Can Commercial Art Ever Be “Art”?

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John Roman explores what prerequisites need to be present for commercial art to be respected as fine art.

“All advertising art is pornographic,” claimed the well-known philosopher, Joseph Campbell (1904–1987). And many of today’s art critics, holding little regard for “commercial” art, might support such a view. Those of us in the graphic arts, however, disagree and refuse to draw a line between “fine art” and some of the magnificent images created in the numerous markets of our industry. So, who sets the standards for defining “art,” and what prerequisites need to be present for commercial art to be respected as art?

Theories of art are not based on concrete comparisons as are theories in science or medicine. Diverse viewpoints and wide-ranging parameters determine artistic worth leaving much art criticism open to subjective interpretation. This inconsistency is at the heart of disagreements surrounding what is or is not art, nonetheless, that lack of structure on its own is not enough to explain the prejudice that exists toward creative, commercial work. With this in mind, let’s review of the laws of aesthetic theory handed down through the centuries so we can understand the framework for the negative appraisal of advertising and publishing art…and to see if, in fact, graphic design, photography and illustration can somehow fall within the scope of what critics consider “art.”

The Theorists

Joseph Campbell’s opening quote on advertising art was actually culled from his studies of novelist James Joyce’s writings on the subject of aesthetics, specifically from Joyce’s theory of art elaborated in his book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There, Joyce worked out his “definition of beauty” so sublimely while writing Portrait, he applied it to the balance of all his written works for the remainder of his career. The origin of Joyce’s theory traces back to Prussian/German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) whose analysis of art forms the basis to modern art criticism. Over the years Kant’s theory was elaborated upon by later historians, but Joyce’s adaptation runs closest to Kant’s original ideas, so it’s his translation we will use as a rule of thumb for evaluating artistic value.

Author and philosophy professor, Cynthia Freeland, tells us that Immanuel Kant’s predecessor, Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), believed that all the important works of art were created and appreciated by men of education and sophistication. These “men of taste” would then enlighten the lower classes of people as to which artworks did or did not have intellectual or artistic value. Kant disagreed. Kant was more concerned with the beauty of a painting as opposed to its cerebral qualities. Obviously inspired by the early-­‐Renaissance writer Leon Battista Alberti, Kant preferred to acknowledge paintings that possessed internal harmony by way of balanced proportion, design and color, which, when done correctly, “arrests” the viewer’s mind.

In the final chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce defines what he terms proper art and improper art. Stephen Daedalus, the main character in the novel, is a young university student who grapples with the problems of life while also expounding on a theory of aesthetic beauty. Joyce, with the general reader in mind, presents a synopsis of Kant’s theory in dialogue form through his character. This ingenious approach renders the information tangible and clear with the added benefit of affording us a reference tool to apply in the analysis of how works of art, especially commercial works, hold up to that test.

Improper Art

Joyce distinguished all art as being either static (proper) or kinetic (improper). First we’ll examine what improper art encompasses in order to shine a light on the specific reasons why some graphic arts may fall into this category. Improper art, says Joyce, is kinetic (of or relating to motion). Art that is created for the service of something else, something outside the painting and beyond the artist’s talents, is kinetic/improper art. Improper art, therefore, attempts to move the viewer in some way, creating a feeing of desire, loathing, or fear.

Campbell clarifies Joyce’s theory by describing improper art as any work designed to tempt someone to buy a product, to manipulate an opinion, or to inspire an action or emotion. “Art that moves you to desire, is pornography,” he explained. For example, a food advertisement in a culinary magazine shows a basket of fresh apples. Designers and photographers work their magic to make the apples look irresistible. Viewers, in turn, tantalized by the portrayal of the apples’ implicit flavor, think, “Gee, I’d love to eat an apple like that!” According to Campbell (and Joyce), that image is pornographic.

Or, an ad agency is commissioned to create advertising for a warm, tropical travel destination. Their photos and layout capture the essence of its sunny beaches so well, viewers can’t help to fantasize, “It sure would be wonderful to go to an island like that for my vacation!” Once again, pornography.

Suppose an illustrator creates a drawing of a politician and depicts this person in a humorous and negative manner. The “caricature” might move some viewers to dislike or not vote for the politician. On the other hand, even if the opinions of other viewers are not swayed, this art would still be considered pornographic as the intention of the artist pollutes the image. You get the idea. As soon as there is a biological, physical, emotional, or social relationship to any work of art, you have an image that has stepped outside the boundaries of proper art.

Aldous Huxley commented on this same subject in his Brave New World Revisited.

”Every propagandist has his art department,” he said. Huxley reasoned that in commercial art “there are no masterpieces” for the commercial artist “is out to captivate the majority,” and those who see such work, “may be expected to like the product with which it is associated.” In short, commercial art does not stand on its own, it symbolically stands for the product for which it is associated.

Proper Art

The term “fine art,” on the other hand, implies just the opposite. “Fine” comes from the French word ‘fin and the Latin finis, meaning “the end”. In other words, a work of “fine art” is the end in itself, it does not propel our feelings or desires to some other point. A work of fine art is static; proper art.

Cezanne’s famous painting of a bowl of apples has symmetry to the design, brush strokes capture light on the surface of the apples, and deep shadows frame the bowl with complimentary colors pleasing to the eye. The viewer is held in aesthetic arrest, captivated by Cezanne’s talent. There is no craving to consume the apples in the painting nor to go buy some apples to eat. The painting is
the end.

Still Life, Bowl with Apples, Paul Cezanne

Still Life, Bowl with Apples, Paul Cezanne, 1879. United States Public Domain courtesy Wiki Media Commons: part of the collection of reproductions compiled by the New Yorck Project.

Ansel Adams’ famous photographs of the Grand Canyon reveal breathtaking, luminous vistas. The photos do more than capture specific settings, they provide an opportunity to experience enchanted moments in nature. The photos do not prompt a yearning to go to the Grand Canyon to find those sights in person. Instead, viewers are spellbound by a three-­dimensional event taking place in the two-­dimensional print. Fine art.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Ansel Adams

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Ansel Adams, 1941. As a work of the U.S. federal government, this work is in the public domain. Courtesy National Records and Archives Administration and Wiki Media Commons.

Even a dark topic such as Goya’s painting of an execution in Madrid in 1808 manages to stop viewers in their tracks. His powerful use of light, symbolic use of figures, carefully structured composition, and craft of depiction restrains us. We are not saying “no” to the execution, we are held in wonder by its tragedy and by the skill of the painting’s form and composition. Goya’s painting does not sensationalize or shock, it engages us. The marvelous craft of Goya’s paint on canvas keeps us at a distance from the politics depicted. This is a classic example of art for art’s sake. These instances exemplify where fine art and most business-­related art part company.

The Third of May, Francisco Goya

The Third of May, Francisco Goya, 1814. Public Domain, Wiki Media Commons.

Commercial Art as Art

Using this theory, creative artists can ask themselves if they even want to or need to have their work considered fine art. After all, contemporary designers and the like are hired to create images that will help sell their clients’ products or ideas, and eventually to move viewers toward that intended goal. Perhaps, armed only with an acceptance of being trapped between different opinions can we continue to form our own standards of art and disregard those who fail to see the artistic value of art created for commerce…as we already do.

Yet, another approach for graphic artists might be to try utilizing James Joyce’s proper/improper art formula as a tool to more successfully connect with viewers. This, obviously, is not always possible as the client has final word, and we still need to prompt viewers to react to our client’s message. Perhaps similar methods applied to a design hierarchy may better—engage an audience to the benefit of client. Then again, it could be said that many commercial works already accomplish this!

The attempt in this text is not to convince anyone in either direction as to what constitutes drawings, photos or designs to be considered works of art, nor is it to agree with or disagree with the fine art guidelines set down by critics and historians. This model, rather, is an interesting template that may or not have relevance to the individual commercial artist, though it is certainly worth scrutiny and thought.

And if, in the end, a line remains drawn between these two worlds of art, at least professional artists servicing the business world will be better able to understand the reasoning of those on the opposite side.

John Roman is a regular contributor to Artists Magazine and has also written for several other national art magazines. A graduate of Suffolk University’s New England School of Art & Design, Roman has been teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston since 1993. He is also the author of the The Art of Illustrated Maps (Simon & Schuster/HOW Books, 2015). See more of his work here.