Tuesday, 29 January 2013


Could it be argued that fine art should be assigned more ‘Value’ than more popular forms of visual communication?

Firstly, this essay will compare the values associated with fine art against the values of more popular forms of visual communication, a term that in itself needs defining. As visual communication can be associated with a range of different creative subjects, a specific field needs to be selected to compare the fine art culture against. Moreover, ‘more popular’ is a term which can be applied for two reasons one, more people like that form of visual communication, and two, it is more accessible and therefore more popular.  Graphic design is a form of visual communication that is freely available to the majority of society, and therefore will be the subject that is compared to art. The essay will define and compare the values associated with each subject, focusing on the commercial and social benefits, as they have most relevance to modern society.

The term value has many meanings, but when used in context with fine art, value has three main definitions, “commercial”, “social” and “essential” (Findlay, 2012, P9). Moreover, fine art also has historical value as well. The commercial value of art is defined by money, and the business that surrounds the buying and selling of art.  The social value of art can be defined by how people react to specific pieces of art. The essential value is in the eye of the beholder (personal taste).  Finally, historical value can be given to a piece of art for numerous reasons, such as if a piece of art captures an important historical moment.
To begin with, a definition of the subjects will help define the initial differences. Graphic design is a modern creative subject that uses a mixture of type and image to communicate a message to an audience.

“The graphic designer is basically organising and communicating messages.” (Heller, 2000, P9)

Essentially, graphic design is all around us, it can be seen in newspapers, magazines, on posters and billboards, it influences society on a daily basis as they are submerged in a sea of visual communication. One important factor that needs be acknowledged is graphic design has function; it is created for a purpose. In the world of design most work is created for a client, they will set the constraints that the work has to meet, each piece of design has a lot of different factors that need to be taken into consideration before creating the piece. Moreover, graphic design also has historical importance, the Russian constructivist movement consisted of Russian designers such as El Lissitzky, who created propaganda for the masses during the Russian revolution, “El Lissitzky was an important propagandist”. (Gerber, 2010, P99)

Contrasting the direct functionality of graphic design, art is a subject in which pieces of work are usually created purely for aesthetic purposes, and have little or no functionality; “art serves no necessary function” (Findlay, 2012, P13). The purpose for creating such works of art range, some artists create pieces of art purely for commercial purposes, while others try to capture feelings, or moments in time, it really depends on the artist and their influences. Here we can highlight a fundamental difference between the two subjects; graphic designers revolve around the client and audience when creating pieces of work, whereas artists create work for themselves unless otherwise commissioned.   An important factor we must acknowledge in the early stages of this essay is the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’, which basically means that “art does not have to serve purposes taken from politics, religion, economics, and so on.” [5] but can be created purely because of its aesthetic qualities. This prompts the question, if art has no immediate function, why is it so valued?
To discover why art holds so much importance the values discussed in the introduction need to be revisited. Firstly, Commercial value regards money and all things associated with the pricing and selling of a piece of artwork. There are two markets for pieces of art, primary and secondary.

“There are two distinct markets, which are interrelated and sometimes overlapping: the primary market for an artist’s new work and the secondary market for works of art that are second-hand (or third- or twentieth-hand.” (Findlay, 2012, P14)

Works of art from the secondary market often generate more money when taken to auction than pieces of art from the primary market. Evidence of this can be seen when reviewing the most expensive works of art ever sold. Paul Cezanne’s ‘The card players’ was created in the years 1892/93 and is to date the most expensive painting ever sold, it was bought for 250million dollars by the family of Qatar at a private sale. Pieces of artwork belonging to the secondary market often have more commercial value, as there is more money is circulating in this market. Therefore, when assessing the commercial value of art, pieces from the secondary market will be used.

The value of pieces of art from the secondary market can be affected by numerous factors, however when a piece of art is being assessed for auction there are five factors that are considered; “ Provenance, Condition, Authenticity, Exposure and Quality” (Findlay, 2012, P39) each of these factors affects the commercial value.  A professional involved with the “conservation and restoration of works” ” (Findlay, 2012, P41) usually assesses the condition of a piece of artwork, they will review the condition of the artwork and then create a “condition report” (Findlay, 2012, P41) that is reviewed by dealers when pricing. The authenticity of artwork is usually specified in the “auction catalogues” (Findlay, 2012, P41) which hold detailed information about each piece of artwork; if a piece of art is not genuine then it is usually worthless. Moreover, exposure is simply defined by how much publicity a piece gets. A collector can increase the exposure of his artwork by lending the piece to galleries and museums, in doing so the piece can gain more commercial value due to its exposure to the public. A very important factor affecting commercial value is quality, the quality of a work of art is judged on three main criteria;

“Mastery of medium, clarity of execution, and authority of expression are vital criteria applicable to all works of art, regardless of style or subject.” (Findlay, 2012, P47)

For a piece to be deemed ‘high quality’ it is usually reviewed by a collector and must excel in all criteria. Finally, provenance is a quality that all pieces of art from the secondary market have; it is created when a work of art changes hands and has a history of past owners. What is interesting about provenance is how it can be affected by the status of its previous owner. An example of this commercial gain can be seen in the sale of Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow, Pink, and Lavender on Rose) by Sotheby’s.

“Sotheby’s sale in May 2007 included Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow, Pink, and Lavender on Rose), which belonged to David and Peggy Rockefeller. Because the proceeds were destined for charity, David Rockefeller allowed himself to be photographed with the work, and Sotheby’s waged and extremely aggressive marketing campaign leaning heavily on the Rockefeller provenance. The painting sold for $72.84million.” (Findlay, 2012, P40)

This is a clear example of the high culture that can be associated with fine art, the value of the Rothko painting increased, not because the painting was historically or socially valuable (things which benefit the public) but because of the status of its previous owner. It is clear that the commercial value of art is defined by many factors that are reviewed and judged by a select group of dealers and collectors, this is evidence of the selective culture that surrounds fine art. The same cannot be said for graphic design. However, making a comparison between the commercial value of fine art and graphic design is impossible, as  works are created on completely different terms. An artist will create a collection of self inspired work that is then introduced to the art community through a dealer and then and sold at auction. However, a graphic designer is commissioned to create a piece that meets the specific needs of a client, that same client pays them for the work completed. We could compare the yearly earnings of a graphic designer against the amounts made by art in the secondary market. However, even the most expensive designers in the world would not make $72.84million (the price paid for Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow, Pink, Lavender on Rose) in a whole year, if they worked solidly completing project after project. This is evidence that fine art has more commercial value in society than graphic design. However, it is not society that is giving art the renowned price tag, but actually a collective of wealthy art collectors and executives.

Modern society relies on money to continue functioning, which could explain art cultures dependency on it.  However, this still does not explain the extortionate amounts invested into certain works of art. Firstly, fine art and money have a historical relationship, since the Renaissance period art has been created for commercial gain.

“The quickening of commerce in the Renaissance, and the development of a mode of production centred on the expansion of value, brought a great springtime romance between art and money”. (Mattick, Jr, 2000, Pp 65)

Today, capitalist culture requires artists to create work for money, as money is essential to survive in society. Moreover, on the other side of the coin are the investors. Works of art were first collected by royal families and displayed in museums to use as a signifier of their wealth and power, “The museums were created out of princely and royal collections ... as important signifiers of national power and dignity” (Mattick, Jr. 2000, Pp 65 & 66). Things have not changed; art is still used by the wealthy as a signifier of power. However, it is also used as an investment and a safeguard for money. In current society the financial system is in a state of disrepair, in 2007/2008 we saw the global financial market collapse, businesses, banks and governments were all affected, “Autumn's market mayhem has left the world's financial institutions nursing losses of $2.8tn(Houghton and miffin co. 2013) With a financial system that is so unstable, fortunes could be jeopardised. The rich needed a way of protecting their money, and commodities such as property and art are the answer. By investing money in art the monetary value is safe from implications caused by the banking system. If anything, their investment gains value with the right exposure. The large investments from arts high culture are responsible for the commercial value of art. Additionally, the high value keeps the market selective, as the majority of the public cannot afford to invest in a piece of art from the secondary market.

The social impact of a work of art is strongest when it evokes a reaction or opinion from an audience; which is in turn is discussed creating social interaction. By discussing a piece of work people are directly communicating with each other, it challenges people to see the deeper meaning and express what they see and why.

“Everyone in the company had an opinion... everyone spoke up, and the effect on the moral was great” (Findlay, 2012, Pp 65 & 66).

Moreover, social interaction in turn creates further social impact, both direct and indirect. Direct social impact is further defined in ‘Measuring the economic and social impact of the arts: a review’ By Michael Reeves.

‘Direct social Impacts... ‘elevate’ people's thinking and contribute positively to their psychological and social well-being and enhance their sensitivity.’ (Reeves – 2013)

According to this definition, viewing aesthetically engaging work and discussing your opinions, results in a better state of mind and an enhanced understanding of the subject. Moreover, indirect social impact inspires “creativity” and “Enhances innovation”. When assessing the two works of art all social impacts will be assessed.

Graphic design also has social impact, a well-produced poster can evoke a reaction from the public, in turn creating a discussion about the graphics or the product advertised. However, graphic design also interacts with the audience directly, providing people with helpful information communicated in an understandable way.

“Graphic design can help the world: When we are providing information, we are hopefully enlightening others; when we are providing directions , we are helping people find their way through the world; and even when we are selling widgets, we are boosting the economy”. (Holland, 2001, P125)

However, the strongest pieces of work will bring people together socially, whether they agree a fine painting is beautiful, or are moved by the message communicated by a graphic poster. For a more accurate comparison of social value, a renowned piece of work from each subject needs to be selected, and their values assessed and compared. Therefore, the essay will focus on the piece ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living’ by artist Damien Hirst, and ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ by Russian constructivist El Lissitzky.

Damien Hirst is a famous British conceptual artist and art collector who for the past decade has been producing massively publicised and debated artwork. His piece ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living’ featured a thirteen-foot long tiger shark suspended in a formaldehyde filled vitrine. The shark belongs to Hirst’s controversial series ‘Natural History’, which consisted of a range of animals and fish suspended in formaldehyde. Some of the animals were dissected, which for members of the public unfamiliar with contemporary art, would have been a shocking sight. Creates in 1991, the piece became somewhat of an icon for Hirst and is described as “his most famous series”. (Hirst, 2013)

Hirst’s idea was financially supported by Charles Saatchi who commissioned £50,000 to cover the sharks shipping costs from Australia, and the formaldehyde preservation process. The piece was eventually sold to Steven Cohen, a wealthy American business man, the price paid is undisclosed but is it rumoured to be between 8-12 million pounds;

Several New York media reported that the only other firm offer aside from that made by Tate Modern came from Cohen, and that the actual selling price was $8m. New York magazine reported $13m. But the $12m figure was the most widely cited” (The Independent, 2013)

A tremendous profit was made from the piece, the sale of which is another shining example of the financial elite investing in art. Additionally, Hirst is also involved in the high culture surrounding art, he profits massively from his work and is the world’s richest living artist; “Hirst is not only the world's richest artist, but a transformative figure who can be assured of his place in history”. [Kunzru 2013]  Hirst’s financial gain is the result of his connections to the art world and his target audience. As his pieces are worth so much money, they are not made with a public audience in mind, but instead tailored to suit the minority who can afford to invest. The only reason Hirst pieces have any social impact is because of the media attention his pieces get, and because of the gallery exposure they undergo.

Due to the exposure of the sculpture from the press, the shocking nature of the piece was introduced to the majority of the public, causing debate and controversy. Firstly, a tiger shark is a creature that most English people would never encounter. Therefore, seeing the real thing, motionless and only a few inches from your face would have been a daunting yet exciting experience. It is here that we see the social impact of Hirst’s piece, as its controversial content caused members of the public to socially interact and voice their opinions regarding the piece.

El Lissitzky was a Russian constructivist, known for his simple use of geometric forms and innovative photomontages. Contrasting the beliefs of conceptual artists such as Hirst the constructivism movement emerged in soviet Russia in 1913 with the belief that art should “reflect upon and contribute to society in some way” (Gerber, 2010, p40). The belief that art should help better society explains the constructivist involvement in the Russian revolution. Propaganda posters were produced to communicate various messages, such as political messages, to boost public moral and recruit for the revolution. The idea of social betterment turned Lissitzky’s attention to propaganda, which is when he created the piece that is defined as his most important work, ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’.

The poster was aimed at the common people of Russia, which caused two problems for Lissitzky. Firstly, “many of those in the targeted communities were illiterate” (Gerber, 2010, p24), therefore the message would have to be communicated using little or no text. Secondly, the message would have to be distributed to the masses, so the form that work took also had to be carefully considered. Here we see a fundamental difference between the two artists, Hirst creates his work for a select group of people in order to gain profit whereas Lissitzky revises every element of his work so it is suitable for his target audience.
Lissitzky’s poster was designed for the common people of Russia, and therefore relied heavily on shapes to communicate its message. The large triangle grabs the audience’s attention immediately due to its strong red colour. Red is also the colour associated with the revolution, contrasting this is the white which is the colour associated with the opposition forces. The triangle is shown to be piercing deep into the white circle, a representation of the power the revolutionary movement had over the monarchy. As the message had to be distributed to a large audience Lissitzky’s work often took the form of a poster, this enabled the message to be distributed and displayed publicly.

The poster would have had massive social impact, not only were Lissitzky’s posters aesthetically engaging, they also distributed important messages to communities that would otherwise have been unable to receive the information. Moreover, in a time of desperation, where education is unavailable and money is short, forms of art and visual communication would have been virtually inaccessible. Therefore, seeing a visually appealing piece would cause direct social impact and lift people’s moral.

To conclude, the commercial value of art is assessed by various factors such as quality and condition. However, works of art such as Damien Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living’ still sell for a tremendous amount, despite the artist having little or no input in its creation. This is due to the financial elite who invest money into art as a safeguard for their fortunes and a signifier of power. Contrasting this, graphic design is often freely available, its a form of visual communication for the masses. In terms of commercial value art undoubtedly has more. However, this is of no commercial benefit to the public and only profits wealthy collectors.

 Moreover, the social value is easier to compare, it is strongest when a piece of work evokes social interaction. El Lissitzky created his propaganda poster ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ for the common people of Russia, every aspect was designed with that specific audience in mind. Therefore, it has social value as it informs, educates and causes people to interact with one another. In a time of desperation, Lissitzky’s poster gave hope. Moreover, Hirst’s piece, the physical impossibility of death, also has social value. Its controversial nature causes discussions and disagreements between art critics and the public alike.  Both subjects have the opportunity for works to have massive social impact, it is achieved through the content and message of the work. Therefore, despite the obvious difference in commercial value, other values are equal.


Findlay, Michael (2012) ‘The value of Art, Money, Power, Beauty’ 1st ed. Prestek Verlag.
Heller, Steven. Chwast, Seymour (2000) ‘Graphic Style’ 2nd ed. Abrams.

Gerber, Anna (2010) ‘Graphic Design, The 50 most influential graphic designers in the world’ 1st ed. A & C Black Publishers Ltd.  

‘The American Heritage ‘New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy’’  [Internet]  Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Available from < http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/art+for+art's+sake> [Accessed 12/01/2013]

Paul Mattick, Jr (2000) ‘ Capital Culture: a reader on modern legacies, state institutions, and the value(s) of art’ 1st ed. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

‘The Guardian ‘Banking Crisis Timeline’ [‘Internet] Published by Guardian News and Media Limited. Available from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2008/oct/08/creditcrunch.marketturmoil> [Accessed  20/01/2013]

Holland, DK (2001) ‘Design Issues: How Graphic Design Informs Society’ 1st ed. Allworth Press. 

Kunzru Hari. ‘Damien Hirst and the great market heist’ [Internet] Available from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/mar/16/damien-hirst-art-market> [Accessed 25/01/2013]

Reeves, Michael. ‘Measuring the economic and social impact of the arts: a review’ [Internet] published by Available from <http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/documents/publications/340.pdf> [Accessed 25/01/2013]

‘Damien Hirst; Read more about the artist’ [Internet] Published by Damien Hirst.com. Available from <http://www.damienhirst.com/biography/read-more-about-the-artist>  [Accessed 25/01/2013]

Anon. ‘Art of making money: How does a dead fish sell for £12m and who's writing all the cheques?’. Available from <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/art-of-making-money-how-does-a-dead-fish-sell-for-16312m-and-whos-writing-all-the-cheques-769504.html> [Accessed – 25/01/2013]

‘Damien Hirst Biography’ [Internet] Published by Damienhirst.com. [Internet] Available from <http://www.damienhirst.com/biography/read-more-about-the-artist> [Accessed 25/01/2013


Damien Hirst. (1991) ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ Published by Saatchi Gallery. Available from http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/aipe/damien_hirst.htm [Accessed 25/01/2013]

El Lissitzky (1919)  ‘ Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ Published by LDM:Graphic design Dept. Available from < http://blog.ldminstitute.com/graphic/?p=679> [Accessed 25/01/13]

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