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What is the difference between fine and commercial art?

It has to do with motivation and function. It also has to do with objectivity and subjectivity. 

First of all, fine art works originate from the artist. That is the artist has an idea and tries to bring an idea to fruition. The artist is communicating something internal. This doesn’t have to be emotion but it could be views and ideas. The viewer is important but really fine art can be made without the input and gaze of the viewer. Of course, the artist does want to have their works viewed but the function is to communicate something the fine artist wants to communicate. 

Unless, the viewer does a lot of research and has knowledge about the art being viewed, fine art is viewed in a subjective way. Each person will have a different reaction and idea of what a work is about. The communication doesn’t have to be clear and conscise. The artist may choose to obfuscate. The artist doesn’t want to be too clear because the artist doesn’t want to give away meaning too readily. Art too clear could be seen as boring. Art can be a puzzle of sorts and that can engage the viewer. However, if it is too difficult it is possible to lose the viewer due to frustration.

Commercial art (and I am going to focus on graphic design really) is a bit different. The motive is to clearly communicate something and that something is dictated by the client, not the artist. Anytime something needs to be communicated, be it a product or identity, graphics need to be used. This can be in the form of text and images. The graphics don’t have to be in print but over the internet or video. Graphic design has a function that is integral to society and commerce. Commercial art is everywhere. 

Because of the need for clarity in commercial art, objectivity is needed. A designer doesn’t want its work interpreted in many ways. Some designs need to be read immediately (signs). There is no time for admiring and trying to figure out meaning. If one needs to do that when looking at a sign, then it is not functioning properly.

This is not to say that one type of art is more creative or less significant. There are serious differences and parameters that need to be taken into account. Creativity comes out of limitations. In fine art, the artist sets those limits and in commercial art, someone other than the artist sets the limits. 

I don’t want to say that a commercial artist can not crossover to the ranks of fine art. There are some designers who do get shown along the likes of fine artists. There are designers that use fine art techniques. Also, many designers do get plenty of ideas from the world of fine art. That being said some artist use tools and techniques that are related to graphic design. Printmakers tend to use techniques that were used by designers and printers from the past and present (lithography, engraving, screen printing, computers/printers). So the two camps can and do overlap.

Another difference I can see between commercial and fine art are exclusivity. Graphic design is everywhere and is ubiquitous in our culture. It is viewed on the streets, on our cloths, signs, cars, products we buy, etc. Fine art is not be viewed by everyone. It is usually in an exclusive place (a home, office, museum, gallery). Again, there are always exceptions though. I am sure you can think of some.

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