Is Commercial Art An Obsolete Term And How And Why Did This Transition Into Graphic Design?

2187 words - 9 pages


Visual communication in its broadest definition has a long and varied history. Within the development of the profession there have been many changes; whether it is the actual role of the designer or whether it is the actual nomenclature employed within the industry itself. Two of the key terms that have been applied to certain mediums found within visual communication are ‘commercial art’ and ‘graphic design. Commercial art was widely considered graphic art created specifically for commercial use, by an individual while graphic design is now a recognised profession of visual communication that combines images, words, and ideas to convey information to an audience, for a specific effect. ...view middle of the document...

A number of commercial artists combined several of these disciplines. In this sense, one could argue that commercial art focused much more on the skill of the individual as a technician as opposed to a designer as these commercial artists were consistently subject to the constraints and preferences of the employer and/or client with little to no creative input towards the overall visual design of the product. One such example of commercial art is Les Palais de Glace by Jules Cherets. The poster, used to advertise a Parisian theatre, depicts a dancing woman rendered in vivid hues; a red and yellow striped dress with a billowing orange cape, adorned in attire that was typical of that era as a gentleman hovers discreetly in the background. Of course, while it is always possible to infer and prescribe meaning towards commercial art (a feminist’s eye may conjure one interpretation, an historian of that particular period of France another) it is also not too much of a stretch to posit that the purpose of the work was to advertise at the specific behest of the proprietor, no more no less; a piece of paper a client intended to hang for a short while, enticing patrons to the theatre with the promise of dancing girls in pretty dresses.

As a result, it would not be fallacious to suggest that the term became obsolete due to the stigma that this title carried, especially as the cultural and creative landscape shifted and new artists were able to more than sufficiently claim autonomy over their own process. This idea is reflected in a comment by Sir John Betjeman on the works of Kauffer (an artist who will later be discussed at length within this essay) in response to A Designer and his Public: “He showed how there is no such thing as commercial art. People are either artists or they are not. Ted Kauffer was an artist”. Here, Betjemen reinenforces the idea that commercial artists had a fairly low social acceptance. By dismissively rejecting the entire term, particularly the usage of the word ‘commercial’ and all the preconceived notions that come with it, with this comment Betjeman intends, first and foremost, to strip the industry of its tainted reputation. In validating Kauffer and with it many other artists who may have once been considered ‘commercial artists’, he places them firmly in the role of creators as opposed to little more than ‘hands for hire’.

This shift in perception and the move away from the idea of a ‘hands for hire’ approach owes it origins to the early 1800s, when poster artists arguably demonstrated the first steps towards the aesthetic freedom and creative agency that this essay and Betjeman alludes to. Abetted by and indebted to the technical innovation in the fields of graphic production and reproduction at the time, artists were now able to produce their own original lettering as opposed to simply adding text with the printer’s type. One influential design that is served by technical innovation and employs visual metaphor far...

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