Commercial vs. Fine Art

Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.
Guylain Doyle / Getty Images

Although all art is an expression of creativity, emotion, and imagination, there is a distinct difference when it comes to commercial art and fine art. Commercial art includes advertising, graphic design, branding, logos and book illustrations. Fine art includes paintings, sculptures, printmaking, photography, installation, multi-media, sound art, and performance.

Commercial Art vs. Fine Art

Commercial art, which is rarely showcased in a public setting outside of the context in which it was intended, is typically created specifically to sell something and it is used in everything from advertisements to packaging.

Conversely, while some fine art is available to be purchased, the artistic displays aren’t typically created or intended to inspire viewers to buy anything or take any sort of action. The primary purpose of fine art is usually for artists to share their artistic impressions and expressions that can subsequently be observed, interpreted, and admired by others.

Fine art is often respected and critically acclaimed, whereas commercial art might be appreciated and acknowledged, but it's not likely to hang in the Louvre. Commercial art tends to utilize acquired skill, whereas fine art requires inborn talent.

A Historical Perspective

The difference between commercial art and fine art was pretty clear up until the mid-20th century. Commercial art included television and print advertisement campaigns, as well as mass-produced images. Fine art consisted of one-of-a-kind unique objects such as paintings, sculptures and works on paper that were exhibited in galleries and museums.

Then the art movement known as pop art subverted and merged those diverse aims in the 1960s. Pop artists such as Andy Warhol mass-produced images using the tools of a commercial artist. Warhol's silkscreened Brillo Boxes is a memorable example of how commercial art merged with fine art.

Andy Warhol and the Art of Brillo Boxes

Philosopher Arthur Danto explained why Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes is art while the supermarket's Brillo boxes are not. Although the two boxes look identical, Danto wrote, ''Given two things that resemble one another to any chosen degree, but one of them a work of art and the other an ordinary object, what accounts for this difference in status?''

Danto realized that art such as Warhol's Brillo Boxes was much more than just an object to be visually perceived. It needed a system to define it as art. ''It is the role of artistic theories, these days, as always, to make the art world, and art, possible," he wrote in his famous essay, "The Artworld." In other words, it is the art system of galleriescurators, art critics and artists that help define what is fine art and helps differentiate it from commercial art.

Crossover Examples

Artists often use commercial techniques in today's contemporary art scene. A prime example is video artist Pipilotti Rist, whose videos resemble music videos. Her work is nonetheless exhibited in art galleries and museums.

Likewise, commercial artists sometimes incorporate elements of fine art into their advertising campaigns or packaging. Advertisements for Kitchen Aid, for instance, have paid homage to the works of a variety of artists from Salvador Dali to Henry Matisse.

Even though today's art world combines elements of both commercial and fine art, art schools still maintain a division between the two. Students must choose between majoring in fine arts or commercial graphic arts when pursuing degrees.