The Artful Collector: Art Hierarchies #2: “Fine Art” is Better than “Illustrative Art”

Please don’t shoot the messenger. I’m not responsible for the “high” and “low” art divide—into which categories we’ve shoved “art we collectively treasure” vs “art we collectively enjoy,” respectively. I’m just here to generalize, and to report that the “art” vs “illustration” distinction still exists, and that no matter how much love and money we lavish on commercial (yes, I said it, commercial) art at Heritage Auctions, its inferior ranking on the “Art” totem pole is something we’re just going to have to live with.  

As one example: The MoMA exhibit in 1991. According to Steven Heller, “from the art world’s point of view, this was heresy. From the popular culture point of view this was, well, like slumming. Advertising, comics, and graffiti artists were not all that happy either. Low? Who you callin’ low?”

Artists who get paid before they create something (or to whom the promise of payment is made, implying an “assignment”), as opposed to after, is one argument—but only one—of the many that have been put forward. “Function” or “use” vs. “independence” or “freedom” is another. No rationale really suffices. Or satisfies. I happen to like David Apatoff’s blog post on this, as well as the responses to it. But this is only the tip of the iceberg; like spitting in the wind…

However much we revere the science fiction, fantasy, and horror art that have appeared in and on books and magazines—and numerous other products and merchandise—over the last (approximately) 80 years, “commercial art” is simply not considered as good as so-called “fine art.” Don’t believe me? Compare the two types of art by any social/economic/cultural measures you like. For starters, ask yourself the following questions, and see what you get as answers (not in any special order of importance):

Do you see anything remotely related to the names Parrish, Rockwell, Vargas, Frazetta, St. John, Bonestell on this chart documenting the most expensive art ever sold?

What do the richest people in the world collect? In what category is the most expensive piece of art? What kind of art do museums want on their walls? What kind do they buy, or want as donations? When charities hold auctions, what kind of art reproductions or originals are they looking for, from donors? When war strikes, what kind of art do nations take great efforts to protect from damage or theft? Speaking of disasters, what kind of art is most in danger of theft, carries the highest insurance, and is in greatest danger of being stolen from public institutions? In James Bond movies, what kind of art do private collectors take unusual lengths to protect? What kind of art is forged? How many auction houses will take “illustration” art for specialty sales as compared to “fine” art? What kind of art do foreign embassies, public spaces, and even law offices want on their walls? What kind of art is routinely used in art classes as the “exemplar” for students to copy to learn painting techniques? What artists’ names and paintings are part of any introductory course in art? After taking Art 101, how many college students will know the name Van Gogh or Picasso or Warhol? How many will know the name St. John or Frazetta?

Do We Care? 

High art and low art are opinions more than actualities, and those who examine the concept of “high” (=fine) or “low” (=popular) generally conclude that it’s not a matter of “good art” vs. “bad art,” nor necessarily related to media or art forms or genres. It is an elitist attitude for the most part. Beyond that, an argument that devolves to a distinction between what is “spiritual” and what is meant as “entertainment.”  See the academic paper “High Art vs Low Art“—one of the best I’ve found on this subject, and yet still unsatisfying. Can’t entertainment be spiritual?

Many boil it down to this: “high art” is timeless and deserves recognition and respect within the art community, while “low art” is time-specific, related to popular culture, and for the masses.

If that’s what we’re left with, well, I’m ok with it. Because frankly (and pun intended) after I’m dead, I don’t really care what you want to look at on your walls. I’m happy to leave judgments vis-à-vis timelessness to historians after I’m gone.  And I can’t afford a Picasso, anyway.

Next week: On to Art Hierarchies #3 – Art done for love is better than art done for money. Really?

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1 Comment

  1. Artists being paid before they create something isn’t new, or restricted to the commercial side of things. After all, many of the great artists, Michaelangelo, DaVinci and so on had their patrons (though whether they paid in advance, I couldn’t say). Still, it’s always an interesting debate.

    I was an arts publicist for many years, and some of the stuff that was lauded by the critics was, frankly, garbage – in some cases, literally. However, minimalist art can be just as rewarding as richly figurative illustration. Depending on your mood, point of view, and, if you’re a buyer, budget. Saatchi and Saatchi may be the Medicis of the current day, which of course helps the profile of contemporary art. And, let’s face it, the media doesn’t cover illustration, unless the illustrator is discovered to be a serial killer, or a celebrity in another field.

    Still, there’s space for high and “low” art. Personally, though, I subscribe to what Anita Steckel said: “Good taste is the enemy of art. It’s wonderful for curtains, but in art it’s suffocating.”

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