irrelevant. Fine art has become philosophy; meaning has become more important than perceptual characteristics. We can say of such objects in a museum, “that’s interesting”, but not beautiful. Such objects are obviously not comparable to commercial images that remain primarily visual.


The distinction between fine and commercial art is again getting harder to determine. Toulouse Lautrec did not feel diminished by making posters; neither did Ben Shahn. Fine artists have had no problem illustrating high quality books. Fine and commercial artists have been borrowing from each other for years. At the end of the 19th century, William Morris tried to return to the medieval equality between the fine arts and craft in England by emphasizing commonality of craft and in the 1920’s and 30’s, so did the Bauhaus in Germany in emphasizing that both involved design as well as craft. But the spiritual aura of the Fine Arts continues to create value and status that commercial art does not have. When the fine arts became involved with advertising over 100 years ago, it immediately became a threat to the status of the fine arts. The first time this happened, in 1887, the British painter, Sir John Millais became upset when one of his paintings, a picture of a little boy blowing soap bubbles, which became known as the “Bubbles Poster”, was bought by Sir William Ingram and sold to the Pears Firm for 2000 guineas, was used on a billboard to sell Pears Soap. He was even more upset when a writer, Marie Coreli, had a character in her book, The Sorrows of Satan, say:

“I am one of those who think the fame of Millais as an artist was marred when he degraded himself to the level of painting the little green boy blowing bubbles of Pears Soap. That was an advertisement, and that very incident in his career, trifling as it may seem, will prevent his ever standing on the dignified height of distinction with such masters in Art as Romney, Sir Peter Lely, Gainsborough and Reynolds”.

Millais later convinced her to remove that paragraph.

This aura has given recognition, economic status and power to many in the art world. Commercial artists like Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist became wealthy and culturally important when they left the commercial art world and became fine artists. But the artist who designed the original Brillo Box, Steve Harvey, who was a fine artist, an abstract expressionist in the 60s, had to become a commercial artist in order to make a living when that style faded. He, therefore, gained little money or fame, but when Warhol made a copy and put it in a museum, he became rich and famous. Comics have no status; pictures of comics do when Roy Lichtenstein paints them. The Museum of Modern Art exhibition 12 years ago, called High- Low, which attempted to present fine and commercial art as art of parallel quality was attacked by the art world as a travesty, whereas a similar exhibition in Paris at the same time in which maintained the hierarchy raised no issues.

It is obvious that many in today’s art world have a vested interest in maintaining the status of the fine arts. Economic and institutional power in the art world and cultural status in general are strong motives, motives which often have little to do with the quality of artworks, but there are other reasons for maintaining such status - for maintaining that fine art is superior to commercial art - self evident reasons which are important to me as a fine artist. Even within their limits, although the fine arts can be about anything the artist thinks is important, they have the capacity to make important statements about what really matters to us, about the experiences of our public and private lives which commercial art cannot make. They may even express values that we reject. Both fine and commercial artists today can be equally competent (although it is easier to be a bad fine artist than a bad commercial artist). Both have access to the styles of the art of all cultures, times and places and both can use all kinds of materials and techniques. Both are limited by what will let them accomplish their purpose. But a fine art painting can be about ways of seeing nature, about the imaginings of our mind, about divinity and belief, about social problems, about beauty and ugliness, about memory, about loss, about mortality and death, about all those feelings which words cannot convey and which a commercial art painting is not intended to convey, even though its technique and form may be equivalent and without such significant content, there is no significant art. Works of art can be judged without consideration of their aura, their status, the name of the artist, their economic value or whatever is irrelevant to how successfully they achieve such objectives.

(The danger of the sociological, anthropological, political or even philosophical approaches to the arts which I have been using is that they all loose sight of this fundamental distinction.)

*If the latest art show at the Whitney is indicative, anything is possible. According to Roberta Smith, art critic for the New York Times, the results are “bleak, pious, naïve, monotonous, isolated and isolating”. And in April’s “The Art News, the art critic, Linda Yablonsky, opens her review of the exhibition with, “It is strange that although there are more artists in this Whitney Biennial …than any other in the past 20 years, the museum seems empty. This illusion stems partly from an installation that…. (does not add) any meaningful context and partly from a sensibility that devalues whatever does not derive from a pop culture” and ends with “This survey of new art parodies avant-garde obsessions of the 1970s far more than it makes a case for new ideas”.

Addenda: This paper should not be interpreted to mean that a reproduction of a work of art can duplicate all the significant qualities of the original, but rather that when seen in a neutral context such as in reproduction, works of fine and commercial art often cannot be distinguished. Also, when seen side-by-side in a neutral context, an original work by a ‘commercial’ artist (say Norman Rockwell) cannot necessarily be distinguished from an original work by a ‘fine’ artist (say Grant Wood) as being either fine or commercial art.

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