Arts  •  August 7, 2010

What Makes Art “Fine” or “Commercial”?

I would say my friend Ian is a little creepy but in a good way. He is a talented photographer and cinematographer, stylish and well-groomed. You might call him “metrosexual” but there is a strong hippie quality to him that invalidates that label. Even though I’ve known him for years, I would still watch my ass if I ever had to take a shower with him in a gym. There is something mysterious about him. Usually when someone is mysterious, it’s because he is keeping some aspects of himself secret, but in Ian’s case, I think he finds himself mysterious. Every now and then, we sit down at a cafe and try to solve this mystery together.

Ian thinks any artists who claim they cannot do any commercial work need to get over themselves, especially if they are poor. When he explains this, he sounds frustrated. I think these artists are telling the truth. Although the skills required to create the work are quite similar, the internal processes of so-called “fine arts” and “commercial arts” are fundamentally different. The former effectively produces “art” and the latter “entertainment”. In general, “fine art” does not tell us how to feel or think. It proposes something for us to process with our own emotions and thoughts. “Entertainment”, on the other hand, tells us exactly how we need to react (feel and think). The latter is easy to digest because it is preprocessed. (Think of the “laugh tracks” on TV sitcoms which tell us when and how much to laugh.) Fine art asks questions, and we have to answer them in our own ways. Entertainment serves us answers, so we have nothing to do but to kick back and accept its premise. These processes are diametrically opposed.

What drives most fine artists is their urge to say something. On the other hand, what drives most commercial artists is their urge to be heard. When you want to say something, you become concerned with what goes on in your own head. In contrast, when you want to be heard, you become concerned with what goes on inside the minds of your audience. This is why advertising agencies spend millions of dollars in market research and focus groups.

Granted; nobody is 100% one way or the other. Everyone is somewhere in between, but someone like Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger are almost purely driven by their uncontrollable urge to express themselves. They are practically blind to the idea of audience (or the audience is just themselves). In comparison, someone like Ira Glass of This American Life cares a lot about being heard, so he pays careful attention to artistic techniques and conventions to make his stories more captivating for the audience. (See this video of him explaining his techniques.) As an example, I would guess Glass is probably driven 25% by his urge to say something, and 75% by his urge to be heard. Everyone has a different ratio.

When you are driven by your urge to be heard, you try to figure out the best way to reach people. You don’t want to make them work too heard, so you try to follow certain artistic and cultural conventions that everyone is familiar with and expect. In journalism, for instance, there is a convention called “inverted pyramid” where you put the juiciest part of the story first. The story becomes less interesting as you read, so you could stop reading at any point.

In comparison, if you were mostly driven by your urge to say something, you wouldn’t care much about conventions. The primary objective would be to get it out of your system by writing, painting, or singing. It’s like the people who enjoy running. They are not thinking about any audience. Their urge to run is not driven by their desire to be seen running. Many fine artists struggle to unlearn cultural conventions in order to discover who they truly are. In this sense, conventions can become obstacles for fine artists. The artists like Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger would not worry about the phenomenon known as “writer’s block”. Because they are driven by their uncontrollable compulsion to express themselves, when the compulsion stops, it’s almost like a relief.

Those who are driven by their urge to be heard, on the other hand, panic if they have no urge to write, because their urge to be heard is still intact. In order to be heard by an audience, they need a product. And, if they cannot create this product, their need to be heard (i.e. need for attention) cannot be satisfied. So, “writer’s block” becomes a serious problem.

Personally, I don’t get much urge to say anything visually. This is quite ironic given that I have mastered the means to communicate visually. I have all these skills to visually communicate but the urge to say something visually is lacking. I simply use my skills for other people who need to say something (or need to be heard). This is a pure form of commercial art.

I believe my friend Ian is somewhere in-between. I don’t think he has a dying need to say something, but at the same time, I don’t think he has a dying need to be heard either. His work is often somewhere between “fine” and “commercial” too. His desire to be heard prevents him from discarding artistic conventions, but at the same time, he is not willing to conform to them just for the sake of being heard.

I don’t dismiss social conventions in my writing. I actually want to learn them, and if possible master them, so that I can choose to use them if I need them. But social conventions have a way of influencing your work almost unconsciously. They prevent you from seeing possibilities because you end up using them habitually and unconsciously. At some point in your artistic life, you have to start unlearning them. This process is not easy (especially if you have once mastered them), but if successfully done, something truly unique and personal can emerge from it.

I think this is where Ian’s problem lies. He is drawn to using artistic conventions because they can secure a certain number of audience. He is torn between his desire to say something and to be heard. But ultimately he doesn’t have to choose a permanent spot. He could choose a different ratio for each work. Some people can manage both “fine” and “commercial” art like Andy Warhol did. I would imagine that Picasso could have been a successful creative director at an advertising agency if he had to be one. What creates this difference is the awareness of their own creative processes. They have an objective understanding of what they do, and are able to apply it to different situations. On the other hand, Adolf Wölfli probably had no objective understanding of his own creative process, so all he could do was to create the type of drawings he did. This is why some artists say they cannot do commercial art. I don’t think they are lying or snubbing commercial art.

On the facade, Ian looks like he can manage both, but I don’t think he has the objective understanding of his own creative process yet to choose a different mode of expression. In his case, he just happens to be smack in the middle; so his work can be appreciated as both “fine” and “commercial” art. Ironically, I think he is on the same boat as those artists he criticizes. The only difference is his position. Unless he becomes more aware of his own creative process, he wouldn’t be able to freely move along this spectrum of wanting to say something and wanting to be heard. So, I’ve volunteered to keep prodding him until he starts moving somewhere.