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The Artful Collector
Strange New Worlds  Issue 13 - April/May 1994

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 Webster’s, 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.

Webster’s has three definitions associated with ‘advertising’ and six for art. My American Heritage dictionary lists ten. Webster’s 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 Heritage’s 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. Warhol’s 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 it’s 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, 12/92).

When I read stuff like that, I know I’m in deep trouble.

Okay, so ads are not works of art in the same way as a Rembrandt. Do they have to be? Aren’t we glad that they aren’t 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 they’ve 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, there’s 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 book’s 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 to decide?

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 weren’t flattering to the images or homes of those rich men, they quickly found their commissions drying up — so do those for today’s 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 abilities.

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 Morrissey’s ‘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 it’s 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. Wyeth’s 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 doesn’t 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 art.’

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 serious art.

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 can’t 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. Today’s 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 don’t 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

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Articles by Jane Frank written for Strange New Worlds:

bulletHow to be a Sucker - why you paid too much, and how to avoid doing it again
bulletNegotiating the Rocky Waters of Collecting - learn how to bargain for price with dealers
bulletPossession Obsession - The Case Against Hoarding - are you building a collection or just a pack rat?
bulletTake the Diagnostic Test: Are You a Pack Rat?
bulletIs It Advertising or Is it Art? - You know what you like, but do you know what to call it? N.C. Wyeth and Rockwell were once scorned as "commercial" illustrators, but now their art is highly collectible.
bulletCollectibles as Gifts - the do's and dont's of giving collectibles
bulletHow to display your science fiction collectibles

Fantasy and Science Fiction Art Books by Jane Frank:
bulletThe Frank CollectionA legendary SF&F art collection, containing the largest assortment of fantastic art in the world — includes the most celebrated names in the field: Earl Bergey, John Berkey, Chesley Bonestell, Margaret Brundage, Frank Frazetta, H.R. Giger, Frank R. Paul, J.K. Potter, Boris Vallejo, and many others. 112 pages (all in color). Hardcover.
bulletThe 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 color)
bulletGreat Fantasy Art Themes from the Frank Collect 128 pages (all in color), hardcover. Available in May, 2003. Order now and save.



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