Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Essay / Fine art vs Graphic design


Could it be argued that fine art ought to be assigned more 'value' than graphic design? Fine art and graphic design are two innovative art subjects, which traditionally compete with each other in the world of art. On one side of the spectrum is fine art, a specialist subject where an artist obtains art forms first and foremost for aesthetic reasons rather than real-world application. Fine art is an exceptionally popular art form, which includes painting, photography, dance and architecture. Graphic design is just as widely known, and is in fact the most universal of all the arts as it is all around us, identifying, explaining, decorating or serving a purpose. Those who are involved in either field are well ware of their importance. Although both types belong to the same industry, there is a long-running argument between their respective supporters. Both groups claim that their field is more worthwhile than the other. Must fine art or graphic design be assigned more 'value'? How do we decide what 'value' is?

‘’1n 1961 an Italian artist named Piero Manzonu placed his own excrement in 90 small cans, which he then sealed. He calculated the value of the cans in accordance with the market value of gold at the time. Today, his creation is described as conceptual art, and the cans are in museums, galleries and private collection around the world. If a can of human shit can be called art, we shouldn’t have too much trouble defining graphic design as art. If only it were that easy.’’ (Shaughnessy, 2009, page 21)

The concept of 'value'

In order to establish whether one field is more 'valuable' than the other, we must consider the attitudes which have helped to shape our understanding of fine art and graphic design. As mentioned in the introduction, it is possible to view both of these types of art in a simplistic way – fine art is conceptual and intellectual, graphic design is 'hands-on' and constructive. There is much more to it than that, as I will go on to demonstrate later in the essay, but for now this generalization serves our purpose.

The debate of 'intellectual' versus 'useful' is not confined to the differences and disagreements between fine art and graphic design. It can be seen as part of a wider discussion. For example, society tends to draw a dividing line between those who study a humanities subject at university – such as art or history – and those who study a 'useful' subject like engineering or business studies.

One school of thought claims that graduates who studied a 'practical' subject will be of more value to society – somebody who has learned how to design a building will contribute more to the economy than a conceptual artist who can draw pretty pictures. This theory is often found in the media when a journalist uses examples of 'worthless' degrees to illustrate their point.

On the other hand, there are many people who support the counter-argument to this. They say that if somebody wants to invest a great deal of time and money in studying at university, then that person should be free to do whatever they want to. If somebody wants to read Harry Potter Studies at Durham University, then that is entirely up to them. After all, they may never have the time and freedom in later life to do so.

It is possible, of course, to find examples of this conflict of opinion outside the academic world. The debate exists in wider society too. It seems to me that this argument exists simply because of the class system. It is easy to draw a line between a 'useful' worker such as a builder and an 'intellectual' administrator who sits in an office dealing with paperwork. The builder can be classed as 'constructive' while the administrator could be classed as a 'pen-pusher.' Yet both would argue that they are a necessary part of society.

I would argue that both the 'practical' and 'intellectual' areas of society are important in their own way, and I will be using sources to show how graphic design and fine art both have a role to play in the world of art. Whether one is more 'valuable' than the other remains to be seen.

Fine art versus graphic design – culture versus commerce?

As we have already seen, attempting to discuss the question of fine art versus graphic design leads to simplistic stereotypes. It can encourage us to believe that we have to accept the alleged differences between the two subjects rather than considering the similarities between the two. In addition, we must also be careful to remember that the debate is not necessarily a question of 'black-and-white' – there could be shades of grey. Barnard (2005: 164) illustrates this point when he states that 'graphic design and art are different from each other, but not in the ways that they are popularly or commonly thought to be.'

We begin with a well-established view – namely that fine art is essentially about creativity and freedom of expression while graphic design is a commercialized, profit-driven industry, which cannot be considered 'art' in the pure sense of the word. Walker (Barnard, 2005: 164) suggests that fine art is 'regarded as highly experimental and risky area of work where the emphasis is on creativity and self-fulfillment.' This view supports the idea that art is produced for its own sake, in order to express the emotions and opinions of the artist. In contrast, Baxandall has argued that artists are not as independently minded as is often claimed. He produces evidence to show that artists, like graphic designers, have been known to sign contracts and produce work according to a customer's specifications. This suggests that art can be commercial;

'Baxandall reproduces contracts agreed between these 'artists' and their clients in which the 'artist' has very little scope for imagination or free expression. One such contract, between Domenico Ghirlandaio and Father Bernardo regarding the Adoration of the Magi in Florence, demands that Ghirlandaio submit 'in every particular according to what I, Fra Bernardo, think best'' (Barnard, 2005: 164).

If we are to consider the claim that fine art is about expression and graphic design is about commerce, we need to study specific examples of the two forms. An example of fine art would be da Vinci's Mona Lisa, one of the most famous artworks in the world. Is it valuable only for aesthetic reasons? Or is it also a tourist attraction, which is worth a great deal of money? According to Wikipedia;

'About 6 million people view the painting at the Louvre each year... As an expensive painting, it has only been surpassed in terms of price by three other paintings: the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, which was sold for $135 million, the Woman III by William de Kooning sold for $138 million in November 2006, and No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock sold for a record $140 million in November 2006.”

Valuable though the Mona Lisa is, it would be easy to argue that road signs – which are an example of graphic design – have done more to help society than a painting. A road sign which tells drivers on a motorway that 'Tiredness can kill – take a break' has probably prevented accidents and saved lives. It wasn't designed for commercial purposes, but to make people safer. Paintings and road signs are both valuable, but in different ways.


I believe that it is naïve to suggest that art exists purely for its own sake. We have been taught to believe that fine art is abstract and pure while graphic design is a commercial field, which cannot be considered 'artistic.' Yet there are very few professional artists who do it for fun rather than money. Painting abstract pictures might be creative and expressive, but it doesn't put food on the table unless the artist is willing to sell their work. 

The author Matthew Arnold may have been speaking seriously when he stated that high culture – which includes fine art – was
'the best that has been said and thought in the world'. I feel that there is more to be said for Clement Greenberg's claim that 'no culture can develop...without a source of income.” (Barnard, 2005: 165)

 As Barnard (2005: 165) says; 'there is some point at which the 'artist's' freedom and expressivity is inevitably compromised by economics: what is produced has, eventually, to be marketable in order for the artist to be able to live.'

I enclose my essay by stating I believe graphic design and fine art both deserve to have an equal value, as for me both are aesthetically pleasing to my retina. The qualities of which differentiate the one from the other are in my opinion more common in both. There is no art division there is only art politics.


Barnard, Malcolm, Graphic Design As Communication, Routledge,2005

Newark, Quentin, What is graphic design, Roto vision, 2007

Shaughnessy, Adrian, Graphic design; a user’s manual, 2009

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