the decorators: artistic purity?

by Art Chantry (

yesterday i wrote an essay about the shep fairey thing. as ususal, there were opinions tossed around all over the place. that subject is ripe for opinions – all of them lame except my own (of course). nothing was conlcuded and a good time was had by all.

---the bottom line for me is that when i get called "an artist" - it's meant to be a high compliment - like that's a superior thing to be. frankly, i've always felt a little insulted when people call me that. what i do is MUCH MUCH more difficult and VERY different than what an mere "artist" does. i have big misgivings about lowering myself to do 'fine' art. just the facts.---AC

but, there was one particularly common but generally unchallenged position taken in the middle of that fallderall that i think i want to address here today. one guy said he just couldn’t get behind fairey because he went over that mysterious crass “commercial” line into whoredome (my words, not his). his moment of departure was that silly ‘joe strummer’ tribute guitar thing he did. i don’t know anything about that guitar, but shep has always been a true entrepreneur (even his street art was always tied in to the “keith harring” model with a store front selling product, etc.) shep has always been about making product and selling it for money – just like a real artist does. but, this one guy echoed a common idea out there – that ‘real’ artists don’t lower themselves to crass commercial stunts and expoitations. it’s “impure”.


well, that’s ridiculous. a list of crass commercial exploitation by the actual “fine” artists themselves would simply be index page of any art history text book. to say otherwise is to blindly repeat a mythology of “purity of essence” that actually only began with the victorian era. anybody who studies art history and reads old criticism from the past can plainly see that. but, we’re all so ignorant of reality in our culture and so beefed up (juiced) on our pop mythology that we are utterly blind and stupid about these things.

the reality is that the ‘fine art’ world is a thousand times more exploitative and commercialized than the careers of any commercial artist you can name. to be a fine artist (especially today) is to exploit your self-created myth with a cold-hearted ruthlessness bordering on mania. i know bazillion ‘fine aritists’ both rich and poor, successful and utterly unseccessful. they all spout the same mythological line about, “art, you do ‘commercial art” therefore you are a whore.” i was accused of prostitution all the way through my college as well (never mind every single artist who called me that later came to me looking for freelance work).

the truth is that commercial art is lowly, put upon and disrespected in the extreme – by everyone (even graphic designers themselves). sure, they talk a great game (salesmanship is EVERYTHING in design.) but, privately, they feel like totally dishonest sellouts. so so silly.

i have never ever met a graphic designer who did what we define as “fine art”. they often try to sell it as such and make a living from it (witness shep fairey’s efforts. or keith herring. or jeff koons for that matter). but, in reality, the dialog is utterly different. it’s like trying to pass off a dentist as a brain surgeon. both can look exactly the same on the surface (white jacket, shiney sterile tools, bedsde manner, both called “dr.”, etc.). but i sure wouldn’t want a dentist doing any surgery on me. nor would i want a brain surgeon working on my TEETH!

and THAT is the rub. artists really suck at graphic design. it’s really laughable. just like most graphic designers really suck at “fine” art. they are completely different mediums and arenas of activity. why there is a war between the two has much more to do with elitism and social status than reality. that and the fact that ‘graphic design” is usually taught in “art departments” as if it were an ‘art’. that’s like teaching anthropology in the english literature department. i once taught classes at a school that had their graphic design department as part of their interior design program (which was part of the sculpture program which was in the architecture department.). talk about confused.

to give just one tiny example of what i’m talking about, look at this image. it’s the famous late pop artist roy lichtenstein working on a commission to “do” a BMW. i imagine he was paid a VERY pretty penny to do this, too. in fact, he likely got paid much more than he was getting for a painting. that’s what advertising art budgets can be like – a LOT of money. so, they hire a famous “fine art” guy to ‘design’ a BMW for them? they were buying celebrity, not art or even design. how is TH

or “whoring out, eh? what? it’s ok if a “real” artist does that?

well, i dunno. take a look at that car. it sucks. nobody who isn’t high on acid would drive that thing down the street. but, i imagine anybody buying it would put it on display in their living room, right? because it’s “ART”. that’s just as confused as that school i talked about earlier. this is not “art”. this is not “design”. this is not “graphic design”. this is what you call “DECORATION”. and that has almost nothing to do with any of the crafts i’ve been talking about here. it rightly belongs in that fabled interior design department, not in the hands of a “fine” artist. they suck at that sort of thing. when fine artist “do” commercial art, they end up doing decoration. that’s their level of understanding of what the dialog (the very language) of design is about. again, it’s like asking a dentist to do brain surgery. all you are doing is asking him to fake it and make it LOOK COOL. period.

i imagine that ol’d dead roy here would have no problem putting stickers on a limited edition ‘joe strummer’ guitar and claiming “artistic purity”. no problem at all.

AC:the term ‘graphic designer’ came into popular use int he the 1960’s in a big way – about the time it began to be sold in college level classrooms as something separate to study (and make a buck with). prior to that, “commercial art” was sold out of correspondence schools in the back of magazines. there are books i have that are called “graphic design” that are as old as 1938. but this example was not the norm at all. in fact, there were dozens of terms that were being created to refer to this medium (especially since WW2.) my favorite for sheer clunk was the paul rand idea: he wanted to call this field “art for industry”. talk about a sell-out!…

…what do i think about sagmeister? i think he’s an absolutely charming man. i’ve hung out with him a couple of times and he was really great and cool guy. funny, too. his ‘design’ work? i think he’s a one-trick pony that needs to find something new to do for a while. just sayin’…

…the thing elitists (and non-designers) don’t realize about warhol is that he was a designer/illustrator/art director for over 10 years before he ever put brush to canvas (or silkscreen). what warhol did was sit down and decide to become a “fine” artist. then he designed a course of action and art directed himself and his illustrations into the ‘fine’ art medium and exploited the market ruthlessly. he’s maybe the finest and most shining example of a graphic designer faking it at ‘fine’ art and turning the world upside down. it was a snide snarky joke that all of us ate with a fork and spoon and smiled a big shit-eating grin as well.. he’d be the first to admit it,too….

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