Art and Commerce

At first glance it would seem like the creative freedom of the arts and the profit-driven focus of business and commerce are worlds apart; however, both industries are dependent on each other despite their stark differences and not always seeing eye-to-eye. The complicated relationship between art and commerce dates back over several centuries. Art critic John Berger made the link in relation to established greats including Gainsborough, who painted aspects of the slave trade and its connections with financial wealth. Patronage of the arts became popular among the wealthy in Renaissance Italy with collectors such as the Medici family.

At the start of the 20th century, composer John Philip Sousa, known as the March King, made headlines when he spoke out against a new invention — the gramophone. He told a congressional committee on copyright reform in 1906: "These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country." Sousa argued as the player piano and the phonograph grew in popularity, people would lose the ability to learn and play songs for themselves. He warned the vocal chords would become a vestigial organ "eliminated by a process of evolution."

The struggle between art and commerce was highlighted in the field of visual arts as far back as Andy Warhol's designs for perfume houses in the 1950s. This further expanded in the 1990s, with conceptualism in contemporary art — blurring media, punning on forms, and the influence of growing up in an increasingly consumer society — enabled a whole new aesthetic of photography-based practice, which brought fresh ideas to fashion shoots. This could be seen in the works of artist-photographer such as Rineke Dijkstra, whose video portraits of clubbers in Liverpool and Amsterdam expressed the reality of street fashions more than almost any magazine shoot. Similarly, Nan Goldin's portraits of transvestites and transsexuals in Boston, New York and Bangkok more or less defined a new school of volatile yet glamorous urban realism.

The battle of art and commerce could be seen in conductor Leon Fleisher's angry 1997 letter announcing his departure as artistic director of the Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's prestigious summer academy for advanced musical training. He denounced the center's dependence on commercialism, claiming it should not be made susceptible to market forces. Another critic who heavily opposed the joining of art and commerce is Norman Lebrecht. In his book Who Killed Classical Music? Maestros, Managers and Corporate Politics he stated there was a "clutch of stars and agents who are making a quick killing at the deathbed of their art."

But according to Lawrence Lessig's book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Sousa's rally against the gramophone and the problems faced in the 21st century are at opposite ends of a single technological arc. Today the two cultures are again in flux. According to Lessig, after a century of ‘read-only' dominance, that creative culture Sousa saw being killed off is making a comeback through the interactivity of networked digital technologies.

Although there have been many struggles between the uniting of art and commerce, there are artists who openly embrace both areas in their work. In film, this can be seen at the yearly independent Sundance Film Festival, which favours the promotion of low budget, creative work over blockbuster movies. The dilemma of ‘selling out' versus preserving one's artistic integrity is an age old debate among artists of any medium. Stefan Kanfer explored this theme in his book Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story. He explained how animation enjoyed an artistic and cultural renaissance in the 1990s, which continued with the advent of digital animation. However, pioneering animator Winsor McCay argues: "Animation should be an art. That is how I conceived it. But as I see what you fellows have done with it, making it into a trade…"

Photographer Herb Ritts, responsible for many of fashion designer Calvin Klein's advertisements, was credited with mastering the late-20th century conflict between art and commerce by blurring boundaries between the two. Ritts was not concerned with whether it was art or commerce that made his name — the photos didn't have to be high art, nor were they entirely dismissed as advertising. British artist and 2001 Turner Prize-winner Martin Creed followed suit in 2008 by also collaborating with Klein and conceiving the concept of working looks from his various fashion labels within his installations.

Art and Commerce: Selected full-text books and articles

Taking Aim! The Business of Being an Artist Today By Marysol Nieves Fordham University Press, 2011
The Glory of Van Gogh: An Anthropology of Admiration By Nathalie Heinich Princeton University Press, 1996
Librarian's tip: Chap. Five "Money as a Medium of Atonement: Purchasing and Redeeming"
On the Margins of Art Worlds By Larry Gross Westview Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Artists Entering the Marketplace: Pricing New Art"
Auctions Law and Practice By Brian W. Harvey; Franklin Meisel Oxford University, 1995 (2nd edition)
In Praise of Commercial Culture By Tyler Cowen Harvard University Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Arts in a Market Economy" and Chap. 3 "The Wealthy City as a Center for Western Art"
The Economics of Art and Culture By James Heilbrun; Charles M. Gray Cambridge University Press, 2001 (2nd edition)
The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany By Jonathan Petropoulos Oxford University Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Art Dealers"
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