Fine vs. Commercial Arts

A while back, I asked my subscribers to define how they defined fine art. It’s a question I used to pose to my commercial art students. Actually, we would discuss the differences between fine arts and commercial arts.

I was often surprised by some of the personal definitions of fine art. Some thought it was subject-driven. One student went so far as to state that only paintings and sculptures with religious subject matter could be fine art! For other students, it was all about the materials used. Oil paints and clay created fine art, not micron pens, typography, or computers. A small group felt that a piece of work could only be considered fine art if shown in an art museum or gallery.

Thinking back to my days in college, it felt like there was a big divide between commercial and fine arts. I was a student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago during the late 70s, studying painting. For many in the fine arts, there was a sense of contempt for the commercial arts. True, fine artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were questioning the boundaries of fine and commercial arts during the 60s and 70s, but it takes time to break down old prejudices and attitudes.

Artist’s Studio “Foot Medication”, 1974 Roy Lichtenstein

I recall an assignment from an art history class. We were to write a paper about one of the paintings in the museum. We needed to select a piece of art that we were unfamiliar with. The assignment required we spend time with the art. Sit with it, and take it in. I recall selecting Warhol’s large painting of Mao Tse-Tung. During that time in my artistic life, I was a big Surrealism fan and had little interest in Warhol.

Mao, by Andy Warhol, 1972, The Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago

I did the assignment as instructed and, in the process, discovered a newfound respect for the work of Andy Warhol. That was the beginning of shedding my old, limited fine vs. commercial arts attitudes.

In my opinion, another change helped to loosen the wall between commercial and fine arts during the 90s. The use of computers and Adobe products in commercial arts opened the doors to more creative possibilities.

As a Teaching Assistance at Northern Illinois University, I taught design on the computer to fine art undergrads. We used the software, Freehand. Freehand was similar to Adobe Illustrator. It was exciting to learn to design and create using the computer, which further opened my eyes!

After completing my graduate degree, I was employed as a graphic designer. Back in the 90s, if you knew how to design and design software, you could get a job in the commercial art field. Needless to say, my attitudes towards commercial arts changed!

It wasn’t just me who changed their thoughts on commercial arts as fine arts. By the 2000s, a lot of people saw the line blurred between the two worlds.

So, in my opinion, the main difference between commercial and fine art is communication. In commercial art, you HAVE to communicate. For example, you have been hired to create an advertisement for plumbing supplies. You have to create an ad that visually and verbally entices people to purchase plumbing supplies. If you miss the mark, you ran the risk of losing the job.

In fine arts, you may or may not communicate an idea. It’s up to the artist. For some artists, it is essential that their work sends a message. Then again, some artists want nothing more than to create a piece of beauty. I like how the attitudes, including mine, have changed towards the commercial arts.


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