What is the difference between fine art and commercial art?

To understand the difference between fine art and commercial art, we must first understand why they were created and their purpose. All art inherently is an expression of creativity and imagination, but these qualities are used for different reasons within the fine art and commercial art worlds.

Fine art can consist of paintings, sculptures, drawings, photography, printmaking, mixed media, installation, sound art, performance, digital art and more. For the purposes of this blog, commercial art on the other hand can often be thought of as more in the mediums of graphic design, logos, branding, illustration and advertising. Although it is important to mention that the term ‘commercial art’ can also refer to a more general term, meaning art for commercial spaces.

Fine art is created solely for aesthetic and intellectual purposes. It is an expression to be judged for its beauty and/or conceptual ideas rather than for functional value, despite often being sold. Fine Art allows the viewer to engage in the process of introspection and contemplate the meaning of the works on different levels. As such, fine art is generally much more respected and acknowledged as ‘legitimate’ art in society, seemingly requiring inherent talent.

Conversely, Commercial Art, as the name suggests is created for commercial purposes, primarily advertising. Whilst fine art is most commonly exhibited in galleries and museums, commercial art uses a variety of platforms such as websites, magazines, television and apps to reach viewers with the sole intention of selling a product or service.

That being said, within the last century, this distinction between commercial art and fine art has become blurred. Until the 20th century commercial art was reserved for primarily print based medias using printed advertising campaigns and as the years progressed, through television advertising.

Fine art on the other hand was less diverse being defined solely by paintings, drawings and sculptures that were exhibited in museums and high end galleries. A clear distinction could be made in that fine art was a one of a kind, single piece of work that’s innate singularity made it unique, a work of fine art.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the art world was completely revolutionised by artists such as Andy Warhol. Warhol was an American artist who was a leading figure in the visual art movement known as pop art. He was able to almost overnight revolutionise the understanding of commercial art by mass producing images using the tools of a commercial artists.

The genre was coined ‘pop art’ and each piece explored the intrinsic relationship between artistic expression, advertising and the all-consuming celebrity culture that the 1960’s bred. Through painting, silk-screening, photography, sculptures and film, Warhol created iconic works of Fine Art that entwined the world of commercial art.

There are many works of Warhol’s art that demonstrate the merging of commercial art and fine art, one of the most famous being his 1962 ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’. This appropriation of familiar images from consumer culture and mass media resembles the mass produced printed advertisements of the time from which Warhol was inspired. However, the blurring of the lines can be seen in how the artist chose to individually hand paint and hand stamp each of the 32 cans, crossing the lines into the unique individualism and seemingly inborn talent seen in traditional fine art. We can see Warhol mimicking the repetition of advertising by meticulously reproducing the same soup can over and over again across each canvas.

The traditional fine art processes were also blurred with commercial art processes when towards the end of 1962, Warhol began to use photographic silkscreen printing. This printing technique was previously reserved for commercial use, but it would quickly become his most infamous medium and allowed the printmaking method to become more widely recognised within the fine art world than in the commercial art world.

The decision to use this mass production technique came from Warhol’s belief that fine art should be accessible to the masses, in the same way that commercial art has been for so many years. The gatekeeping of the fine art world and the exclusivity and elitism that are often associated with it is something that many artists have felt should be dismantled to allow anyone to appreciate, understand and own works of art.

Many of Warhol’s works which used highly popular commercial products as their muse were much more than pieces of to be visually perceived and instead needed a system to define and validate them as art. This system was the curators, galleries and critics who would define them as art, but it created questions regarding what is classed as art and what is not? Why is a can of Campbells soup not art but an exact printed replica of the product is now Art?

Modern Art

Almost 60 years later, the world of modern fine art is a different landscape thanks to the innovative and revolutionary techniques and practices of artists such as Warhol within the last century. Fine art now consists a plethora of mediums that are arguably ever changing and evolving, challenging the boundaries of what defines ‘fine art’.

That been said, whilst the art world as a whole has adapted with artists intertwining commercial and fine art techniques, the core principals of studying have not. Fine art arguably develops artists who have explored a range of techniques, mediums and concepts to create innovative and unique pieces of fine art. On the other hand, commercial art which is often seen as Graphic design or Illustration studies are more focused and taught with a purpose and more structure to allow artists to work within the boundaries of a brief. Art schools have chosen to maintain the division between the fine art and commercial art worlds and as such, as an artist, you choose which path to pursue.


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