John S. Miller/ Thoughts and Ideas / Art History

We tend to draw a line between fine art and commercial art. Yet there has not always been a clear division between the two. The notion of such a distinction is fairly modern. Commercial art in our time is very much like fine art from the past when you think about why something has been made and who it serves. This is so much easier to appreciate when looking back at earlier times but it becomes much more confusing to people as we look at art made closer to the present moment. Early art had a purpose and this purpose served culture and the social masters of the moment. In early history, artists were supported by the powers of the period to help tell the story of the social masters. Art was and still is a tool of power but now, the master of the moment is commerce itself: businesses and corporations. Throughout much of European history, the master of power was the church. After the Reformation when more people could read and run their own businesses, the nature of European art changed dramatically. Power shifted. Art in every time reflects the nature of the culture of the time.

In our times, the successful fine artists are their own masters in that they have power as individuals to produce imagery of their own choosing and can make a great living doing this. On the other hand, it is also possible because of the museum world to achieve fame as an artist without ever establishing a financial market for one's art. Museums are a fairly new idea and much of museum floor and wall space is devoted to objects defined as fine art. In our time artist servitude to a cultural master is not as obvious as in the past unless you focus specifically on the role of the commercial artist. In the commercial art world in contrast to the fine art world, an artist is paid to create for the payer's pleasure promoting the payers ideas. Fine artists are seen as free and independent creative spirits who promote their own ideas. Artists of both persuasions have reacted to and helped shape culture over time but the current independence of fine artists is unprecedented.

My father would criticize any modern fine art that he didn't understand and would talk about what art was supposed to do. In fine art there is no longer a ‘supposed to do’. Commercial art does involve a ‘supposed to do’ and does require a purpose. Commercial art performs a job. Fine art by contrast, expresses the ideas and feelings of the fine artist. This takes the ‘supposed to do’ out of the equation. Fine artists can think about and express any idea that they want and their ideas are inevitably tied to the ideas of their time. Think about the advancements in physics in the past 100 years and the way that imagery in paintings has changed during that time. As physicists were looking for the ever smaller particle, the movement of Minimalism was searching out the most elemental possibilities for the essence of painting and sculpture. Art parallels the history of culture. Most particularly I think that thinking in art parallels thinking in science. As knowledge advances, we develop new ways of seeing and thinking, new ways of presenting visual ideas.


When I was in school, there was a saying in biology that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The idea has been seriously challenged since. Recapitulation theory can be applied loosely to the development of art within cultures as well as to the development of individuals within cultures. Art History is often taught from such specific cultural perspectives that advancements and achievements in one culture are rarely contrasted with the development of ideas in another. We really can only effectively deal with and understand one narrative at a time. More often than not, in the learning of history, it is our own narrative that is glorified.

If you are a fan of Modern and Contemporary Art it is impossible to ignore the artistic influence of Oriental Art and African Art in shaping the redirection of Western Art History. A historical time line perspective can imply genius in those who discovered the creative output from other cultures and incorporated these ideas into their own work. This is much like the suggestion that Columbus discovered the New World. Much depends upon perspective. For example, the new ideas about the depiction of space in Modern painting had been employed by Chinese painters for thousands of years before the ideas where codified by European intellectuals.

We currently live in an information age and there does not appear to be a cohesive ‘movement’ in art. The closest thing I see to a movement is the merging of commercial and fine art by artists like Jeff Koons and those people who focus on similar creations exploring the taste of the masses. This sort of work is fine art about commercial art and commercial products. It seems to me this reflects a sort of yearning, a desire to bring the two ideas of fine and commercial art back together again as in ancient times, to create a unifying theory of Art. Beyond that we have a hodgepodge of work that can often seem to have been assembled through the acquisition of images and ideas brought together through random searches on the internet. The internet brings together parallel worlds, parallel universes and each search can open a worm hole between these universes. We grab ideas from one world and bring them back to ours and many divergent ideas become easily intertwined in unique and personal ways. Western culture has become a smörgåsbord of choices, not a cuisine. Culture is no longer an understood sense of taste. Contemporary culture is so complex and so diverse that artistic expression has become incredibly self-referential. Art is often about the culture of one - the individual artist making the art. This can make Contemporary Art extremely confusing to people. It does not however rob Art of it's most significant power. The best of Fine Art has always spoken directly and personally to individuals one on one.