Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fine Art Discussion

I belong to the NH chapter of the Womens Caucus for Arts. There has been an interesting discussion lately about the differences between commercial art and fine art. I wanted to post the response that I wrote with my own opinions, here on my blog with the hopes that some of you readers might offer your two cents. I think this subject is really fascinating - and of course, has no answer. But I'd love to see your comments!



What a cool tangent from Water Rights! Some very thought provoking arguments. What truly is amazing is that this is even something we can argue about. For most of history, artists were tradesmen. It was just a job you did like making candles. Yes, you could do it really well - you could make exquisite shoes or candles too. But it was just a job. The "fine artists" - the "masters" that we worship at the museums and study in school - were actually just craftsmen and old-time "illustrators". They worked for a client, whether it was the church or a rich family, they did what they were told. If you want to understand that better, watch the movie "Girl with the Pearl Earring." Some of these artists were geniuses. What makes them so amazing is that they found ways to express themselves and add their own opinions into their art created for the client. Whether or not you buy into the whole Dan Brown-thing of secret messages hidden in paintings... you have to concede that "The Last Supper" was technically, just a mural to decorate a cafetaria. The fact that we are all of different opinions - "is that Mary Magdalene?" "What's the knife mean? Who is holding it?" "What's the deal with the food and drink - or lack of it - some Supper!?" We all see this painting in a book, tiny and flat. It's hard to think of it as large and hovering over a roomful of monks quietly eating their own dinner. It's a mural, an illustration, it has messages... it was only created because someone commisioned it. Commercial Art.

Shepard Fairey was in my class at RISD. Illustration department. He became a household word (with coffee table books and retrospective shows) because of a STICKER everybody has on their cars!!! Fine artist? I went to SVA in New York for a little while and it is interesting that fine art was just a style. For example, you could be an illustrator working in an oil paint-like fine art style. Probably using acrylics because they dry faster! The old masters probably would use acrylics today too but they had no choice back then. Anyway, all techniques were taught to all disciplines. Whether you wanted to be a fine artist or a commercial one, you still had to stand in a museum and copy the old masters. At RISD there was a much bigger divide between those of us destined for commercial art and those who were the real artists. And graphic artists. Illustration majors were not allowed to take computer design classes (different department) because we would "never need those skills"!!!? How ironic is that? An illustrator who doesn't know how to email a jpeg within 10 minutes will never survive now. One of my teachers defined the difference as "commercial artists are those that create art for reproduction" like in a magazine or on lunchboxes. But I ask "what about limited edition prints and giclees?" Does that make a fine artist into a commercial artist? And can you do both? Can an illustrator make a watercolor painting just for herself and suddenly be a fine artist? I've been rejected from Art Associations because my work is too "crafty" and I've been rejected from the League because it's not crafty enough and I don't do multiples. I've been rejected because of "commercial intent" (what the heck does that mean? Is it like having impure thoughts?) :-D

Boston Museum of Fine Art? There is not a single item in the Egyptian section that wasn't created for a utilitarian or "commercial" reason!! The beautiful statues were the equivalent of today's billboards or political posters. A really funny, but relevant example of this "stuff becoming art" (just because it happened to survive) is David Macaulay's book "Motel of the Mysteries". The world is flooded by junk mail and perfectly preserved for hundreds of years (like Pompeii). The archaeologists discover a motel room and think it is a tomb full of "wonderful things". It's hysterical to see how they misinterpret the uses of ordinary (to us) objects like toilet plungers.

I have no idea what the answer is - I just think it is so cool to live in a time period where we are at leisure to ponder such a thing. My own view is that the definition is whatever you decide for yourself. If you are a potter, even a really, really good one, but you only do green glazes for your entire life and never grow or change or challenge yourself... you are a craftsman. If you do commercial work, but constantly explore and experiment and strive to be better and learn everything you can... you are an artist. If you see beautiful things around you and yearn to show them to others through your work... you're an artist. If you are horrified by social injustice around you and want others to understand your anger or pain through your photos or paintings ... you are an artist. If you knit wonderful and bizarre creations from your mind, or nature, or microscope slides... if you make deeply personal assemblage boxes that no one ever sees... crayon drawings of angels to express your gratitude at being alive... yup, artist.

-Sandy Bartholomew

PS I agree that the shows should be viewed as challenges and opportunities to stretch ourselves as artists. It's OK to say, "no, I don't want to enter this one" but it's not OK to say "that's not my style". Your style doesn't make you an artist. If it does... well, that's "commercial". Think of it like this... if someone stole your style of painting (etc.) could you re-invent yourself and move on?

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