2nd Anniversary issue
Is It Advertising or Is it Art?
Japanese monster models
Godzilla Movies list
A Fan by Any Other Name
TV Science Fiction for Kids
Science Fiction Book Reviews
Ye Olde Collectibles
The Artful Collector
Strange New Worlds Issue 13 -
Is it Advertising, or Is it Art?
by Jane Frank
Director of Worlds of Wonder
Gallery, Washington DC
Advertising or Art? The question is a juicy one. Many collectors of
illustration and cover art think the question is irrelevant and unfair. But since this
topic keeps floating to the top of question piles in science fiction collecting circles,
someone must think it is important. The first step to the serious answer is to re-frame
the question. The question, as asked, presumes that we know what art is, and what
advertising is. But do we?
When an identified sponsor pays for a public and non-personal
presentation of ideas, goods, and services in order to attract public attention or
patronage, we call it advertising (Evans and Berman, 1987). Or, "Advertising is a
public notice designed to spread information with a view to promoting the sales of
marketable good and services" (Harris and Seldon, 1962). Unless you are in the
company of overzealous marketing gurus, no-one is likely to quibble with either
definition. Pick any one, even Websters, and it will do for the purposes of polite
conversation. Just try that tactic with Art and see where it gets you!
I do not know what art is. I just know what I like to look at. But
troops of art historians, museum gallery curators, art critics, arts administrators, and
fund-raisers stand ready to tell you what art is.
Lawyers, normally disposed to tell us how things should be, shy away
from this question. "The law," a lawyer recently confessed, "is not
supposed to be an arbiter of what is art." However, laws do define trademark and
copyright. The laws associated with copyright are tricky. They hinge on whether or not
something is copyrightable. To that end, one speaks of the useful arts as being
non-copyrightable. Copyright rests on the physical separation of the concept from the
utilization of the work.
Websters has three definitions associated with
advertising and six for art. My American Heritage dictionary lists ten.
Websters fourth definition sheds some light: "the conscious use of skill and
creative imagination esp. in the production of aesthetic objects; also: works so
produced." American Heritages second definition is somewhat more descriptive:
"The conscious production or arrangements of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or
other elements in a manner that effects the sense of beauty; specifically the production
of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium."
Ah, if only we could agree on what is beautiful!
I know what I like. To art historians, curators, art critics,
administrators, and fund raisers bent on telling me what is good art, my love of science
fiction and fantasy illustration is just one small tip-toe away from a passion for
paintings of Elvis on velvet. (Please forgive me, lovers of Elvis and / or velvet.)
Most critics justify their existence by distinguishing their tastes
from those of the mass audience from which they sprang. Popular audiences hate
abstract this and neo that. To most of us, Insider Art
and all those other quirky contemporary art trends smack of absurdity and pomposity.
Warhols soup cans and gigantic images of Marilyn were amusing at first. But when
critics who tramp the Madison Avenue gallery circuit took this colossal joke seriously,
sensible folk could only watch and wonder. When artist Christo decided to erect 200
umbrellas across the breadth of Japan, his art performance attracted
reviewers attention in every glossy art magazine of substance. It made the daily
news only when a couple people got bonked to death when an umbrella flew off the ground on
a windy day.
Ask the ordinary man or woman in the street and they will tell you that
they are confused by what museums deign to proclaim contemporary fine art. Take Minimalist
art (please): many think its a fraud, a joke; an imposture that is insulting to the
intellect and maintained for the necessity of giving serious art critics a job. It is also
boring to look at.
But not to supporters of serious art. To them, "art
deals with the soft, suffering thing that is life, and it uses the most compassion that
humanity is capable of to deal with it. Art has pain in it, and greatness, and is created
by serious people. Advertising is as different from art as a three-part joke is different
from a novel." (Kim Havelock, from a short article in The Fine Art File, p. 8,
When I read stuff like that, I know Im in deep trouble.
Okay, so ads are not works of art in the same way as a Rembrandt. Do
they have to be? Arent we glad that they arent works of art the way a vista of
nails pounded into a wooden floor in multiple furrows are, or a room full of growing
grass? [Both were displayed as fine art thanks to the Dia Foundation]?
Another quote from the Havelock article "Ads are not works of art
in the same way that first rate forgeries are not works of art." What a daffy
thought! Reading critics of illustrative art, I know that something is wrong with
definitions based on concepts like beauty. Critics admit, sometimes
reluctantly, that some illustration can look suspiciously like art. And that some art can
have masqueraded as advertising, at one time, without detracting from its real nature.
Well, well. I guess theyve been looking at the work of Golden Age illustrators,
artists like N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish, famous for their advertisements. On the fine
art side, theres John Scully and Andy Warhol. Famous for their banal take-offs on
common objects and faces. Fine. But why then have to muddy the confession with comments on
the order of "the more an advertisement resembles a work of art, the less of an
advertisement it is"? Who says?
Publishers marketing departments and their art directors choose
book cover art to sell books. Next to the author, the most important marketing tool is the
books cover. The more successful the publication in terms of sales, the better the
illustration or advertisement had to be. It is what it is. It is art commissioned
to sell something. So what? What does purpose have to do with aesthetic force
and creative value?
Who Gets to Say So?
Is it art simply because the artist says so? Or does the audience get
Advertising creative directors and savvy commercial artists are
relatively clear about their mission. They work for the same reason as the Great
Artists did . . . for the money. Great Artists worked for rich men; so do
people in advertising. Great Artists lived on their commissions; so do illustrators. If
the works of Great Artists werent flattering to the images or homes of those rich
men, they quickly found their commissions drying up so do those for todays
illustrators. The creativity that goes into a great book illustration is no less than what
went into a great painting. Illustration takes a range of talents, of specialized
Some critics lodge the complaint that illustration is a 30-second
canvas, seen for the nonce and then ignored. However, the work of illustrators is seen by
more people than ever visit a museum or art gallery.
What appeals to me about art, especially visual art, is the hope that I
will be able to appreciate the new, experience the world anew, grasp and tolerate
differences, in a way that only artists can show me. My soul and mind crave this. I can
never get enough.
But then I read the following review of an exhibition of fantasy and science fiction
art: "In Dean Morrisseys The Sandman, a bearded old fellow takes
off in a brightly painted half-airship / half-sea ship, rising from a land of castles and
windmills. The picture is painted with great technical skill, and on a certain level
its fun. But is it serious art?" [John Dorsey, art critic The Baltimore
Sun 6/18/92] Pardon me? What is serious art? Does it have anything to do
with what I like to look at?
A Bit of Advertising Art History
During the previous century, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec did advertising
posters that critics now consider serious art. A bit later, N.C. Wyeth created paintings
used as covers for books such as King Arthur and Treasure Island.
Wyeths works are now considered serious art. Today comics are not considered art
unless Roy Lichtenstein is poking fun at them in giant canvases. Powerful interpreters of
our collective psyche, such as Norman Rockwell, remain relegated to the fringes of
Americana, party because of the commercial applications of his images.
Is art only defined as that which the general public doesnt like
or understand? Must commercial use be at odds with serious art? Do you have to be dead
before your art is taken seriously?
Some people claim that the Sistine Chapel is an advertisement. The
difference between decorative and fine art is a fine line. Often such arts are defined by
their function. In this way, we speak of the craftsmanship of a painting whose
intent is illustration, versus the technique of the artist who creates fine
Over the past few decades the lines between fine and decorative art
have blurred. Critics, ever on the lookout for opportunities to disparage low art, lead
the vanguard of those anxious to draw firmer lines in the sand. They almost universally
denigrate the commercial, while the banality of Warhol and Lichtenstein is championed as
Is it fair to claim that commercial art and merchandise, like ashtrays
and lamps, are superficial in feeling? Are they shallow in sentiment, without the depth
that can stir feeling or provide meaningful experience? Is it fair to denigrate
advertising gimmicks such as The Nightmare before Christmas watches, Aladdin
cookie jars, or Dr. Who lunch boxes because they are collectibles? Must art be
"endlessly rewarding . . . like a relationship of love?" (Havelock, again.) Why
cant art just be visually entertaining? Vintage animation art falls in that category
and sells for thousands.
Marketing and media can change the view of fashionable aesthetics for
fine arts. Our perceptions of what is fine, serious, and worthy is often the result of
what history books and curators over the years have touted as great art, not what we
actually choose to hang on our walls or place on our mantels.
Fine artists are drawn to the challenge of meeting popular demand.
Todays cold cast statues and character dolls meet the popular demand for items that
are visually appealing without the emotional baggage of Fine Art. Take a look at our
homes. Starship Enterprise models sit alongside family photographs, occupying
places of honor; ceramic poodles and Mickey Mouse toys grace our mantels and pianos; and
glass/pewter/stone fantasy objects of uncertain vintage and questionable artistic value
decorate our cocktail tables.
Will the Real Art Please Stand Up?
Often, it is simply a matter of labeling. Call it comic art, and you've
labeled it low art (vs. high art); call it underground
art and suddenly you win admirers. Call your porcelain figurines kitsch
or call them collectible and take pleasure in gathering dozens.
To some people, collectibles are those things sold by exhibitors at
trade shows like The International Collectibles Expo. In these shows you see for sale a
large range of items, in major categories like: figurines, plates, cottages / houses,
dolls, prints, and ornaments. There are relatively few major publishers and manufacturers
of such collectibles. These companies are largely responsible for the creation,
production, and control of the collectibles market: Danbury Mint, Enesco, Franklin Mint,
Liliput Lane, David Winter, Hummel, Annalee, Lladro, Chilmark, Greenwich Workshop,
and others. Some manufacture collectibles which cross over into the science fiction and
fantasy genre where they meet up with companies such as TSR, Ral Partha, Dark Horse,
Grafiti, and Marvel.
Often these companies produce series of items on a theme and by a
particular house artist. This practice naturally encourages collectors to keep up by
buying all the collectibles in a product line. Heavy advertising and distribution of the
products, including guest appearances and signings by the artist, and special items
available only to members of the collecting club, contribute to the collectors
desire to complete their set. Sales are normally accomplished through franchised dealers
or galleries or via mail. Collectors are urged to make their collecting automatic
as soon as the next plate, print, or doll in the series comes out, they are automatically
on the list to buy it.
Bear in mind that every time the theme is Indiana JonesTM or Star WarsTM
you are buying a licensed produced (i.e., an advertisement). Is this any different from
buying a set of four paintings by the same artist, a series of books by the same author,
or series of paintings by different artists each featuring Conan or John Carter of Mars?
As a collector of art, I've done both.
Commercially produced objects that one buys in the local mall, even
though they provide a great deal of pleasure, may or may not ultimately by
collectibles. Paintings, velvet Elvises included, do not come with tags that
say "buy me . . . I am going to be worth a lot of money to you, some day." Bear
this in mind whether or not the creator has called it art, or the manufacturer
calls it collectible.
After all is said and done, the value of art, just like its definition,
is a matter of cultural acceptance and behavior. Expert opinion may not accept my
judgment, but then I dont buy - or indeed sell - illustrative art for investment
value. I buy and sell it because I find it beautiful, intellectually stimulating,
esthetically pleasing, and fun to be around. If you can afford this kind of entertainment,
I heartily recommend it. l
Articles by Jane Frank written for Strange New Worlds:
Fantasy and Science Fiction Art Books by Jane Frank:
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others. 112 pages (all in color). Hardcover.|
Art of Richard Powers "I think
Richard Powers was one of the most original artists to enter the science fiction field,
which he shook up considerably ... I am happy to see this collection of Richard Powers's
outstanding work." Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Hardcover, 128 pages (all in
Fantasy Art Themes from the Frank Collect 128 pages (all in color),
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