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  • Is It Possible To Be a Commercial Artist?Dilemmas Faced by Advertising Industry Employees with Artistic Backgrounds in Poland
  • Kamil Luczaj (bio)

It has always been difficult to tell where art ends and the sell begins. In the vast majority of contemporary capitalist states, most people with a formal education in the fine arts work outside the art world. When trained artists decide to work outside the field of art, they have to agree to the market rules. They need to consider certain conventions, local cultural schemata, rules that apply to a particular product category, and, most importantly, the client’s point of view. It is no longer l’art pour l’art, and the problem of their artistic identity begins. As C. Wright Mills1 put it, a designer is a man in the middle, because “his art is a business, but his business is art.” The position of a “commercial artist” is a very difficult one because the adjective (“commercial”) completely changes the connotation of the noun (“artist”).

Advertising as Art

Aldous Huxley once said “advertisements were one of the most interesting and difficult of literary forms.”2 Thus, creative employees of advertising agencies have sound reasons to treat their work as a form of art. For instance, Damien Hirst, one of the biggest names in the art world, regards advertising as just another medium. He is convinced that artists who lent their names and their skills to the promotion of perfumes, cameras, and other commodities are not breaking any “rules.”3

But what about trained artists who are advertising professionals? Do they feel like artists? The essay is based on my experience and a research project about creative employees in Polish advertising agencies. Half of my research respondents were trained artists; that is, they studied art in a university. Based on 21 qualitative in-depth interviews4 with art directors and copywriters as well as my interpretation of their narratives, I will show what “artistic autonomy” looks like in the relatively young Polish advertising industry.5 Let us have a look at what Polish creative employees have to say about their professional and artistic identities. Are we able to draw some parallels with Western advertising industries?

Wieslaw,6 a creative director at the Polish branch of a big, international agency, claimed that, in every project, a creative team intends to create “a sort of art.” He stated that in art galleries one can observe very similar ideas, and that there was only one difference between these and advertisements: they did not contain a logo in the bottom right corner. This is a big difference, however. Wieslaw was not naïve. He knew that if something became commercial, it was automatically assessed as inferior. Personally, he thought that such a valuation is unfair. He gave examples of ambient advertising, other than film and print, which— according to him—resembled artistic performances. He believed that these resemblances, or affinities, lay not only in the final products of the two industries. In his opinion, the art world was very similar to the world of advertising. According to Wieslaw, creative professionals were, in a sense, artists after all.

Waleria explicitly said that an author is the most prominent figure here. She believed that “advertisements are authored by very talented people and designers.” She emphasised that she, as a trained artist, always takes into account proportions, compositions, and colours. We can summarise her account by saying that artistic quality in advertising always depends on a particular person.

This is consistent with another of Wladyslaw’s ideas, when he argued that if David LaChapelle used his photo in an advertisement, it would not make any difference whether there was a logo, because it would still be a “perfect photo.” In this context, we can conclude that an inventive author is a common criterion for both good art and good advertising.

Other qualities that link advertising with art can be found in both Kornelia’s and Karolina’s accounts. The former said that beautiful pictures and an innovative use of conventions made art and advertising much alike. The latter added that advertising needed to be “abstract enough” in order to be called “art.” It...


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