Commercial art=Bad art debate

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Commercial art=Bad art debate

From Mary Eaton

Published before 2005



NOTE: All the letters regarding this subject have been brought together into one article, and lavishly illustrated. Click HERE to read Illustration is to fine art as poetry is to prayer.



Hi everybody.

Have been following the "Commercial art = Bad art" thread for a couple of days and wanted to throw in my two cents.

On the topic of commercial illustration=bad art and Rockwell, Parrish, and N. C. Wyeth, et al. be damned: I can't say I agree. If one has to say that the damning detail of the art was the fact that Rockwell had to accept guidelines as to what he was to paint (i.e. paint Santa having milk and cookies for our December issue of The Saturday Evening Post)so then his art isn't art, but crass commercialism posing as art, I'd have to say:

Um, how is that different from Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel as per the Pope's orders? Or any religious painting/altar piece commissioned by the Church? Or any number of portraits commissioned by the sitters? Why is Velázquez' painting of Pope Innocent X (IIRC) fine or high art and Maxfield Parrish's Ecstasy not? Or that famous painting by N. C. Wyeth of Robin Hood (with his men) coming out of the underbrush of Sherwood Forest, with Robin in the lead wearing a pensive expression on his face (sorry can't recall the title, mea culpa) -- how is that less fine art than Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott? Both illustrate a literary moment. That Wyeth produced that painting to be an illustration for a book doesn't debase it in my eyes any more than finding Lady of Shalott reproduced on a canvas tote bag. Is it merely that one artist's work was produced on canvas to be hung on the museum or salon wall as opposed to being done on canvas to be mass-reproduced by the publishing industry the point on which this argument is being made, here??

All these artists made their paintings/artwork for money -- they made them and expected to be paid for them. That is how they earned their living. To denigrate one group because the fruits of their labors were reproduced as product labels, calendars, advertising one-sheets, or magazine covers as opposed to museum and salon pieces is stupid, really. Not all commerical artists and illustrators were on the level of sheer beauty and mastery of the medium as Parrish or Wyeth, Pyle or Beardsley. There were, and still are, lots of drekky kludge being marketed as advertising and illustration and fine art. But a gem is a gem, whether set in precious metal or mud. Drekky kludge was made in Leighton's day, as well as Parrish's, as well as our own.

Do you think that the poster of this argument simply bought the Modern Art argument that commercialism is just "bad", that good art must be made without thought of material gain, that the artist is virtuous if he or she did not "sell out" to the "Establishment" for "money"? Well, hell. How is an artist gonna pay the rent, much less buy more paint if he or she doesn't "sell"? There's a theme here ... In the 19th c., there were highly paid and sought after engravers -- Gustav Doré, for example -- who were adored by the public and paid well for their efforts. Well, how is that different from Alma-Tadema's work or Leighton's work being reproduced in half-tone or engraving in the periodicals of their hey-day? Or, get this, of either of those artists making copies of their popular works in oil on canvas for other clients? Bougeureau did this. Leonardo da Vinci did his Madonna of the Rocks at least twice, that I know of. Yet no one is bashing him. Why? Is it mass production of copies/images of the works the no-no, then? No one seems to be disputing their merit today, amongst the goodart group.

Yet, how is it that the illustrators of the "Golden Age", a period spanning a decade prior to 1900, IIRC, to about the 1920s/early 30s (Parrish's heyday) are disparaged? I see the whole "Golden Age of Illustration" to be the refugee camp for fine artists of the Old School, artists who managed to make a fine living practicing the skills and turning out the product that they'd trained long and hard for which galleries and salons were no longer willing to accept into their hallowed halls -- having had their collective heads turned by the modernist crap as the "Next Big Thing." And that's just the "Golden Age" greats I'm talking about here, BTW. I haven't gone on to name any number of really great cover artists seen gracing the covers of books at the local bookstore -- much less discussing artists in any single genre of books in said bookstore. (Not to mention the fact that cover art is becoming less a painted piece of work and more a matter of digital sampling cobbled together into a .... but I digress.)

Instead of bashing advertising and commerical efforts as a degrading influence on these illustrator "Greats", don't you think that we should be thankful that the businesses in question gave these artists an outlet, a venue for their talent? What about all of Diego Rivera's murals for the great American industrialists in the 30s? Wasn't he commissioned by Edsel Ford to do a series of murals that came to be called the Detroit Series? What about those?

If it's not patronage by industrialists from being great artists, is it the fact that these artists worked for the print media that disqualify these illustrators their place in the sun of our good regard? If so, why? Given the mass production of the medium( magazines, free calendars, etc.) many many more people were exposed to art well done, than could ever hope to afford a trip to a museum. Especially in Parrish's case, as a good portion of his life's work was done during the Depression years. That should count for something, shouldn't it?

In fact, there was one period when he would unveil a painting every so often in the store window of his client -- I can't recall now if it was a department store chain or a drugstore -- in New York/major Northern metropolis, and people from all walks of life would line up for blocks to see it. Men, women and children. All ages. All weathers. It was often the bright point in their week, month, life. How could something that gave such joy and contentment to so many be denigrated as "crass commercialism/bad art"? Furthermore, when his work, Sunrise, was displayed, the lines broke all records. There was vast hue and cry some years later when it was reported lost and missing, suspected stolen. It finally turned up in the 70s, at an auction house, IIRC. In case you're interested, the info here on Parrish came from a recently published book (c. 2001 or so), written by a woman who worked with one of the big auction houses up north, and was closely tied to the Parrish family. Dang, I should have bought it. I could then better phrase my argument.

Anyway, that's the best I can put this, given the lateness of the hour and some throat-clearing from my spouse to turn the darn thing off and turn out the lights ....

Maer