Can Commercial Art be Fine Art?

Cedric Chambers
December 29, 2014

If the artist isn't poor, then the artist isn't making "real" art. As a matter of fact real art is priceless. Like many of the capital goods produced in today's world, if it wasn't made from suffering it's not a viable product. I'd like to take the time to debunk this myth.

Art is free of money. Just because no one buys an artists Art does not make it more artistic. Just because someone commissioned it, doesn't make it less artistic either. Art may emerge from the lack of resources, but it may also emerge from the abundance of it. The classical master painters are the definition of commercial artists. The Sistine chapel would not exist without the patron. As a matter of fact Michelangelo never wanted to be a painter, sculpting was his passion, he thought that painting was an inferior art form. Renaissance master Raphael has one of the largest bodies of work in history - but he rarely painted himself, his work was mostly created by a team of artists. Master Print maker Albrecht Duhrer made etchings so that he could commercialize his work to the lower class. The portraits of Nobility were commissions made for the purpose of making money. These works of Art were created for commercial purposes. My point is that the commercialization of Art never mattered to begin with.

So what is Art then? Art is the embodiment of the Zeitgeist, it's a cultural reaction to the change in function. The Zeitgeist (spirit of the age or spirit of the time) is the intellectual fashion or dominant school of thought that typifies and influences the culture of a particular period in time. The changes in Art can be marked historically as "periods", they are often defined by wars, inventions, or new thoughts. The most obvious example of the art changing due to innovation, can be attributed to the invention of the Camera. Innovations within the last century resulted in an abundance of new genres, like Digital art or Photography. The invisible hand reacts to innovation the same way that the Zeitgeist does. It encompasses new technologies, and creates a demand for a product that did not exist before.

If an Artist died poor, it was because the Artist never learned the value of networking, clients, and the division of labor, like Kehine Wiley, or Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol. Michelangelo learned the value of many things, thus he didn't die poor, some say that Michelangelo died the equivalent of a millionaire just from the Sistine Chapel commission alone. Even in today's world if you walk into a gallery hopped up on drugs, like a lot of artists, or if you're unreliable, or a little bit odd; galleries might refuse to work with you. I can only imagine what it was like in Puritanical England. Many of you may find this hard to believe, but Art is actually one of the oldest forms of capitalism.

As a prerequisite to working for the master, apprentices performed a number of tasks from building canvases, to sketches and prep work, while also performing the majority of the painting itself. The job of the Master was to gain the patron. The contracts were dictated by the percentage of work performed by the Master, and the amount someone paid for a commission was determined by the demand for the Master. The very foundations of art itself were perfected by commercialization. The canvas, the frame, the wire hanger, the context, and the presentation are all material goods that were developed by the market for art. So patrons could purchase the art. The invisible hand and the Zeitgeist, appear to be compliments.

Can we say that capitalism has deterred art? When the capitalist nature of art created the basic framework for artistic expression itself. The argument for Art, is much like the argument for love. You can argue that art/love is pure. You love a persons' personality, the way they treat you, how funny they are. Could we then argue that you would love someone more, if they were funnier, nicer, and had a better personality? We fetishize art and love, attaching a transcendental "otherness" to them - Art and love are something "more".

There is a popular form of marketing called story branding. What do you think of when you think big companies like Apple or Microsoft, the founders life stories of course. Steve Jobs was a crazy person but a genius, Bill Gates dropped out of college. These stories make these people more real, and allow us to forget that these tech tycoons simply re-invented toys. This is not by accident though, story branding is a popular and effective way to market a product. The PR departments of both companies actively promote the founders bios as a way to get people to read about their new products.

So is it for our sick entertainment that we require the artists to "suffer" in order to validate themselves as Artists? We feel comfortable, proud even, explaining the tragic biography of the artist. How much they went through to create their art, how much they suffered. It justifies the artist, it makes us feel empathy for them, it gives us a small sense of pride; that we can repeat the artist's life tragedy. We even go out of our way to fetishize the lives of an artist who was commercially successful within their lifetimes, attaching some sort of explanation as to why they were so great. Monet had an 'astigmatism', Pollock was a drugged up meany-head, Michelangelo was fighting the church in a heroic act of defiance. Story branding at its finest.

The most important part of being an artist is creating Art, because the intent of the artist is often skewed by interpretation. The commercialization of art Art does not destroy art; though that is not to say that commercial art is art, or that commercial art isn't art. Art is the embodiment of the Zeitgeist, it's a cultural reaction to the change in function. The question of "what is art" should be asked in terms of the era in which the art was produced. Commercial and non-commercial art can both be fine art.


  1. Eero Saarinen (2006), Shaping the Future, Yale University Press, p. 15, ISBN 9780972488129
  2. Marx, KarlEngels, Friedrich (2002) [1848]. The Communist Manifesto. Moore, Samuel (trans. 1888). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. p. 226. ISBN0-14-044757-1. Retrieved 2010-11-07.
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