Updated: Apr 23, 2022
Visit any home furnishings store, health care facility, or hotel and you’ll get a good idea of the current state of commercial art. By and large, most of the visual art you’ll see are reproductions: photographs, prints, and facsimiles. As theorist Walter Benjamin has famously said, “To an ever-increasing degree, the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility.” Figurative works, portraits, and religious subjects – mainstays of commercial works in centuries past – are largely overlooked in favor of landscapes, floral motifs, and colorful abstracts. Gone is any universal meaning transcending the core commercial value of the artwork.
For centuries, the work and value of art was closely tied to the acts of ritual and worship. Goddess figurines created for fertility rites, carved statuary ensuring safety and comfort in the afterlife, figurative paintings of saints and martyrs illustrating Biblical episodes to a largely illiterate population. Though commercial in nature, these religious works held a cult value outside of any commercial value and their contemporary artistic function was often secondary. Whether commissioned or not, however, the central themes explored in these pre-Industrial works remained constant: spirituality, death, the afterlife, existentialism, duality of the soul, romantic love, sin, redemption, and transcendence.
Cultural shifts, concerns over appeal, marketability and reproducibility have somewhat obliterated outright reference to or exploration of the human condition in commercial artwork. Social commentary and personal expression have been abandoned in favor of style, color scheme, and non-confrontational subject matter. The images adorning hotel rooms, retail locations, restaurants, government buildings, and public spaces have been carefully selected to fit a particular intent, budget, space, and color scheme. As a result, modern society experiences most artwork in a way that has been engineered by designers and brand managers to be universally pleasing and utterly non-confrontational.
Change is necessary if visual art is to regain its place in the hierarchy of creative expression. Commercial artists such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and even John Singer Sergeant were able to satisfy their patrons’ requirements while still conveying a higher expression of the soul. These works have projected far beyond their original purpose due in part to their secondary layers of commentary, representation, symbolism and even subversion. Today’s commercial artists are capable of creating the same effect. Art has the ability to remain within the guidelines set forth by the commercial industry while still communicating some higher truth. It is at the intersection of aesthetic beauty and information that art becomes most valuable to society at large.