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?

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 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 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.

30 Comments

  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.

  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

  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.
      Ann

  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”.

  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.

  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 😉

  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.

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