“Art,” said Modeste Mussorgsky, 19th century Russian composer, “is not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity.”
If you are an art student drawing close to graduation, and you balk at the prospect of selling out to corporate America, you have options. If you are independently wealthy, you never have to please anyone but yourself and can build your own museum. If you’re not rich, and still wish to retain your “artistic purity,” you can cajole wealthy patrons (the 21st century versions of the Medicis) or apply for government grants.
Frankly, if you wish to keep the taint of money, what the Bible calls “filthy lucre,” from your art, then your best bet is to have as little as possible. A vow of poverty, from either a Marxist political perspective or a Christian monastic one, may be indicated.
The eternal tension
Seriously, there is an eternal tension between art as “an end in itself” and art that addresses and connects with people. The latter includes art that connects with a marketing director because she thinks it will help sell her product. Whether you are an illustrator, sculptor, painter or filmmaker, you will have to confront the issue of “commercial art vs. fine art” and draw the appropriate lines in your own life. You should begin by challenging your preconceptions. In fact, you might want to make a lifelong habit of this.
Richard Rothstein, a photographer and writer living in Manhattan, brings the historical perspective. “I find it extremely amusing that commercial art of past civilizations and ages is now held in very high regard as fine art. Murals and carvings that promoted products and services in ancient Greece and Rome are now standing as fine art in great museums.”
The commercial/fine art dichotomy is false, says Rothstein. “Bad art is common, bad in composition, emotion, passion. But to divide art into ‘commercial’ versus ‘fine’ strikes me as arrogant and pompous.” One of the towering figures of modern art helps to prove his point. “Picasso churned out art like Ford churned out Model Ts. He was a genius at commercial art, building a brand that would make him very rich. Was he a commercial or a fine artist?”
Starvation vs. survival?
“The difference between commercial art and fine art,” says Joe Nyaggah, “is the difference between survival and starvation.” A 2008 graduate of the renowned arts program at California State University, Fullerton, Nyaggah is a designer who roams widely across the Web engaging in discussions on the social and professional roles of artists. He believes that what most people mean by “fine artist” is someone who creates works “that are only appreciated by a select, eccentric few.” Commercial artists, on the other hand, “execute on demand” rather than “on a whim,” and learn to make a living with their talent.
Nyaggah has little patience for talented people who posture as “starving artists” with moral superiority. “Hunger builds character, yes,” he says, “but money builds so much more. Houses, for instance, that you and your family can live in.”