The following is my personal opinion on these two artistic domains, based on a forty-five year career in the visual and written arts.
What’s the difference between the commercial arts and the fine arts? Who makes the determination and why? If you’re a creative type, what type of artist/writer do you think you are? Here’s something to consider while pursuing your creative endeavors. Throughout this essay, consider the term artist to be interchangeable with writer or any other artistic domain.
The Oxford Dictionaries define the arts to be the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.
Creative activity is the common denominator of the arts, of which there are basically two larger domains: commercial arts—creative endeavors generally applied to advertising and selling, and fine arts—creative endeavors generally regarded for aesthetic beauty, qualities linked with culture and good taste. To some people commercial arts seem base and looked down upon, while regarding fine arts as good and lofty. But let’s get down to basics. What drives artists to create in both domains? Based on my experience, creative people need to express their creativity, which begins as an idea/vision conceived in the mind and then its manifestation into the physical world to share with others. Creativity is basically the conversion of something personal or private into something public.
In order to ground this discussion to a tangible reality, I’d like to offer the following contextual example, through which to apply the ideas expressed in this essay.
There was a person in the writers group I facilitate, who wrote some interesting and clever short stories. When asked what this writer’s goals were, the answer was, “I want to be published in the New Yorker, because it represents the best short fiction in America.” This talented writer shared some short stories with the group for the purpose of critique. Knowing the writer’s target audience, structural and stylistic issues were pointed out that required extra polish. The writer rejected the critique and said, “That’s what editors are for. They’ll fix it.”
I thought this was an interesting response that illustrates my concept of commercial arts vs. fine arts. This writer clearly sought a commercial audience, believing that audience to be the pinnacle for short fiction. Despite pointing out glaring issues, the writer believed the stories were good enough for the New Yorker, because they were good enough for the writer’s personal quality standards. This demonstrates my definition of the fine artist—someone who creates for personal satisfaction without the need to please anyone else.
However, this writer wants to publish in a high-end commercial magazine and thinks submitting work that passed the writer’s personal standards will be good enough. Unfortunately, the moment an editor or an agent reads obvious problems that reasonable editing should have caught and fixed, they will likely reject that piece. Trade publications makes it clear that agents and editors require polished writing. Sure, editors will make changes, but won’t fix obvious structural and stylistic problems.
Does this writer meet the definition of a fine artist? Most consider Rembrandt a fine artist and Shakespeare a literary giant. Both men produced quality work that expressed ideas considered universal and timeless truths. These and other creative geniuses enjoy critical acclaim. On the other hand we have the commercial artists, selling their creativity to such markets as advertising and magazines. Until recently the fine arts world pretty much shunned the painter Norman Rockwell, despite the quality of his work, because he was a commercial artist—worse still an illustrator—who created cover art for magazines.
Who determines if someone is a fine artist or literary genius? Scholars and critics. They study great masters—living and dead—and publish insightful critically analytical articles, papers, and books on the merits of the fine arts, while sometimes detracting the validity of the commercial arts. One could argue that scholars and critics consider commercial artists as those who sell their talents, taking money for creativity, and performing work for hire. Hmmm …
Critics and scholars apply their creative insights to the arts from well-salaried positions of stature and power. Stature, because they’ve been hired for their educational and professional credentials. Power, because they can make or break careers. However, I would suggest they actually operate within the commercial arts definition, often performing work as employees of a university or publication—and yes, even performing work for hire. While most people have heard the term starving artist, I have yet to hear of the starving critic.
So what are starving artists? Generally, people imagine creative geniuses so dedicated to their ‘vision’ they live like paupers. Vincent Van Gogh may be the poster child for the starving artist. Why is that so? He didn’t intend to starve. He very much wanted appreciation and sell his work, but the critics of the era did a good job of keeping him down. You have to wonder what Van Gogh would think about the huge sums paid for his work after his death. Sadly, there’s been an unfortunate number of artists who couldn’t sell their work while alive, yet some of their work commands large sums after their death.
Let’s consider the acknowledged great masters. Artists, such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo, van Eyck, Raphael, Durer; and authors such as Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Zola, and Dickens, who are famous for their inspired work and considered charter members of the fine arts pantheon. Hold on a moment. All of these creative geniuses enjoyed financial success from selling their creativity. Rembrandt was extremely successful for a time, but life circumstances and poor business skills accounted for his financial decline into relative poverty. He became a starving artist, but that was after a very successful run. He didn’t intend to starve and I suspect he would have preferred his former financial success.
What if Michelangelo or da Vinci—arguably two of history’s greatest fine artists—were contemporaries of Rockwell? The same logic used to spurn Rockwell from the established fine arts world arguably would have applied to them. Michelangelo and da Vinci were classic commercial artists. The Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco was paid work for hire by his patron/boss the Pope. Da Vinci worked for wealthy patrons, painting portraits and other works. What makes their work ethic and markets any different than work for hire painting a magazine cover? I suggest Van Gogh would have jumped at a commission from a wealthy patron to produce a work of art or paint a magazine cover for cash. After all, nobody really likes to starve.
In the literary world, Dickens wrote serialized fiction—paid by the word—which arguably influenced the wordiness of his work. Shakespeare was a successful playwright and wrote plays with the intention of achieving commercial success. Zola was a hugely successful author and became rich and influential because of his creativity.
Scholars and critics receive payment to write for publications. Typically not producing visual artists, authors, or playwrights—outside of their scholarly or critical work—scholars and critics may have little experience with the plight of actual artists and writers struggling to make a living from their creative endeavors. As a result they may not be in touch with the creative reality of those they analyze and critique.
I recall an art critic lecturing his audience that great art should only hang in museums and that reproductions are sacrilegious. The de’ Medici family in renaissance Italy commissioned portraits and religious works of art for their own personal enjoyment in their homes. Durer, Rembrandt, and other artists who had stellar reputations for printmaking would argue a different case about reproductions. Prints were commercially profitable. Invest the effort in an image, then generate a revenue stream through multiple sales. Certainly, when it comes to writing, it’s all about printing and mass production to generate revenue—critics are certainly familiar with this. Dickens lives on through reproduction and publication. So, despite their positions and education, scholars and critics may romanticize about a world unknown to them from personal experience and may not always understand what they’re talking about.
The point of this distinction between commercial and fine arts is to point out a basic concept to anyone seeking publication. That’s the commercial world and they have existing standards and expectations. If you’re a writer, hung up that it’s all about your creative vision in a personal vacuum, that attitude will serve to thwart your publishing ambitions. Michelangelo had his creative vision for the Sistine Chapel, but he had to sell it to the Pope or he’d lose the commission. Michelangelo had to consider his commercial audience and not work in a vacuum.
So, don’t be hung up about commercial arts and play the purist, that’s the stuff starving artists are made of. If you aspire to commercial success, know you’re in good company with the likes of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Dickens, and Zola. Maybe the critics consider them fine artists, but that’s a romanticized view of some of the world’s best commercial artists.
Once you step beyond self, you now have an audience. If your goal is to reach a wider audience, then success requires you appeal to that audience. In the case of writing, the wider your audience is, the more important it is make sure your audience can read what you’ve written. That’s quality and polish on your work. Higher quality and better polish increase your chances for commercial success. However, quality and polish alone serve no purpose if your subject has such a narrow appeal no one cares about what you have to say. However, how you express your subject can generate interest. Even an obscure subject can be entertaining to a wide audience if your polished writing is entertaining, engaging, and interesting. That’s the writer’s voice. That’s what sets you apart from the rest and helps you achieve commercial success.
A Visual Interpretation
Having been a commercial graphic artist, I was frequently required to illustrate concepts in the interest of improved clarity. I’d like to present two graphical representations of my essay and see what you think. The graphic, The World of the Unknown Artist focuses on creative artists with no reputation, and who may or may not want to be a commercial success. While this applies to any of the arts, my explanation will focus on writing, though I could have just as easily focused on painting. At first glance there’s a lot going on in the figure, so I’ll walk you through it.
Along the bottom horizontal axis is YOUR AUDIENCE, which begins on the left with yourself and expands to Commercial Publishing on the right. Using my example writer, who we will call ‘you’, commercial publishing represents the New Yorker magazine. Along the left vertical axis in blue is ACCEPTABLE QUALITY OF YOUR WORK, which ranges from Low Quality to High Quality. The right vertical axis in red is GENERAL INTEREST IN YOUR WORK, again, with Low Interest to High Interest. The two lines on my graph represent quality, in blue and interest in red.
Let’s take the blue quality line first. If your audience is yourself, quality doesn’t ultimately matter, because you determine the measure of your acceptable quality. Let’s say you want to write a memoir for your family, then your quality has to improve enough so your family can at least read what you’ve written. Expanding your audience, we come to your friends. When you move beyond family, who may be more forgiving of quality, a wider audience of friends will likely demand more quality. Up to this point, the audience is non-commercial. That is, you don’t expect any of them to pay for your work.
If you move into self-publishing, and you want to sell your work, you’ve crossed the threshold into commercial art. You hope to get people to pay you for your work. Notice how the quality line grows steeper. If you expect strangers to buy your work, the acceptable quality level will be significantly higher than friends and family. But suppose you want to sell your work to the New Yorker, which is commercial publishing, that requires the highest degree of quality and polish to your work. This is not a linear/straight line plot of quality to audience, because as you expand your audience the demand for quality grows exponentially.
Now let’s talk about the interest curve in red, also a nonlinear plot. As the creator, you obviously have the highest interest in your own work, which is why we start at the top of the graph. This curve is the inverse of the quality curve, but functions the same way. Because family knows you intimately, a memoir about you will likely have the highest interest after yourself. But once you move beyond family to friends, interest begins to drop rapidly. As you move into self-publishing, selling to strangers, interest drops quickly. Then when you reach the New Yorker, like it or not, they don’t really care about you.
Along the top of the graphic we have POTENTIAL FINANCIAL SUCCESS, which ranges from Low to High. Obviously, you get nothing from yourself and likely little or nothing from family or friends. Once you reach self-publishing, the potential reward increases and then obviously through commercial publication lies your highest potential for financial success.
Finally, beneath it all are the ARTISTIC DOMAINS, shaded from yellow to lavender. Again, it’s obvious the far left side of the Fine Arts domain maps to yourself as your audience. You don’t care about what anyone else thinks but yourself. Moving to the right the other extreme is commercial publication and the world of the commercial artist.
As my graphic above represents the Unknown Artist, the graphic below shows the difference for the Famous Artist. Let’s start with the red interest curve. Now that you’ve achieved success and you’re famous, the curve looks quite different. Of course you’re still really interested in your own work and family remains about the same. In the wider audience of friends, now that you’re famous the interest runs a bit higher. However, when it comes to self-publishing and commercial publishing, because you’re famous, interest runs much higher than when you were unknown.
The blue quality plot has also changed. Unlike when you were unknown and you needed the highest quality to break into the publishing audience, once you achieve success and fame, you can get away with a lower standard of quality because you’re a known quantity. That’s not to say you can abandon quality all together. Quality sells and you will more easily maintain success with a higher quality product.
So there you have my thoughts on commercial arts vs. fine arts. I’m curious to know what other people think about the subject and what you think about my presentation and conclusions.