Commercial Art’s Conundrum

A period advertisement for cigars

A short preamble 

Alain De Botton hypothesizes in his book ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work‘ that the real reason for the pervasive disillusionment in our society is that our jobs have been disconnected from purpose and meaning.

Before societies and businesses became as complex as they are today, he says, in a far simpler world, every professional had a very clear cut role to play in society. A fisherman hauled in fish for a village, that would starve without his efforts. The direct human connection made his life’s work fulfilling and meaningful.

Contrast this with an accountant (it’s always a poor accountant!)  lost in the bureaucratic order of a huge corporation that makes, say, biscuits. He has no idea of how his day’s work really contributed to anything, other than giving him something to fill in his timesheet! HR departments in big companies really exist to fill the void caused by this divorce of purpose from our jobs.

Venkat Bhai, my favourite person in the office, beams at the camera at lunch time.

Venkat Bhai, my favourite person in the office, beams at the camera at lunch time.

Indeed, Venkat Bhai, our canteen in-charge, is arguably the happiest dude on the floor. He’s always smiling, and his movement can be surmised from the cheers of adulation that follow him as he, quite literally, purveys the grease that keeps the wheels of the office turning!

Mike Rowe, of the popular show ‘Dirty Jobs’ has a wonderful talk on a Ted where he makes a similar point. ‘Roadkill picker-uppers whistle to work’ he says, as he makes a strong case for hands-on work.

Does a Commercial Artist ever really feel a sense of purpose?

Isn’t every designer a closet artist? All the good ones are at any rate, escaping the confines of form and function and ‘purpose’ to scribble in their diaries, caricature a face, or illustrate some fantastic character.

You could argue that it’s actually quite simple, that when you see an ad you made in a magazine, for instance, the client’s message has been disseminated, and a sense of purpose is achieved.

But the likely truth would be that when a designer sees his work out there in the world, he’s normally thinking wistfully of how he may have done it better, or on rare occasions, how thrilled he is that the work ran the hierarchical gauntlet and emerged relatively unaltered! He is certainly NOT thinking of how the ‘purpose’ was served. That’s someone else’s job.

A conundrum?

More fundamentally, the creation process for commercial and intrinsically motivated art have an insidious distinction.

As a self motivated artist you aim at ‘connecting’ with the work and reaching a state of ‘flow’ where you’re almost one with the what you’re creating. You’re intensely focused on the task, all your senses are on full alert yet you’re manifestly calm. A piece of work gets its power from your attachment to it.

Commercial art, not so much.

This is a very cynical evaluation, but the whole idea, after a few years, often tends towards disconnecting enough with the work so that you don’t feel the stab when a suit gives you his unstudied opinion on how the colour doesn’t work! When you manage to disconnect enough so as not to feel anything, you begin to pride yourself on being ‘thick skinned’, which is great news except that this ‘thick skin’s’ function is not so much to buffer you from the hurt of slander but to build an impenetrable wall between you and the work.

If the thing you have to do to get the most pleasure out of your work,(and in the case of art it is to ‘connect’ with it), is exactly what you cannot afford to do on a daily basis, then there lies an unresolved conundrum, a recipe for frequent bouts of discontent. And if the creation processes for intrinsically motivated art and commercial art are so vastly different when it comes to a fundamental factor like connectedness, then things like personal style, a work’s personality, indeed all the things that give a piece of work individuality, all come into question, and the umbilical cord between cathartic art and commercial art seems to be tenuous at best, and capable of being snapped at the whim of the first unimaginative MBA.


I do love my job. It’s fun. And I wouldn’t trade it with the accountant. There are lots of people in the commercial art world who are really happy with their jobs. But when I came across Alain De Botton’s theory of disconnectedness of purpose and meaning, I thought I owed my line of work as a commercial artist a tough examination.

Cigar ad image by Double–M on Flickr using attribution license 


2 thoughts on “Commercial Art’s Conundrum

  1. Pingback: Tributes to Dylan in Kinetic Type – College Design Projects | virajrohancircar

  2. Pingback: How E-Commerce is Reviving Artistic Typography in Advertising | virajrohancircar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s