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 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?


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

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

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 their 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 an “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, 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.


  1. Love this, so agree with you!
    Certified Interior Designer/ Creative Arts Consultant/ CEO Arts Council of Placer County, California.

    1. I agree that the distinction between fine/decorative is moot.As an artist I struggle with studying and exploring themes for my work that might be appealing to someone not only on an emotional level, but “decorative” as well. I would be happy to see my work displayed behind someone’s sofa, in their office, in their dining room, etc…….I completed a landscape in pastel for someone..It ended up in their guest bathroom. Confrontational art, political art, super-large pieces may have a smaller niche among contemporary collectors with a lot of wall space, some galleries and museums.

  2. With a background in architecture, visual art, and sound/performance, the distinctions between ‘fine’ and ‘decorative’ art always cause some kind of trauma. As an architect, all art and furniture are ‘decorative ‘. The architecture is the king pin (that statement is ripe for another conversation), so anything added is decorative. Visual artists get defensive. Anything that is not ‘our’ art, is considered lesser, most of the time. This controversy keeps the creative juices flowing and expressions moving forward.

  3. Artists sweat things way too much, maybe feeling jealous when they are not selling and making up conceptual stories about what true art is! I ove everything about your answers Jason! Simple, honest and practical.

  4. I do agree with what you have written above. Of course it depends on someone’s …character… no, it is not the right word, better it depends on the human type, ocupation, culture, complexity, beliefs, way of beeing,etc, etc, if he/she likes a joyfull / colourfull and maybe uncomplicated work of art, or if he/she likes a more complex, conceptual art. I do not think that this has necessarily to do with the value. And yas, I love the definition of fine art, as per dictionary “…..aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness….”, because beauty do not have to mean easy and “just” decorative.
    I will share your thoughts, I consider them … important (and I am not an artist that sell a lot…)

  5. As an artist, I always hope that my work touches “a responsive chord” with the person who buys it. If that responsive chord happens to coincide with matching the color of a sofa, that’s just fine with me!

  6. To me it is refreshing to read your words as a gallery owner! I totally agree with what you are saying. As an artist I feel it’s all about touching the soul of the viewer. I’m usually happy for people to take an artwork home to see (and perhaps feel) whether it works well with their furniture. Which is probably what you describe when you say “where will we place it?” I believe art creates an atmosphere in a home or space, more than furniture can do, but I feel that it’s usually a combination and why not!

  7. The definition of fine art is one which requires some degree of scrutiny. There are those who want to lump everything into one basket and declare that you cannot define art. In reality you can. Fine art is something which is created solely for its aesthetic value. Crafts are items (which although may be beautiful) have some utilitarian value, such as a pot. A broader definition in this direction is what is referred to as the “applied arts”. This refers to all the arts which apply design elements and decoration to everyday items in order to make them beautiful and pleasing. This applies to a long list of things which includes items such as jewelry and furniture, rugs, etc. There is the reason why most museums have a special area assigned to fine art and another area that is designated to the applied arts, and crafts. If you think about it, you do not typically (if not ever) see something like a Tiffany lamp , or a finely carved fireplace mantel next to a fine master painting in a museum, unless the museum has a special reason for doing so.

    The area where “fine art” finds the most conflict is in the definition of decorative art in a fine art format such as a particular painting. For example: there are artists who are seriously creating works with the intent to move their audience in an emotional manner. There are other artists who are creating works which may look beautiful , however in essence they have little emotional context, and serve more to decorate a space, much like wallpaper. It is this thin line which creates conflict in the definition and at some point relies on the individual to define it for themselves. I believe that many historical fine artists such as Pollock, or Rothko might possibly be defined as “decorative artists” were they creating today instead of when they did because of the nature of their art. An obvious point of note is that interior decorators who work with the general public are “typically” searching for art which matches an element in the design of the room, vs something like a narrative work, or one which has a strong emotional context to it. There are buyers of serious fine art who may purchase a work because they connect with it and also appreciate it for its decorative qualities as well, however there is usually a distinction between other clients who are simply looking for a work to fit nicely, and quietly into a specific area, and are not interested in any sort of emotional feeling to the work. With all that said…In the end it is a personal definition.

    1. As a lifelong artist who has worked as a museum exhibit designer and gallery manager, l still do not have an answer to the question of what fine art is. I know, “high art,” from that created for the mass market, but l still have difficulty with a definition of “fine art.” Historically art was a picture of something and the quality of the verisimilitude determined both it’s worth and it’s status. With the invention of the camera all that changed.
      At this point we have many definitions of art. Some contend high art is concerned with meaning in a social context, some think fine art is revolutionary or “cutting-edge,” some believe fine art to be a combination of the two. Some say fine art is a creative reworking of old ideas. Decorative art is usually a derisive term applied to art that is merely attractive without any other motive in it’s creation. So, where does this leave individual artists? My answer is that one needs to decide for ones self which camp fits his work. Then visit every out outlet he can and study art history. Then be honest about your work, seeking representation where you and the gallery owner agree.

  8. This debate has intrigued me for years, and I finally quit worrying about it. I am a hot glass artist. For the past 5 years I have been sculpting life-sized flowers in glass. They have been my most successful body of work, too date. What I have noted is people purchase my work because of the emotional connection they have to that particular flower. The sculptures must be beautiful and well done, but it’s the buyer’s connection to the flower that separates the sold pieces from the ones that may languish in inventory – no matter how beautiful they are.

  9. The issue is not black and white there are many artworks that have a foot in both fine and decorative art. If we could add a couple of more catagories such as Academic art (art that is only understood or appreciated by people who have study art and art history) or maybe Insipid Art (Art that might have some pretty colors but is utterly boring) Artists should create what they are passionate about and not pander to art sales as a metric to success. Using the metric of sales usually plummets the artist down the rabbit hole of repeating themselves into the realm of insipid art and no artist wants to end up there. Sales are good but should define what the artist is producing

    1. I agree with your two categories of art, but I’ve been using different names. What you call “Academic Art” I thought of as Insider Art. And Insipid Art as Trite. My medium is fiber, and if I see another photo of a pet printed on fabric and stitched over to simulate fur, I’m going to scream.

    2. Kevin, I do “pander to art sales” because if I didn’t, I might have to get a real job. I do repeat whatever subjects sells well (sequoia trees, citrus, and a particular part of Sequoia National Park) because I am a regionalist from Nowheresville. I also repeat paintings that sold if another customer also wants the same piece. The challenge is to make it the best it can be every time I paint it, to not go on auto pilot or “phone it in”. I am very thankful for my customers and paint to please them. (Sometimes I get lucky when someone wants a piece that I painted “just because”.)

    3. I believe in the freedom of the artist to decide what he/she creates. Every artist has a different background and has different influences. Different artists bring different perspectives. I am a fan of more modern or contemporary art than other forms of art. That is what I relate to.
      I am not sure if my art is decorative or fine art. It may be both. I follow the visions that my mind comes up with. I am influenced by the artists that appeal to me.
      I know my art appeals to some.
      I believe that artists can often times be critical of other artists and that is fine.
      Life and art can be complicated.
      Thank you Jason for your guidance and positivity!

  10. I learned to paint through the Society of Decorative Painters. Then I moved on to fine art. They believe the difference between the two is patterns. With patterns the composition can be painted many times, while fine art is art that is unique, created once and only once. So in those terms decorative art can be done on canvases, which have no usefulness except to decorate walls. I much prefer your definition. It is more straightforward.

  11. As a potter & ceramic artist there is a different take on decorative arts in our field. When we talk about a decorative piece it is a non-functional piece made purely for its aesthetic value. We also have levels of craft including fine craft which may or may not be functional. Pottery can make a very intimate connection with a purchaser – visually, emotionally and the tactile sense holding the piece, pressing it to the lips. Many of us think of our work as art.

  12. I love this discussion!
    As an artist, I’m always so delighted when a painting I’ve made strikes a chord with someone. If they have the means to purchase it, all the better. The lines between decorative and fine arts are defined, but sometimes blurry.
    The audience, to me, is important in the equation. I still keep my brand and identity as an artist and in what I choose to create… I don’t allow the audience to dictate my subject matter, palette, style… However, I listen and watch to see what words people use when responding to my work, to see which pieces tend to get passed over, and which pieces elicit a response (whether with questions, dialogue, or purchases).
    It’s important to me to honor my audience and not assume that art buyers only want tepid, timid, or decorative “fluff.” That is a misguided idea and insults the audience. Art buyers and appreciators (who may not always buy but who attend and enjoy art events) appreciate and value art! This has been my experience for the past many years in the business. Sure, there are some who have not taken time to think about their taste in art and may not have been exposed to much. I consider these folks “newbies” and do not judge them or get angry if they don’t understand that much yet. If there is an opening for conversation I might introduce them to my work and get a dialogue going. Cultivating taste and sophistication takes time, education, and exposure. These folks are out there and will be attracted to what they like.
    It’s important to me to gauge the responses from the audience, just as artists in other disciplines do, to listen and refine from the critiques and reactions we receive. My brother is a professional actor and comedian, and he does this as he works on his skits and standup routines. He may refine his timing, delivery, or decide to re-tool or drop jokes that don’t land quite right when he tries them out live. Otherwise we artists run the risk of creating in a bubble, in an echo chamber just for other artists, and may become tone deaf.

  13. As a Santa Fe gallery owner, I think your response is dead on. The only reason we sell a piece – whatever media – is that it touches someone. Even when clients struggle with decision to buy and decide to do it, what they say is I love this. I have to have it! That is a win-win. I have been in the business 27 years and I don’t remember ever discussing whether the piece in question is “fine” art or something else.

    1. YES!
      I am also always impressed with the very pragmatic way Jason comments on any topic. And this is not a duplicate comment.

  14. If a work of art matches the couch, does that make it less “fine”? Does the painting enhance the couch, or does the couch enhance the painting? Just as you can enhance the ambiance of a room by adding art to it, the room or space in which you place the painting can also enhance the art placed in it.
    I come from an architectural background, and when designing hospitals, we often have an art budget. The pieces chosen are meant to enhance the healing nature of the environment. So in that sense, they could be considered functional. That does not make the pieces “decorative”… they still are “fine art”.

    1. Yes! While going through a very hard time with a grandson at the Children’s Hospital in Oakland many years ago, I was drawn to and comforted by some of the art while spending hours there.
      As a textile artist, I now keep this in mind as I create and hope that my art will bring a sense comfort, joy or calm in the same way.
      Functional while also fine art.

  15. Most of my art is “message driven,” part of a series on a particular subject. I am very conscious of the “fact” that buyers might not want some pieces on their living room wall, but those pieces may be an integral part of the series which is always meant to be shown in full. Having individual pieces in a gallery would be nice, but is never my initial intention. My intention is always “solo show.” Hey, who says you can’t think big, even if it never happens? So I guess I’m saying, “yes.. I make a distinction between decorative art and what I do, but but sure what I do is fine art. Maybe we need another category for what I’m calling message driven, or theme driven art.”

  16. As someone who was an illustrator for 35 years, this discussion has a familiar feel–can illustration be art? I was also heavily involved in the fine craft field for 10 years in the 70-80s. People had the same questions of “craft vs art” back then. Frankly, both arguments tend to bore me silly. The same requirements for what constitutes successful aesthetics go into it all, whether it’s a painting, sculpture, fiber art, ceramic art, glass, or drawing: does it satisfy whatever that elusive “thing” is when it comes to color, texture, composition, etc. ? It’s hard to verbalize, but you just know it when you see it and that “it” comes in all forms and methods and materials. In the end, the only question it comes down to is: do collectors want to live with “it”? And usually they do, regardless of what designation one assigns to the object of their desire.

  17. Imagine this: a painting with very minimal information, let’s say 3 colorful shapes, hangs on a wall. Two people view it. One thinks thinks it holds a deep, mysterious message and sees the colors vibrate off the wall. It is fine art. The other sees 3 colorful shapes and finds it attractive but holding no message. It is decorative art. The responses are not only about the art itself but also about what the viewers bring to it with their art background, ability to engage and personal preconceptions about art. I have personally made art that two people will give me feedback on – one will say it’s very personal and has a narrative beneath the surface; the other will say it’s “pretty.” It has taken me years to understand that once I put something out there, it can resonate as fine art, decorative art, craft or hold some other label. In my role as a viewer, what matters to me is a sense that the art has come from an artist who is serious about her work and has the skill to bring her visual intention to life regardless of what label someone may give it.

    1. Well said Nancy (and of course Jason)!
      Perhaps ‘fine’ and ‘decorative’ are just personal adjectives.

      I propose another adjective: Successful

      Successful Art = Art that accomplishes what the artist set out to achieve and resonates on an emotional level with the target audience.

    2. All are right and wrong or just are. 99% of art’s value is in its creation. Sales, admiration and fame are the icing on the cake. Discussions like this, though interesting, end up being mental masturbations because art is its own system and the economy is another system. They ultimately lead in opposite directions, away from each other. We humans handle art by trying to distill/imply economic values to it to make art relevant. Art & Humans can’t be separated and are on a much different level. Since we created the economy system we or Art/creativity can not submit to it without self destruction. Systems that created inferior systems like economy or technology can use them to facilitate, let’s say our human potential but never really rely on them for their own relevance. That’s why we need a new art-consciousness that deals with art itself to recognize and define value or relevance for art’s sake. I started this process in my book The Smart of Art.

    3. Absolutley agree with you Nancy. Monet referred to his work as decorative, I am also good with that term for mine. In reality it is words and opinions.

  18. Jason, you are absolutely correct. A well known installation artist who has an MFA from Chicago told me that my art was decorative and he meant it as a negative comment to me. All of the pieces he saw and commented on have since been sold and these buyers love them. Every piece had some emotional connection for them as well as fitting well in their homes. I take that as a slam dunk.

    1. I’ve had exactly the same experience Denise.
      At the time it stung, but not only does my work sell, it’s been collected by local museums, who have also given me solo shows, so to that jurist I just say ha, who’s laughing now 😉

    2. I had to go through a jury twice to graduate with my BFA. I had a near classical background from two previous universities which led to being a rather realistic painter (photo realism and fool the eye were “easy”). The jury were all abstract painters. I walked out of the first jury a failure and so depressed, BUT someone had seen me carrying in one of my paintings and was waiting at the door for me to come out, money in hand, wanting to buy it.

      Hmmm, ok.

      So, I had two weeks to come up with work that would please this jury. I did some slap dash stuff which pleased the jury somewhat better, enough to get that degree. Again, as I walked out (reeling from lack of sleep), someone was waiting to buy a piece. A different someone.

      The lesson I learned from that? The nay-sayers are just people with different opinions from others. Pay them no heed unless they have something to say that you can use.

  19. Last year I did 20 Covid-19 Impressions. They just poured out of me. They are dark and emotionally charged. I believe these to be a historic work, probably bound for a museum someday. As an artist, I can only paint what is given to me by the Universe, when I enter The Zone. I have to let go of the outcome and believe my work will find its home at the right time. Do I put it out there? Yes! My job is to paint and grow with my process. I am doing my best to just BE who I am in this moment. This keeps me emotionally connected to my work. If some paintings are decorative, lovely. If someone wants a piece because it happens to match their furniture, fine. I am trying to keep away from labels and find the path that is right for me to speak authentically through my work. Personally, I can’t paint for the market, only for me.

  20. This is a great discussion. When I first went to art school at a University in the wayback machine in 1973, the difference between fine art and decorative art, or craft was drummed into us. Although I admit I was confused by the vehemence and hatred the painting teachers had for the pottery division. It was a big deal then. Most of the “fine art” teachers were post modernists and very sure of a big difference and never should crossover. If I had chosen to take a wheel thrown pottery class I would have been scorned by the other side of the building..quite literally. As I was only 17 it made a major impression on me and one I had to forcibly revise over the years. Flash forward in the 2000s when I returned to school, there was not such a division and it appeared that all sides of the building got along quite well, whether making a beautiful useful cup or a massive painting. What I did find out was the Art History division pretty much hated all of us! They were convinced that we were stupid. Learning only how to hold a brush and daub paint. One teacher had the temerity to say that as artists we could not be academics, and most of us would never rise above being studio help to some famous artist! I wrote every paper to dispute his assumptions and deride him at every turn with my then quite proficient writing skills. ( I passed with an A+ but we were never friendly!). I did have a fellow student once tell me my work was decorative because I had some pattern making going on in a series of paintings, but he later bought 2 of them. On another note I have a dear Aunt who bought a painting to match her wall and couch when she first got married and unfortunately the ocean/beach scene looked more like an oil slick. We teased her over the years but she loved it and it still hangs over her couch 50 years later. I actually learned to appreciate the fact that she wanted art after growing up in a household that did not have the means or the desire to own art. Beauty in this case was definitely in the eye of the beholder. my longwinded conclusion is that it does not matter.

  21. Art vs. insipid art, one of you phrased it. I don’t begrudge anyone their type of art. To each his own. The only reason this topic interests me is because I am developing my own landscape painting style, and I am looking for ways to improve. Should I emulate those who sell a lot, or pay attention to why I like painting in the first place?

    I think “decorative” is the wrong word. Maybe insipid is the right word. Today I went to a gallery. The owner made no bones about the fact that what she cared about was sales. What struck me most about their paintings was that most of them had intense colors all over the canvas, as intense in the background as foreground, i.e. usually no aerial perspective, no single focal point but seven or eight focal points distributed all over the canvas, detail as sharp in the distance as up front. Here is how I would characterize most of them: inviting subject (beach), realistic draftmanship, good enough composition, good painterly technique, but exaggerated colors, and lacking unity as well as visual depth. Those artists slapped down the same brushstrokes, same details, same colors, same subjects in painting after painting. It was like an assembly line. I can imagine they were able to dash a painting off in half a day. Certainly profitable. The average buyer definitely is attracted to loud colors and exotic beaches.

    In contrast, in my landscapes I intentionally mute most of the colors, with maybe two or three places of intense color to guide the viewer’s eye, and a single focal point which is emphasized by color, value contrast, and sharpness. I find that a colorful detail is even more interesting when surrounded by muted colors. Should I change my style just for the sake of money?

    Here’s an analogy: Pulp fiction sells. Few people pick up “Anna Karenina.” If you are a serious writer, should you give it up and start churning out whatever sells?

  22. Over the years; I have had my art purchased by customers who bought for decoration and also by collectors whom had a sophisticated appreciation for my work. I realized the paintings can please both customers and collectors.

  23. If the painting looks great in the setting, that is better for the painting, so I am thrilled when someone wants an image that “matches” or “coordinates” its placement. If the buyer placed beautiful work in a setting that detracts from the art, then the art is lost. As the idea of fine vs. decorative is concerned, I don’t think it matters whether the art is in a color-coordinated or design-coordinated living or business or museum space as long as it resonates there and people are intrigued to look at it, respond to it, and remember it. In a loose, generalized sense, I tend to follow the dictionary definitions you included above, but I’ve seen many individual examples of each (useful vs purely aesthetic) that would better fit the opposite category, a graceful hand-blown, glass decanter that I would never consider pouring from, for instance, because it is too exquisitely designed and made. It is equal in perceived aesthetic value to a still life painting of a decanter, something to display rather than to “use.” If there is enough emotional connection for a collector to want it, then it would seem that enough elements are in place to call it “fine art,” even if it could also serve a practical purpose.

  24. Hmmmm… Only visual artists would engage in an ego driven discussion over fine art versus decorative art. Get back in the studio and create art that matters to you and comes from your heart. This is like the comments used between crafters and painters, the same sort annoying drivel given about Crafters and Fine Artists. Or talk about mediums such as watercolor and oil and acrylic. Jump into the creative river and see where it leads you.

  25. Actually that begs the real question which of course is ” what is art? ” First you have to define art and then you can divide art into categories if one so desires.

    My opinion is a lot of what claims to be art is actually craft. To be art, in my mind, something has to be innovative and have either an emotional or intellectual element or at least stimulate thought.

  26. Fine art vs. Decorative art confuses me as an artist trying to set my career goals and develop a body of work. There seems to be a top group of art arbiters locally (and on a larger scale nationally and internationally) that declare certain styles and subject matter to be worthy of attention — like Art Basel or the latest recently graduated local art darlings with inexplicable weird, sexual, or gory pieces fraught with angst. These are held up as collectible fine art selling for top dollar and getting into the most prestigious shows. These works of art are bought as speculative investments whose value can depend in large part on hype. The rest of us are dismissed as decorative or uninspired academic artists who scramble at the next lower tier in local galleries selling to Mom and Pop for their living rooms. Unfortunately, I can only paint what I paint, so I need to adjust my gaze to the market that is possible for me. One on one with a collector in my studio I have seen the joy first hand that my humble affordable painting can give someone’s Mom or Pop.

  27. I started to think about this as if there were a distinction on one side of which there would be the little paintings of salt water taffy and also oversized cheerful humorous paintings of dogs among cartoonish rockets or whatever cultural touchstones (or blue or balloon dogs and red cats), popular and enjoyable even to me. But I can draw no such line that would exclude such examples from being fine art.

  28. I think the difference here is whether the work provokes THOUGHT (“what’s going on here? What is the artists trying to say?”) Or EMOTION (“that makes me feel good”). Art that “simply” evokes emotion could be considered “simply” decorative. Art that requires or requests thought is often not what people want in their living rooms.
    As an artist, I like to provoke thought. But sometimes just painting a pretty picture is enough.

  29. Years ago, I was visiting a friend who was a gallery artist (she did cartoons cut out and painted on plywood and would set up tableau with them.) she was starting to get recognition for her work around L.A., and I liked what she did. I mentioned I was going over to meet a photorealist painter who had a great reputation at the time. Amazing work, in my opinion also. But my friend said, “Oh, I don’t really consider her a “fine ” Artist, she is really just an illustrator. Being and illustrator myself, at the time, that “just” always bugged me. Most of the best fine artists of the last few 100 years started as illustrators. I always figured they made such great artists precisely because they were illustrators first! Mucha, Hopper, Remington, Pino…..then I mentioned to the other artist when I was visiting, who I had just been talking to. She said, “Oh yeah, the one that does cartoons on plywood? Well, she isn’t really a “fine artist” she is really just an illustrator!” So, I guess that is what artists say when they feel insecure? It pissed me off, and I actually liked both of their work…isn’t there room for differences in art?

  30. Both definitions are simply illusion. i once dealt with very high end art to presumably well educated wealthy individuals who in reality knew only what they were told and virtually never explored for themselves. They considered the purchase of fine art to be the ultimate conquest over the masses. By direct contrast another of my operations focused upon the sales of limited edition prints to folks of modest means. to them this was fine art they could understand and relate to, it was not just decoration. The third primary category which sold via my galleries was that of local artists in a variety of expressions. The buyers prided themselves in their support for the local and as the others considered the works to be fine art. Periodically we would also deal in jewellry, pottery and unique crafts, hand produced for a variety of reasons. [this was also fine art to their buyers].
    As i said the definitions are complete illusion and waste of time. The local artist banging out flower paintings that sell and create a life for them is no more a FINE ARTIST than the dealer who sells a vincent van gogh sunflowers to a presumably fine art buyer of sophistication and wealth.
    I once sold a whole bunch of my own paintings to a wealthy businessman with a large and impressive house. i expected to see fine art when i walked in. what i saw was 52 mexican bull fighter paintings on black velvet throughout the place. bought from a guy who showed up at his business. He gladly paid the 100,000 i asked and had me deal with the black velvet.
    Art is in the eye of the beholder and not in the control of the dealers, sellers or even artists.

  31. This article is so incredibly timely…I have been selling my work at a local design center/high end furniture and decor shop for about a year and I do tend to paint what makes me happy and subjects that appeal to me. My pieces are what others have described as ‘painting from your heart’ .The paintings have sold somewhat ok ,but not on a regular basis .I am aware that ‘contemporary abstract’ art seems to be an easier sell.(?) Not being as specific as was touched on ,but rather colors that match the decor…(This could be a wrong assumption) Was recently given the opportunity to work with a gallery owner who sells contemporary art and is willing to work with me and come up with some concepts that would be a good fit. I felt a bit torn and didn’t know why until reading all of these comments. Always had the mind set that is has to come from within and for me as the artist to have that emotional connection that will bring it to the canvas. The truth is I really just want to create works that feel right to me but that I can make enough to supplement my income on.. that is the bottom line!! So I suppose it will be left up to the buyer to determine if what is created is fine art or decorative, as I move forward with this new venture as it is an opportunity that should not be passed on. All of this input helped me to confirm that decision! 🙂 I do have a back round in Decorative painting as a faux finisher for 25 plus years so hopefully it won’t be much of a stretch lol

  32. In the last year, my work and the choices of subject matter have turned decidedly darker. In one series I delved into child labor in the late 19th/early 20th century; I did so because I’d done some reading on the issue and the education I got upset me a lot. And so, a series of six paintings was the result.
    Beyond that I also developed a fascination with crows and ravens, birds very much associated with darker themes. I enjoyed doing those paintings very much, but, as with the series on child labor, response from the viewers (those that saw them, I live in a very small, conservative town) was all about how the paintings weren’t “happy”.
    I don’t think my job as an artist is to make people happy. If they see something in my work that touches them, I think that’s the best reward. My work could never be mistake for ‘decorative’. While I do think there is a difference between ‘decorative’ (or what some people refer to as ‘hotel room art’) and fine art, ultimately it is strictly up to the viewer to decide what pleases him/her. Subject matter, theme, color, it’s all about what the person viewing the art finds meaningful.

  33. I am proud to call myself a decorative photographer. Some images created for decorative works may be fine art. Some fine art may be decorative.

  34. Fantastic article that delves into the intriguing debate of fine art vs. decorative art. As an art enthusiast, it’s fascinating to understand the distinctions between the two and how they each hold a unique place in the art world. Kudos to the gallery owner for shedding light on this topic!

  35. My answer comes from hearing my painting teacher and mentor point out when a painting was decorative. What he meant by that was that the artist wasn’t using formal principles while creating. So, for example, constructing the canvas using contrasts in hue, value, texture, quality (warm vs cool), saturation, texture, and so on.

    Another possible way of distinguishing would be “the lasting quality” of a painting. So, if you’ve basically seen the whole painting the first time you looked at it, and you didn’t have much of a desire to look at it again, that might be a sign that it’s decorative. Or, if every time you look at a painting, you discover something new and pleasing that you perhaps hadn’t noticed before – a rhythm, a transition, a playful and unexpected note, a luminosity, a juxtaposition, and so on, then I would guess that it’s NOT decorative.

    Whether the opposite of “decorative” is “fine art”, I can’t say. I expect that would depend on the sensibilities and experience of the artist.

  36. Listing textiles as a type of “decorative art” can be misleading. Yes a large quilt hung from a rod on the wall is probably decorative art…it is both beautiful and functional. However, art made with textiles as the medium should be considered fine art. It is “made primarily for aesthetic purposes and should be judged for its beauty and meaningfulness”. To consider textile art only as “decorative” does it…and its creator…a big disservice.

  37. What may have been “decorative” in another age or culture, i.e. useful, may be be in a museum today, appreciated for its form, composition, workmanship or use of color, etc. And if the setting for a painting distracts the viewer, then the emotional impact of that painting may be diminished. Even a frame can be important.
    Finally, we have a collection of ceramic teapots, all functional, but purchased solely for their aesthestics.

  38. When I was in my twenties, a fellow called a piece of art I’d made “decorative “. I was crushed. I no longer care. I’ve even branched out into making clutch purses and having my artwork printed on clothing. I wear my art with pride!

  39. I look at the distinction a little differently. When I lived in Los Angeles in the 80’s and did shows as artists many of us referred to the paintings that matched the couch as “couch art”. In the world of interior design certain color schemes come and go . A lot of my art went out of a gallery on “approval” with an interior designer. It was probably getting checked to see if it matched the rest of the color scheme. I was using bright colors then. This was not because it was popular it was because that is where my head is. Where I live now most designers use a completely different color palette. I see a very restricted palette that is mostly pastels. A lot of this work is technically very well done but shows a lack of creativity. All art can be fine art and all art is used for decoration. I like art that is technically very skilfully done, that shows great creativity, and that elicits the emotional feeling in me that I am connected to a part of creation I had never experienced before. So for me there is good art and there is bad art. A lot of the art that I see being done to match the couch is bad art. A lot of the art I see in galleries in often bad art. Good or bad is just my determination of whether I would like to have it in my house and look at it every day. I have seen absolutely stunning couch art. I see a lot of fine art that looks like something you would find at Sam’s club. A great artist has the skill to reach inside of the viewer and touch them. If a pastel looking painting of a sailboat rings you bell great. I am more adventurous than that. I would always advise choosing the art first and then finding the couch to match.

  40. I find it interesting that the vast majority of those who ascribe to the fine v. decorative art ‘conflict,’ obviously feel that fine art can only exist in a two-dimensional world. To illustrate just how old that thought pattern is, I say, “POPPYCOCK!” And kudos to all (the majority of the commenters here) who uphold the moot nature of it all. Art is entirely in the heart and soul of the creator/maker as it is in the collector/client/customer.

  41. The first thought that comes to mind is a recent quote by Jerry Saltz, respected and revered NYC art critic:

    “We lived to see the collapse of the ideology of Modernism…

    …The point is that art is just coming from everywhere by everybody all at the same time from every place about anything.

    Right now everything is at play. Right now criticism is temporarily suspended…. By and large criticism doesn’t exist.”

    We are, indeed, in an unusual moment in the world of art where lines are blurred, even for art critics.

    Anything goes! Enjoy the ride!

  42. “…Do you make a distinction between fine art and “decorative” art? Do you feel galleries should focus on showing more fine art?…” I really don’t think about these questions. What I DO make a distinction between is good art versus bad art. I realize even that may be considered subjective, but especially seeing what’s out there and popular on social media and in bricks and mortar venues, both with viewers and collectors, and with galleries, museums, art prize and residency sponsors, and art publications, I have to conclude that THERE’S NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO BE A BAD ARTIST! It’s mind-boggling how much bad art is celebrated. Gallerists and dealers using terms like “exquisite” and “breathtaking” in promotions of work that is just…bad! All concept, no mastery in execution. Or no concept and no mastery. But if it’s selling, I guess that’s the determining factor. Somebody likes it, or thinks they are supposed to like it. So I guess I think the art community needs to focus more on what is really quality in art.

  43. Thank you, Jason, for another thoughtful, clear, and sensible article. I’ve given this a great deal of thought as I painted over the last 45 years, and I thoroughly agree with your points and your conclusions.

    Just an additional thought regarding Jane Pendleton Miller’s comment (also thoughtful, clear and sensible):
    I don’t think there’s a museum curator on earth who can know the artist’s motivation(s) for painting a piece unless the artist has made that clear personally in so many words. (Think Georgia O’Keefe and all the male art curators and critiquers of her time insisting they were all about sex. Don’t think so, honey, and neither did she if the written works about her are true.) We all look at artwork through our own experiences and knowledge, not anyone else’s. For this reason, anyone else’s perceived motivation(s) for any piece is not something I pay much attention to.
    What matters to me is does it touch me? Does it touch others? i.e. Does it communicate to and with the viewer? Does it provoke emotion and/or connect to people’s deepest hearts?

    Just my opinion. Thanks again for yet another excellent article and discussion.

  44. Thank you! I can’t agree more. I think this thought of “lesser” art is promoted by art schools. Not explicitly said, but somehow implied. Some of the greatest artists were starving. Selling your art is almost frowned upon, even though everybody wants to sell. They forget that some of the greatest artists sold their work very well.
    Be happy when someone loves your painting, for what reason does not matter. My art does have a purpose – I want people to feel happy.

  45. Well written and thoughtful post. All art is decorative. It can be used to decorate a space and still cause people to stop and ponder, i.e. The Sistine Chapel, etc.

  46. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and the lively discussion in the chat. We recently had a similar discussion at my art group in relation to what was acceptable to display in an upcoming show. It seems to me that the attempt to distinguish always becomes muddied and can’t be concluded without a subjective element. And that is the nature of art isn’t it? As an emerging artist trying to find her place in the art world, I look for things that inspire my creativity, decide what I want to communicate through my painting, and use the skills I have developed to the best of my ability to bring my vision to life. After that, all we can do as artists is release it to the world and hope it will connect with other humans (or not release it at all).

  47. Thank you, Jason, for another inspiring and useful discussion.

    I know who I am and what I want to do. I’ve been an abstract artist for several years now, but I am still learning and fine tuning every day. As for that difference – fine/decorative art – and the idea of pleasing a viewer emotionally, I hold that the first viewer who must respond emotionally is the artist!

    If I can’t talk to a potential buyer or gallery owner with deep love in my heart and my bones for a piece, I’m lost. And that’s not fine with me.

    I live where the most popular works are landscapes and animals. I am not deterred. Nor am I about to begin painting either. I sold enough paintings before I came here, and I hear enough positive comments about the colors and what I do to keep me going. My inspiration is jazz. Even artists must be able to love what we do. Otherwise, we might as well get jobs at the bank.

  48. I love art and value the great diversity of expression. I create art,collect art, visit galleries and museums. What I don’t often do is read everybit of a blog and the thread of comments which follow. My thank you Jason and thanks to all the respondents. You enriched my art appreciation, widened my perspectives, and were most engaging and thoughtful.

  49. Shouldn’t the difference between fine or just art and decorative art be determined by the motivation behind making the art? Why does the artwork itself create the distinction? If the artist is creating for the sake of creating, it shouldn’t matter what they end up creating. And even if the meaning isn’t spelled out or explained it is a form of self expression unique to that artist. Decorative art with or without function is like graphic design or landscaping, it’s not about self expression.

    My art has been described as decorative because it happens to be pretty and I don’t push esoteric meaning behind it to give it value. I create art for me as the main priority, not with the goal getting compliments or impressing others. I’m not designing paintings to decorate living rooms. If someone buys a painting from me because it does match their couch or they don’t even care about matching but just like the colors, I don’t care. It’s not the artists job to influence how someone views or values art. But anyone who thinks that my art has no meaning just because I don’t explain my entire story to them, or what I’ve been through, or how art has help me heal, etc. they obviously don’t have enough knowledge to understand the mind of an artist or value self expression as the art, instead of the actual artwork.

    Should we start a movement to educate people? A hashtag? Bumper stickers? LOL Just kidding!

    1. So well said. The article was very reassuring to me, an emerging artist who regularly worries whether my art is fine enough for the art world. Is what I do too “simple”? Is working with a lot of intentionality by planning collections (I feel sometimes like I work like a fashion designer) killing the “art”? Is it too commercial?
      I don’t work that way this because it’s commercial. It’s just how I like to work and it helps me to develop my craft

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