Ask a Gallery Owner | Fine Art Vs. Decorative Art?

I recently received an email that is reflective of a number of comments and questions I’ve seen on our social media pages and in other emails. Many artists have wondered what my thoughts are regarding fine art vs. decorative art, as this artist does in her email:

One of the things I’ve noticed about the work you’ve shared as “recent sales” is that these pieces often seem to be “decorative,” as opposed to “fine art.” While I realize that these definitions may be outside of the conversation many art professionals have publicly, I wonder if your gallery sells more of one kind of art than the other. Do your clients typically seek art that enhances the decor of their homes, or do they desire art that becomes an emotional touch point, as well as a visual one? I imagine they do both, but how many are conscious of the difference, or care? Do you see a demographic difference between these types of buyers/collectors?

JK-Artist

I found this email thoughtful and sincere, but many of the communiques I receive on this topic are somewhat combative – “the art you sell,” they seem to say, “isn’t fine art.”

A quick look at the dictionary gives us these definitions:

Decorative Art

noun
1. art that is meant to be useful as well as beautiful, as ceramics, furniture, jewelry, and textiles.
2. Usually, decorative arts. any of the arts, as ceramics or jewelry making, whose works are created to be useful.
3. works of decorative art collectively.

Fine Art

noun
1. a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture.

Seems pretty straightforward – if a piece of art has some function, it’s considered decorative. If it’s purely aesthetic, it’s fine art. By these definitions most of what I sell fits the definition of fine art.

This clearly isn’t how JK is thinking of the difference, however, and most of the other comments I see in this regard also aren’t drawing the line based on the dictionary definitions. Instead, many artists consider art purchased for its decorative properties (its ability to look good with a couch, or on a wall of a particular color, for example) to be of a lesser value, while true art is purchased for its intrinsic artistic value (?) or maybe not purchased at all because it’s too “fine.”

Riot of Color by John Horejs | Recently purchased by clients who were looking for a piece for their dining room. They love their new painting – that’s “fine” with me!

I may not be understanding the distinction perfectly, but I get the sense a lot of artists feel they’re own work is complex or difficult, and is therefore less likely to be appreciated by the general public and sell. They feel their art is therefore “fine art.” Art that appeals to a broad audience and sells quickly is  “decorative.” In another version of the discussion, the fine art is the work that is going to end up in a museum one day, but not necessarily in buyers’ living rooms.

So what does all of this mean to me as a gallery owner? How much time do I spend thinking about the “fine” nature of an artist’s work before agreeing to represent the artist? Do I feel guilty about selling “decorative art?”

While the question and issue is complicated, my answer is simple: I don’t expend a single thought on this issue.

I feel that fine art is in the eye of the beholder. I look for artwork that interests and excites me and that will bring an interesting dimension to our gallery. As the email above says, I’m looking for art that has “emotional touch point.” That’s my fine art. A visitor to the gallery might feel the same and become motivated to buy the piece, or they may not experience any connection and walk right out the door.

To the email’s point that some buyers may be more motivated by the way a piece will fit into their decor, than the way the work resonates with them, this does happen, certainly, but in my experience this happens in a minority of sales. It’s almost always the case the our clients say, “I love this piece,” and then “where will we place it?”

Are there times when a client comes in and says “I’m looking for art for a particular space”? Sure. Are there times when a client buys a piece because it will match a sofa? Yes. Do I refuse to sell art to these buyers? No.

My hope is that over time I can educate my collectors to have a deeper appreciation for the art and a better understanding of what it is that draws them to a particular piece. Art collecting is a process – taste is refined over time.

I leave the concern about the long term artistic value of the artwork to the museum curators. At the risk of sounding a little crass, I’m in the business of selling art.

More importantly, I’m not at all sure that it would be effective for me to try to determine what’s fine art and what isn’t. I’ve spent a lot time studying art history, and in my reading it seems that it’s very difficult for anyone to know which art is going to be great on a historic scale in the moment the art is being created and on the market. There were heated battles over whether the impressionists were creating fine art. The abstract expressionists were derided as hacks.

Again, the question is beyond my pay grade.

The good news in all of this is that, no matter what you are creating, there are buyers out there to whom your work is fine art. Let’s stop worrying about whether art is fine or not, and get out there and find them!

What Do You Think About Fine Art vs. Decorative Art?

Do you make a distinction between fine art and decorative art? Do you feel galleries should focus on showing more “fine art”. Do you consider your work to be fine art? How much do you think about the historic significance of your work? Please share your thoughts, experience and opinions in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

68 Comments

  1. I’m just a painter. I paint what appeals to me, that is, the subject matter appeals to my emotion of the moment. Let someone else define it as “fine art,” if they wish. I don’t, nor do I compare myself with any painters of the past or present. That would feel presumptuous. I sell a lot to people who see what I see and who feel what I feel. That’s all that really matters.

    1. I agree with what you are saying completely. I paint things that I love and think are beautiful and special. Hopefully others will feel the same emotional connect and enjoy my work. But I want to tell you something. I looked at your beautiful work–and never say “I’m just a painter.” No such thing as “Just” a painter. You are an artist and a very good one. It’s a difficult thing to say sometimes, but the more you actually do say it, the more natural it will be. Value yourself and others will value you and your work .

  2. MOCA, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is currently hosting the exhibition, “With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972-1985.” One could say that a museum devoted to such a show can challenge the notion that decorative art is the poor relative of fine art, however you may define each of these. And defining them can really be the issue. I think that there are too many cliches about art – decorative art is not fine art; works on paper are less valuable than works on canvas; watercolor is the work of amateur artists and so on. We are too quick to jump onto the bandwagon and buy into these pronouncements. A piece of art with beads and pattern can be emotionally engaging, just as a painting of clouds can be a cliche. The power is in the individual piece and not in the label we attach to it.

  3. There is no way to judge what is fine or decorative. Especially by whether it sells or not. After 45 years in the business of art, selling my own and others works, the only distinction that can be made is whether the work is original or a reproduction produced by machine. Being a restorer as well a 56 million$ van gogh is no more fine art than the 50$ canvas painted by the victorian era school artists that can be found by the dozens in antique shops around the uk. . each has its own intrinsic value the rest is marketing and public agreement with that position. [sometimes even the skill levels are no different].
    A large abstract with lots of words needed to explain the artists position is NOT better than the equally large realist landscape that requires 0 words. based upon the eye and feelings of the viewer THEY are the only ones who can determine value and it is never whether its fine or decorative. richard

  4. Interesting article! I also feel that I buy art because I love it. I personally never worry about if it will match the couch, because I keep my furniture neutral and let the art be the hero. (because I am an artist lol) and I rotate my art constantly, so it doesn’t matter. Everyone who comes over stares at the beautiful art, not the furniture lol.

    1. Thank you Jason!

      As always, your words connect with me. I find your blog and newsletter most valuable! You always send me down the rabbit hole thinking. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of interviews with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. I love him, and he’s very funny. Realizing we are all made from the same stardust, and that are time here on earth is very limited, I find myself amazed at how many humans allow their lives to be judged and valued by definitions created by other humans that were only alive – NOT that long ago! The only difference between a flower and a weed, is a judgement.

  5. In another creative endeavor similar to painting — writing — many contemporary literary critics of Mark Twain derided his vernacular style as crass and vulgar, his novels not high-brow literature. He defended his work and mass sales to common people by saying that (paraphrased) not everybody drinks wine, but everybody drinks water.”

  6. The distnction between fine art vs decorative art in my opinion was originally based on who was creating it and for whom the work was being made.

    If the work was functional and / or made by women or non-noblility males, it was “decorative art.”

    One cannot, for example, look at the work of bead weaver Joyce Scott and not call her work “fine art.”

    (I am also an artist who paints and weaves beads; lately in the same piece.)

  7. There’s no edginess in my art. I’m not pushing boundaries with my style, technique or subject matter. My art is naturalistic — inspired by my natural surroundings and in particular the awe I feel when experiencing the varied and beautiful skies of the Western U.S. I don’t aim for photorealism but many people who first see my paintings from a distance are surprised when they get closer and exclaim: “I thought these were photographs!”

    My aim isn’t to fool the eye but to inspire the same feelings in others that I have when I directly experience the sky. I try my best to recreate the scene that inspired me. That may be a traditional approach but I don’t think it disqualifies me as a “fine artist.” The sky is an emotional touch point for me and apparently for my collectors. I’d say this makes it “fine art.”

    People choose art that appeals to them, that evokes a response or a feeling. Yes, many respond best to art that fits into their décor; but, think of this, aren’t the surroundings they’ve created for themselves, viewed in totality, another type of creative and aesthetic experience? The fact that something fits with their artistic vision doesn’t make it “decorative” vs. “fine art.”

  8. There is a distinct difference between “fine art” and “decorative art” or the “applied arts and crafts”, and it has nothing to do with the medium in which it was made. Fine art simply has no utilitarian purpose, and is created purely for it’s aesthetic value. Because of the liberal mindset towards art today, there is this sentiment among some that you cannot define fine art. That is simply not true, and history will make the distinction. I have seen everything from T-shirts and coffee mugs being called fine art. There are a number of reasons to differentiate the two, however for no other reason, there does need to be a line drawn for the purpose of integrity. There are decorative arts which deserve attention, and which have investment value, however why not be honest and admit that it is what it is. It becomes cloudy at times when certain materials are used interchangeably between the two arts, however no matter how beautiful something is, all one has to do is ask one’ self if it also has a utilitarian purpose. I was in the Boston Museum of Art just the other day, and noticed that they had a special exhibit in a small room which was especially for decorative contemporary works such as art jewelry and blown glass pieces. such as vases, bowls, etc. They made the statement that this area was designated for “craft”, and that they were being inclusive. Does decorative art, or craft belong in a fine art gallery?…That is purely up to the mindset and direction of the gallery owner. I personally believe in being honest and calling an apple an apple and an orange and orange. They both taste great!

  9. Ahhh, the $20-2,000,000 Question! As a professional artist, I’ve been examining that question all my life while also trying to ignore it and stay true to whatever interests and challenges me. I’ve been fortunate to have navigated my career without having to rely on art sales entirely. The few forays I have made into creating work that I thought would sell have been failures in my estimation – perhaps partially interesting experiments but nothing that sustained my intellectual curiosity. Having said that, I saw work very recently that might be considered “tourist art” and it stole my heart. I am still considering buying it myself. I agree with Nancy above, “The power is in the individual piece not the label we attach to it.” If you love it and can afford it, buy it! I still love almost every piece I’ve ever purchased.

    1. I think you ( as many) are missing the point. Defining fine art is not a matter of judging what is good or bad and worthy of being called “fine”. A bad painting is still fine art. It may not particularly be good, however it fine art, because it is a painting. There are different types of paintings which tend to fall into a sub category of being more decorative, however they can still be called fine art. The gallery owner will sort all of that out. A good example would be the glass artist Dale Chihully. Among his blown works he creates what he calls “Chandliers” In reality they are sculptures which have no other purpose. then their beauty. They are not wired to light a room. They are purely aesthetic and there fall into the category of “fine art”. A traditional venetian glass chandelier (no matter how beautiful) is not “fine art”. It is considered a craft. or decorative art.

  10. I’ve been a non objective painter since the late 1980s. I studied in college and am educated in fine art. With that said, I understand there are many artists who create work which is edgy and in my mind, difficult to live with. My work is intentionally created to be harmonious and easy to live with, while painting what challenges me. I’m curious is my work fine art or decorative to the person who asked the question? My goal is to to create paintings which bring harmony, interest, and beauty in the collectors environment. Is that decorative or fine art?
    http://www.KarenLehrer.com

  11. The term I coined and which is progressively getting a good foothold in the world of art, is “Wallwanker”. This denotes a piece of ‘art’ which is bought specifically to cover a wall – or part of a wall which would otherwise just be left bare.
    Mostly these pieces have no ‘nutritional’ value. They are devoid of soul or passion. The people who acquire these rags are the same who buy books-by-the-yard – (not that they would have the wherewithal to even buy books)
    Just watch TV series or films where large offices are used. The art on those walls reflect everything I’ve just said.

    1. That’s hilarious. I think that’s exactly what we’re debating- is it art or is it a wallwanker? Haha.

  12. I don’t worry about whether I’m making “fine” enough art. I challenge myself, ask myself to do things I’m not sure I can do, as a means of progressing and keeping my work fresh — but that’s a different concern, one I can reasonably address. “Is this *really* Fine Art?” is not a question I can answer, so I don’t ask myself that. If it has meaning for me, chances are it will for someone else.

    I would like to add that I believe, “Oh, that’s just decorative” very often means, “I perceive this art as feminine.” It is often (not always) a means to devalue art made by women, or to devalue the kinds of art we think women make. I don’t think it’s conscious; I’ve even found myself making those assumptions! That alone is a good reason to stop trying to judge art by some nebulous standard of decorative vs fine.

  13. “Above my pay grade”
    hahaha
    Couldn’t agree more. I love what I love and don’t what I don’t. 99% of the time I couldn’t tell you why.

    But having said that:

    Decorative Art > Fine Art
    because
    To Buy/Sell anything, you need The3Yes’s:
    – Do you love it?
    – Do you know what you’re going to do with it?
    – Can you afford it?

    One day I want to curate a museum… there are so many beautiful pieces that I don’t know what I would do with, nor can afford. Having a museum would reduce those barriers significantly. Then ALL my art collection COULD be “Fine”… objectively

    🙂

    1. I don’t know whether you make art as well as collecting it (I do both), but all collectors are artists. When you look at someone’s collection, you have a window into a very deep part of them. When a viewer responds to a work, there is a sense of recognition. A great deal of an artist’s act of creation involves similar recognition.

  14. I used to worry a lot that my art was not ‘fine art’ because of it’s ‘popularity’ and the fact that it is colourful and bright. However, over many years the one thing that people have continually said to me is that my art is ‘uplifting’ and makes them feel happy and joyful. If that is what I can do for people then I am entirely happy as an artist and their definition of what my art does for them is ‘fine’ by me.

  15. Recently I spoke to someone who considered my art very compatible with the latest decor and asked me if I had connections with the building industry. I don’t. I said it would certainly be interesting to me to have those connections. He said he would get back to me. It is perhaps an avenue I should pursue. On the other hand my work does have an edge to it. I rarely get questions about things beyond colour and the comments “Oh, I love your work!”. Sadly it does not translate into sales. As far as definitions are concerned, the customer can purchase it for whatever reason he/she chooses, with or without the information of why I did what I did. In the meantime I am considering a bonfire.

  16. Fine Art is also the degree that is conferred by colleges, universities, schools denoting a curriculum in visual art. We used to be able to count on that mea ing something (core studies and studio time). It’s not true anymore.
    We used to think that museums were bastions of the arc of history, and maybe they still are, but that arc of history continues to bend but most are stuck on the bend at a more remote point. (Witness the dichotomy between “realism” and “abstraction-ism” abundant in the discussions today. That was 100 years ago.
    So what are we left with? Individuals who must produce material expressions of inner ideas which is what we’ve done as human beings since we’ve lived in caves. (To drag out a tattered and torn statement). The artist has no choice but to convert materials.
    The hope for every artist is that there is at least one other human being somewhere who responds to what they are doing emotionally and aesthetically. There are artists out there who wonder and despair at that hope, and yet continue to work because their lives depend upon the work they do.
    I think that designation is a false one that still does not solve the issue of connection to sympathetic spirits. Just remember what the Sistine Ceiling was- ” a quarter acre of ‘suitable decoration’ for the Pope’s chapel.”

  17. Whenever I hear this question, or the related “can commercial art be considered fine art?”, I think of Michelangelo. He painted Bible stories on the ceiling to satisfy the Pope’s requests for decoration, and was paid by the Church. So he could surely be defined as a commercial artist producing decorative art. But few would argue that the result is not FINE art.

    These definitions and arguments are silly. They are the result of the artist or observer puffing up their own importance as being “better than thou” at defining what is worthy. But those definitions do not change the essential nature of the work of art itself, just the public perception of its worth.

  18. This is a great article, and I’m delighted you don’t wear the blinders so many people wear when it comes to defining “real art”. The older I get, the less patience I have with people who feel compelled to put all creative work into tidy boxes, with strict lines and bounderies. “This is real art, that isn’t.”
    Here’s where it starts: From “fine art” to “decorative art”/fine craft, we decide some media are better than others. Oil is “more fine” than acrylic, bronze sculptures are “more fine” than clay. But where does it end?? The definitions get louder, even as the lines in our modern world get finer.
    Even “pure emotion” vs. function is misleading. The Bayeux Tapestries were made when walls were covered with fiber art to cut down on drafts. The hauntingly beautiful cave art of Lascaux would probably get two strikes against them: They were probably used in spiritual ceremonies, and they were made with chalk. (Gasp! Not “real” art like oils.) Oh, and new theories suggest many of the shamans were women. Three strikes! Years ago, an archaeoligist said I was wrong about the Lascaux cave, that it was hunting magic. It was purely about survival, and not “real art”. I replied, “So is a cathedral.” (Modern research has proven them wrong, btw.) When I am afraid and insecure about where my work fits in the art world, I get pretty judgy, too. But I now do my best to find the value and beauty of ALL creative work. Not just 2D art, not just recognized-art forms, but all creative work: Music, performance, healing, teaching, restoration, repairing, building, coding (yes, coding is creative work), caretaking, creating beautiful interiors, exteriors, and gardens/landscaping, and other “domestic” work that makes a home welcoming and nurturing. And yes, curating, finding the work that intrigues us, speaks to us, work we believe is worthy of our consideration. We can cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, but creativity is a part of who we are, who we ALL are. People who need boxes believe there is only room for a favored few “real artists” in the world. That speaks more of fear than love. But those boxes keep us from seeing the beauty and profoundly good work that happens when everyone has the courage to do the work of their heart, the work that’s meaningful to THEM, the work that makes the world a better place for everyone.

  19. I’ve been a “lurker” on the site for some time and always enjoy the insights I find there, both from Jason and from artist-readers. This question has gnawed at me for some time, and my thoughts here are “thinking out loud” for me, rather than set in stone.

    This question of fine art vs. decorative art could possibly be restated in terms of who the audience is for any one work of art: is it going to appeal to the masses or more so or only to other artists and/or critics?

    I see many pieces of art selling for vast sums in New York City auctions and galleries, many of which are strange and even gimmicky to me. (The recent banana and duct tape being an extreme example.) And the average person would not want them in his or her home. As an artist, I create digital works that are mostly abstract, with some more realistic (often photo based) pieces thrown into the mix. On Facebook, my pieces that garner the most attention and comments are inevitably those more realistic pieces, while the abstracts are somewhat harder sells to the average viewer. In my own mind, I tend to think of the realistic pieces as couch art and the abstracts as being somewhat more serious or “fine art” because, as pure expressions for me, they are created solely for me, though I do hope someone else will connect with them as I do.

    I think true, pure art lovers are something of a rare breed. The reality seems to be that most people buy a work of art, not because they are intrinsic art lovers, per se, but because it matches their couch or other home décor and/or fits in a prescribed place (“This will be perfect above the toilet in the guest bathroom!”), or because it fits in with the aesthetic they share with others in their social circles.

    In New York and other art hot spots, experimentation and boundary pushing are expected and desired; for the most part, outside those circles, it is largely disdained and ignored in favor of less challenging decorative pieces or even the bane of local artists everywhere, the inexpensive art prints at places like Hobby Lobby that appeal to the masses.

    1. Your post reminds me of when I went to an abstract school and was taught that fine art was more abstract so when I did my Plein air pieces in the mid 90’s it was considered decorative by some professors. Then as part of the new Plein air movement I heard the abstract was decorative. I realized early that it was ridiculous to label painters. We are all expressing ourselves and some have more experience than others.

      I create more impressionistic work but collect abstracts and not to match my couch but to fill my soul. Thanks for all the posts!!!

  20. People buy art to put on their walls and to enjoy, at least they should. Artists make the art they need to make. Some artists make work that appeals to more people. They are lucky. Artists shouldn’t try to make art just to appeal to the market. That usually doesn’t work. As you say, the emotional and/or intellectual appeal must be authentic. I agree, the line between fine art and decorative art is thin and shifting. It really has nothing to do with either creators or collectors.

  21. When I attended art school I studied “fine art”. I vaguely considered it something for the extremely rich, who covered their many soaring walls with landscapes and portraits of ancestors. The artists who had created the “fine art” were largely deceased. Small works were considered mainly decorative and often created by a friend or relative as a gift.

    I have always loved 3D art, yearning to become a female Henry Moore, but quickly learned that the artists who made regular money in 3D were potters … decorative art? I became a potter. I also studied traditional dark room photography and was a photographers assistant, but it was highly competitive and expensive to get into … decorative art? Later, I also studied and created jewelry and made wall hangings with gemstones and cord … decorative art?

    Always inspired by Bob Ross and going through some life changing experiences, I decided to apply my art training, go professional and paint landscapes. At the time, I suppose I considered this fine art and later expanded to florals and portraits on demand. At art school I had painted in oil, but I now learned acrylic, watercolour and mixed media. I loved the learning involved with being a paint artist, but never enjoyed it.

    Now returning to my love of 3D I am not considered a “fine artist” locally, but I am gaining a reputation on the internet. Am I a fine artist? Who cares! I enjoy what I do, buyers appreciate my work and it sells. I think neither myself, nor my buyers think it is fine art, but I know some consider it a good investment. I often wonder if my art will outlive me, or just be sent to the landfill when tastes change. I suppose I will never know.

  22. The question reminds me of the arguments made in the 70s when I was creating and showing fiber art at fine craft shows like ACC Rhinebeck: Is it art or is it craft?

    Back then I found as much “fine art” beauty in a wonderful piece of ceramic art or glass or fiber art as I might in a painting. The fact that some of those items might serve a purpose was of little concern to me. They satisfied an intangible aesthetic yearning.

    Later, when I embarked on a 35 year illustration career the same argument would come up: is it art or is it illustration? Foolishness again, because successful illustration was determined by by all the same requirements as any painting–composition, texture, etc. Either it worked on those levels or, for want of a better word, it sucked.

    Now as a painter, I make art-period. I tend to do mostly interpretive portraits and some might even verge on the illustrative, for there’s a fine line between the two. I have given up trying to define myself by what “they” say. I paint what I need to paint. Many years from now I suppose some “expert” will come along and try to categorize my work as this or that. It will be out of my control then not unlike it is now. It’s funny but I find when people buy my art, they never worry about what category it fits into.

  23. American Women Sculptors, by Charlotte Rubinstein, offers insight into the fine/decorative/garden distinction. During some periods of American history, the art market didn’t recognize the possibility that women could create “fine” art, so they could sell only “decorative” or “garden” art. In some cases, they marketed the work under their husbands’ names, which brought higher prices because it was “fine” but gave credit to the wrong person. My point is that the art was the art. Whether it was “fine”, “decorative”, or “garden” was in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I agree with Canadian sculptor Bill Reid, who praised what he called “the well-made object”, regardless of what artists or purchasers had to say about it. Whether my garden sculptures “decorate” gardens or simply enhance them in some other way doesn’t interest me very much because they pretty clearly can do both. These are all “fine” distinctions.

  24. If my art makes the buyer happy, reflects their personal style in their home and makes them feel at home in their space… and maybe sparks interesting conversation… then my job is done.m.

  25. Such a fun thread and thoughtful post. I was taught at University as a very impressionable youth (17) that craft was less than fine art. But the Fine art was never really defined! Although maybe it was, because my representational art at the time was pulled from the walls and thrown on the floor in favor of a more abstract modern expressionist painting. It was burned in my brain the differences. Also when I did watercolor, another thing about works on paper not being worth oil paintings worthiness. I find that has lessened some but not much. Now that I do a very different type of painting I was told by a friend that my stuff was too decorative! I should have asked more questions because it left me puzzled and still does. The fact that I do mixed media on 2d surfaces now has people floundering trying to “define” what I do…let’s see…whimsical (ok), collage=amateur(not ok), weird (ok)…so i guess it doesn’t really matter. I do what I do and if it matches your couch and you buy it then we are both happy.

  26. I totally agree with you.

    As an artist, I’m not trying to make “fine art,” just art that stretches my technical abilities and, in the end, satisfies me.

    I would like to piggy back on your post by saying that “craft” is another category that overlaps with art. I remember a long-ago day when I rolled my eyes after being told by a teacher that art has to be nonfunctional. Some of the most amazing objects I’ve seen have a practical purpose. Just ask the Pueblo Indian potters.

  27. I think that there is a definite difference between art (in any medium or style) that is done because an artist feels a passion for doing it and demonstrates a knowledge of his/their technique and a hackneyed work that is done on the basis of what is currently “marketable” without any other consideration. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to sell art. There is just something intrinsically different about any work that is done to communicate a vision from the artist rather than please a fickle buying public. These are the pieces that seem trite, trendy, and soul-less. Those are “decorative ” to me. Just my personal barometer.

  28. Although artists and gallery owners may be more concerned with whether their art impresses viewers enough to buy the art regardless of its category, I believe we should encourage as many people as possible to espouse the same definition of terms, so we each can convey intended meaning, understand others, and avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and disagreements and the unintended, undesirable consequences that can result. As we can see from this emailer’s expressed definition of “decorative art” (“enhances the décor”), she has been a victim of poor judgment by the inventor of the term “decorative art,” which denotes beautifying but has nothing to do with being functional, and she does not know the actual definition.

    Regardless of whether the benefits of sharing the same definition of each word/term are compromised by poor invention, ignorance of the actual definition, or the fact that the wide-spread misuse of words determines their future definitions in subsequent dictionaries, pursuing a shared understanding of definitions will be beneficial for communication, and ignoring that pursuit will increase the kinds of misunderstandings that prompted emails like this one.

  29. Fine art used to decorate is not the same as “decorative art,” which, as you point out, has a specific meaning. Of course people buy art to decorate! They live in houses, not museums, and are not investment buyers. It’s unrealistic and even misguided to expect otherwise. Granted, some buy hideous things to fill a space, but most buy something they really like that “works” in their house. I would be willing to bet that everyone here hangs art that works in the room in their own houses—not necessarily the “color” of the walls or sofa, but art that works or feels right for the environment of the room. It’s not necessarily the impulse to buy (which hopefully is “love”), but it is a factor.

  30. Wow, Jason. I think you lanced a boil with that topic!
    My personal soapbox is my objection to “Art for Art’s Sake.” I make art for my sake and the sake of my viewers, and that’s a fine enough endeavor for me.
    Thanks for the article!

  31. I trouble myself with this all the time, from the perspective of marketing. I whine, balk, throw fits when it’s suggested I should have a “style.” I create what presents itself to me, I insist! And quite possibly nobody “gets” it. Or they get it but they don’t really want to have it hanging up on a wall at home. This is the case with a series of scratchboard pieces I completed last year. I love them to death, and I get mountains of compliments, but have sold exactly three. I’m told they are “dark.” This is probably true. So I’m realizing – nobody really buys dark art for decor, but they like t-shirts, right? I will probably do that. In the meantime I am learning to complete larger-format pieces but still letting the message speak to me – I’m just the interpreter. If I can’t translate correctly, then I haven’t learned the language that piece wants me to use.

    All this is to say that context is ALWAYS emotional. You can’t tell people what emotions to have, but they will buy something that gives them an emotion they want every time they look at it. Makes sense.

  32. I have to say I am blown away by the courageous freedom-of-expression shown by some of my fellow commentors. Almost everyone makes the work that matters to THEM, and loves connecting with the people who love it, too. That’s the way to do it. You folks rock!

  33. The definition, or line in the sand, between “fine” and “decorative” art, and even “illustration,” were frequent topics in my art classes in college. The discussion continued, thanks to the rise of the internet, on numerous art forums. I don’t think anyone has ever come up with definitions that everyone agrees with. It is my take away that decor may have little or no “message,” while “art” usually does. But anyone can think of many exceptions, and illustration definitely has a message and is still seen as different from “fine art.” I don’t worry about the labels or imaginary lines. Like others I just create what I want to. And even if some people buy a painting to match their couch, be assured, somewhere there is a couch to match any painting, so it can all work out ok.

  34. I find it interesting that “textiles” are listed under decorative arts. I produce 2D wall quilts and have done so for some 20 years. I have sold some to customers who “felt” the emotional context of them and had to have them. That pleased me that they “got the message.” I have never felt that my wall quilts belonged in the decorative arts category; that puts them in the fine arts category to me. They have no useful function and are made for their beauty and the emotional focal point that I can relay in them. When they find viewers who can relate to these textiles, my job is done! Do I think about whether they will match the sofa or the bed? This rarely crosses my mind. I usually work from whatever vision comes to me to be made. My irritation comes from Textiles and Fiber Art being boxed into decorative art and not fine art. I think the categories need to be updated or completely forgotten.

  35. A fascinating topic. My idea of fine art is that fine artists consciously try to locate their work within art historical traditions, developing threads which other artists have begun, where there is more that can be added, possibly reflecting contempory contexts or issues. The narrowly focussed direction fine artists have defined in their work is what drives it, whether or not others recognise or appreciate the particular historical threads being followed.

  36. While I have to give credence to the denotations here, consider specifically the works of Puebloan native Americans. Their pottery, textiles, and jewelry seem to defy these classifications. I have both ceramics and textiles that will never seem practical usage, though that is what their designs imply they are made for. The discussion seems to be for those who want to be able to classify everything, and is really just an exercise in words.

  37. I’m thinking decorative art can be found at Lowes, Home Depot or some other Home Decor stores….art that is quickly made or mass produced and sold cheap. Also, production art , when an artist pumps out the same image over and over…my thinking anyway. Having said that though, I think there is room for everybody. An artist paints what he paints and the viewer loves what he loves. I find decorative and fine art both useful. To each his own.

  38. Calling art “decorative” is a way to attack it,
    A hostile Art Critic once wrote that I should see a therapist instead of paint and then attacked my painting as “decorative,”
    How could I be putting so much angst and feelings into a “decorative” work? I never could understand this attack, However, it brought a whole lot of people into the gallery!

    1. Hi Susan, I too was criticized early in my art career as creating art that “ you would find in Home Goods”. I was perplexed by this artists comments and also hurt by her criticism..it Wasn’t very constructive. As a result, being an someone who gives art classes, I really try to be constructive…

  39. I just want to sell it, and it doesn’t matter to me whether someone bought it because it matched their decor or because they thought it was a good investment. Though I can’t lie, my ego would be entirely stroked at the thought of it being bought as an investment, lol.

  40. i think some of the ‘contrast’ between fine and decorative art can also be applied to some ‘crafters’. Sure, there are some obvious craft items…..but SOME crafters make one of a kind ‘craft’ items that elicit the same “how did he/she do that” and sense of wonder and emotional impact as a piece of art. Just another label as far as I’m concerned……but good work, is good work. I’m an abstract painter, so I always wonder at the possibilities. Thanks…….

  41. Why pit one kind of art against another? If everyone painted the same way, not only would it be boring, but the competition would be unbearable. I’m glad there are many varieties of art. Viva la difference!

  42. Several years ago I had paintings in a show that included several other artists working in various 2D and 3D media. Another painter in the show wandered into my area, looked around, and said with a bit of disdain, “Oh, you do decorative work”. Her subject matter was traditional, realistic landscapes and florals, and she painted well and prolifically. I, on the other hand, had a smaller show of colorful abstract paintings. I took her comment as indication that she considered abstract art not to be “fine art”. We both sold paintings that weekend; I sold out.

    For several years I painted realism…florals and landscapes while also taking and selling photographs. But I soon got my need for realism met through my photography, and became bored painting realistically. I had been studying abstract work and was intrigued, so I tried it! What I found was the elements of a good painting are basically the same regardless of subject matter or the lack there of: color, shape, value, line, texture, balance, contrast, etc, etc. Abstract art is more challenging for me but much more exciting! So, while some may not value abstract art as “fine art”, I have many collectors who find it “fine” enough to buy several! And I am personally drawn to paintings that keep me coming back over and over again to discover yet something new that wasn’t obvious the first time I looked at it.

  43. I grew up watching my award winning artist of a mother continue her fine portraits & abstract landscapes & still lifes, in a corner of the kitchen, no matter where my father was stationed. She was getting contract assignments, or painting on a whim. Her good childhood friend owned a restaurant in Skagit County Washington. Uncle Leroy, what an eclectic character. He begged her to send pieces, after a bit of nagging, she succumbed. They sold! She started sending pieces to replace any as they were purchased.
    Her confidence with the quality of her work was never a consideration.
    As it should never be with a TRUE quality artist. I don’t need some pompous, arrogant Gallery owner or curator to tell me whether or not my work has merit! I don’t give a rip about their opinion at my decision in what to do with or where to show my work! It is fun to get public opinion on whether or not to further pursue a tangent. Showing through public places & libraries can also give the public a little delight, a little side thought, a little something to toss some fun into a drab day. It also helps keep fine art in front of our society’s children.
    That is imperative in the world today.
    Most can seldom get to a gallery or museum.
    The main point is; if you manage/own (what you consider a) fine art gallery — don’t be an arrogant ass & live your life in blinders pooh-poohing any artist who has shown in other venues. YOU will be the one ending up looking like a fool!
    A true artist might be touched & complimented by your opinion of their work — or not.
    Most are courteous & thoughtful.
    Most are confident enough not to need your opinion to continue with their mission in fine art.

  44. Thanks for this post! I live in an area where folks seem drawn to conceptual art, whimsical art, and very occasionally decorative art. I stopped worrying about it a long time ago and just make the art that I feel is good for me. Sometimes it sells and sometimes finding the right buyers has its challenges. But it’s all good and I sure enjoy the journey. Blessings.

  45. Loved reading this. I often find myself defending the “idea” that art is something that is aesthetic…. no matter the pretty, simple, ugly, deep message, no message….. whatever. Decorative arts, to me, have always implied a functional object that is also artistic…a light fixture can be a decorative art. I paint a whole line of original watercolors for an Interior Designer, the work I so impressed the designer and she wants to place original work in her clients home. My work is fine art that sells through a designer… I guess some would call it decorative art, but that is not the case. I paint fine art and have an alternate avenue for sales. Again, wonderful topic.

  46. This “debate” is silly and a waste of time. It’s like debating so-called representational art vs. what some critics deem illustration, as in which one is “true” art. It’s just nuts.

  47. I recently sold a painting to a friend who needed something for a specific place in her new home. But after a few days, she moved it to her bedroom where she said she would be sure to see it first thing in the morning every day, because she liked the piece so much. So I don’t think there is necessarily a distinction. Yes, someone might want a painting for a particular space, but they also want a work that they emotionally connect to for that space.

  48. After 30 years of art making, I’ve decided that I am creating “fine art” whether sells or not. I need to express my response to living as human being on this planet. I am a creative person who has something to say, non-verbally, so I make art to express myself. I am not an artist who makes art to be an artist.

    I believe one becomes an artist when they create work, on whatever level and media, from the center of their “being”, from the “center of their truth”.

    I’ll leave decoration to the production artists.

  49. As an artist and collector, I’ll give my take on this. It is my opinion only.

    If you see a piece you love when you see it, that should be enough. To me, decorative art is a color and a feel. It does not necessarily say something and the collector takes it at face value because it lifts their spirit. Some decorative art may be very complex to produce and require great skill, but so does medical equipment.

    Fine art (again my opinion) says something. It may be a story or emotion or both. It is well executed. It does not have to be explained to a collector and is self evident. Importantly, it should have beauty to the collector.

    We can discuss shock art separately. I think it is simply some lost soul trying to cry “look at me” I’m relevant…it is sad. An artist? Not so much.

    In conclusion, a potential collector that has to have art explained to them as to why they should want it by an “expert” probably should spend their money on something else.

  50. Wow, I may be repeating some of the comments, but this is a big topic! I’ll try to break down my ideas.

    1. Whether it’s decorative or “fine” may depend upon the place where the painting resides in a home, but it may also depend upon the subject matter. I recently painted a watercolor called “Crow Boy: Somebody’s Baby Is Not Coming Back.” Though the colors may match one’s couch, I doubt if a painting with this anti-war message and a central image of an empty cradle would adorn most living rooms. So where would this painting live?

    On the one hand, I can’t worry about that as I choose my subjects and paint. They generally choose me anyway. On the other hand, there it is, in a solo exhibit for now, but then… where? It will be interesting to see if it lives in my gallery after this.

    2. If a piece of work is decorative — that is, it enhances the decor — who cares? Good on you if you make a truly interesting piece that also fits somewhere nicely. That doesn’t exclude it from being a really “fine” work.

    3. Historically, any art that hints of femininity or contains subjects traditionally of interest to women have been relegated to decorative or functional. Those times, they are a-changing, albeit too slowly for most of us. But we are learning about women’s art through the ages now, that holds a candle to (and often far above) any known masterpiece that ends up in the textbooks and at Sotheby’s.

    Personally, I like to play with that “edge” (if there is one) between art and craft (and who says craft isn’t “fine?” — many have redefined that term). There are still juried shows with traditional “rules” for framing and hanging, and I get that. But that doesn’t mean that’s all that I will ever make, or that my pieces which don’t fit there are not “fine” enough.

    With the number of artists, people calling themselves artists, and people who make art but don’t consider themselves artists, that are now somehow making art, it is and will be increasingly difficult to keep this line defined. And I for one am glad of it.

  51. I found this discussion interesting and, for me, timely. I currently have a painting in a gallery that the owner notified me of a client”s interestin the work. It had been at the gallery but wasn’t there currently and was still on his website. He wondered if I could bring it back to the gallery for his client to see in person. It is rather large but I made arrangements and took it back to the gallery. He was to let me know later that week if the client liked the work “in person” I did not hear back so I contacted him and was told that she wanted her decorator to see it to see if it would work in the house. I consider my work to be “fine art” However, I guess it needs to also be decorative.

  52. I am a retired architect, a (sometimes) painter and a (procrastinating) writer. In my early career as an architect, I would paint watercolors on-location, and eventually fell into an opportunity to study-with and be mentored-by a National Academician (painter, muralist, building-designer, philosopher) Millard Owen Sheets, NA. Millard helped me to grasp insight that ALL such design/artistic pursuits and expressions are the realm of CREATIVES. We create because we must express what is in us, and what we have refined through our concentrated and consecrated consciousness applied to action on specific projects.

    I noticed that “architecture” was listed as an example of “fine art” in the definition given in your essay.
    I have no argument with that. But it is also true that architecture (while at times beautiful to look at) is functional and decorative, whether it is “fine”, beautiful or UGLY. This underscores how “silly” the distinctions are when one tries to differentiate between “fine and decorative” art.

    As a gallerist, you have the right idea, Jason. My wife (to-whom Millard Sheets introduced me) Carolyn Lord (www.carolynlord.com) was represented by Millard’s son David Stary Sheets (a co-founder of FADA) and I noticed a similar lack of distinction between “what-sort-of-art-is-it?” for how David handled a very wide range of high-caliber creations sold at the Stary Sheets Gallery.

    I really enjoyed your essay today, and follow ALL of the FASO essayists with keen interest. Thank YOU for offering them up.

  53. I am really interested in the answer to this question since I am new to fine art. I’ve been an illustrator my whole career, so I lean a little more to what might be “decorative” art. But it is “fine art” as well, because it has no real purpose other than as a painting. Basically I work in two styles and have been trying to figure out which direction might be better to focus on. One has lettering on it, or graphic borders, and is inspired by old orange crate label design or Western pulp fiction covers and magazines. The other style is just straight painting. But there seems to be a trend away from scenery and straight realism in a lot of the art shows I’ve attended recently. I’m not a complete mercenary, and I only want to paint what I enjoy painting, but if more decorative styles are selling better than traditional realism, I would honestly like to know.

  54. Thank you for this perspective. I’ve always thought that if an image “works” that is that it makes sense to the viewer, it is art. In other words if someone is touched by an image and enjoys looking at it then that’s it! Not everyone needs to love Picasso’s Guernica, but I do find it compelling.

  55. I thought I’d add to the conversation as a collector. My buying criteria has morphed into something a little goofy. If a piece doesn’t move me to a short gasp (audible or not) when I first see it, it is unlikely that it will end up in my collection.

    Art was never part of my early life. My family didn’t appreciate art, nor could they afford it. My husband and I developed a taste for art when we moved to Wyoming and became patrons of our local museum. Around the same time, I also became somewhat obsessed with 6×6 art when we attended a local yearly show, buying many affordable pieces every year. I further discovered online buying through some of the great sites with daily displays. As I look back at some of my purchases, I ask myself what I was thinking!

    Our tastes, over time, became more and more refined as we noticed the correlation between price and quality. I have boxes and boxes of early acquired, unframed small art. At some point realized I needed to stop being such a quantity consumer or find a 12 Step program for art addicts. I liked the idea of supporting artists and affirming my appreciation of their work by buying it.

    There was little method to our collecting madness. We have come to love art so much that we always vow on the way to an opening that we will not buy anything. Most times, the gasp happens and we break the vow.

    I loved starting out with small pieces because they were accessible and affordable. Now I see small works as a great way of starting into art for anyone. Visitors to our home marvel at our collection, often followed by the comment, “I don’t know anything about art.”

    I’m no expert on “fine” art. I have never bought to match the couch. But I like to tell people that it doesn’t matter what you know, and one usually knows if they really like something or not. Only buy what you love.

    It’s an academic argument over fine art vs. decorative. One side that shouldn’t be forgotten by any of the “players” is that art is a business. Appealing to the myriad tastes of consumers is part of the game.

  56. Most of the time you “just know” when you see one or the other, if the artist was producing something or was passionate about it. The fact of whether the piece of art is displayed in a museum or painted by a local artist that you like means nothing.

  57. “…purchased for its intrinsic artistic value (?) or maybe not purchased at all because it’s too “fine.”
    In a great article, this is the greatest statement of all! And most hilarious.
    History is full of artists debating what is worthy art, yet I believe our community continues take this debate to ever more absurd levels.

  58. Wow! I’ve enjoyed reading all the replies to this universal question. I’ve been an oil painter for sixty years and painted everything from petunias to formal portraits. In all the responses I didn’t see ORIGINALITY mentioned. We see so much copied art, trend following, using colors that are popular, method painting, etc. Perhaps originality should define FINE art.

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