From the TCJ Archives

An Interview with Victor Moscoso

Commercial Art vs. Fine Art, Round I

GROTH: Here you’re blurring also the distinction between commercial art and fine art; it’s not strictly commercial art, and yet it’s —

MOSCOSO: Oh no, no, no. The reason that we did it was for advertisement. What happened with the psychedelic poster is what happened with the Art Nouveau poster, is what happened with the Japanese woodcut. Throwaway art was not thrown away, Ephemera did not ephemerate. It crossed the line on its own into the so-called world of fine art. Now, you tell me: What’s so fine about “fine art?”

GROTH: Well, I think probably you would say that it’s more purely aesthetic; it lacks the strictly utilitarian value of transmitting information.

MOSCOSO: Is that good? I would think that would be less; if I can entertain you visually and give you information, isn’t that better? And after all, what is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel? Advertising art! And what is he? An illustrator! And what is he illustrating? The Bible. The Last Judgment is on the back wall, behind the altar. When I’m in the middle of this, just as it started to take off, I said, “Holy shit! I’ve been going about this the wrong way. Here I’ve been trying to be like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velasquez, Goya — they were all commercial artists. Did Michelangelo do the Sistine Chapel first and then go sell it? No. He got the job first, just like I got the job first doing the posters.

What happened? The Industrial Revolution. And who can we look at? Well, the first guy is Mozart. Mozart at the age of 5 was touring the courts of Europe. You had to be an aristocrat to hear young Mozart, because you had to be important. At the end of his life he was writing Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, for public consumption. You had the price of the ticket, it’s like going to the movies. You didn’t have to be nobility. That was when the aristocracy dropped and the merchant class went up. Ping! Same thing happened in Japan with the woodcut. The woodcut was not bought by the upper class; they bought paintings. It was the average person; a woodcut sold for the equivalent of a bowl of noodles. The French Art Nouveau poster, well, that maybe cost a little more. They were pretty big, those kiosk posters, but not that much. That’s still commercial art. I’ll tell you what fine art is. Fine art is gallery art. It’s art that, first the artist does it, at no cost to the gallery, and then gives it to the gallery to sell for 50 percent. Fine art is gallery art. Commercial art is popular art. Michelangelo was a popular artist. I mean, the Pieta could be seen by anybody walking into St. Peter’s.

GROTH: Would you impose a qualitative distinction between popular art and fine art, in that one has a greater aesthetic value than the other?

MOSCOSO: Greater aesthetic value? Give me an example.

GROTH: Well, it just seems a little murky to say that fine art is that which is done for galleries, because you can find art in galleries that essentially has the same qualities as commercial art.

MOSCOSO: No, because commercial art has a useful function in society. Now, you could say that fine art has a useful function in society, too, but it’s a different kind. One is communication, one is status. You want to get the hot new artist like you want to get the hot new sports car.

GROTH: Right. But I think there’s a distinction between what you call “commercial art,” that you were doing in the ’60s and what a lot of other artists were doing, which was homogenized mass art, and was also commercial art.

MOSCOSO: Oh, there’s good and bad in every form. There are good “fine artists,” and there are shitty fine artists. There are good commercial artists, and there are shitty commercial artists.

GROTH: Right, but it seems at this point there’s almost no way to, or even reason to, distinguish between what we call fine art and commercial art, because fine art’s been so commercialized and a minority of popular art or commercial art rises above its purely entertaining function into the realm of true art.

MOSCOSO: The one way that it’s very easy to distinguish is: Did you get the job first, or did you do the painting first? When I get a job to do, like a poster for Starbucks, I get the job first. I get one-third up front. Show the sketch. One-third upon approval of the sketch. One third upon delivery of the finished artwork. I know when I’m starting that job that I’m going to get paid. A fine artist, who is doing his work for a gallery, or a museum has no idea, unless he’s like Robert Williams, who’s a real anomaly. Robert Williams is a freak! [Groth laughs] Robert Williams is one of the few artists I know that can make a gallery.

GROTH: Yeah. But it hardly seems like a distinction. In other words, when David Hockney does a painting, you might say he’s not doing it on commission, he not doing it for someone, but he knows very well he can sell that painting, and he’s going to make money from it.

MOSCOSO: What’s the purpose of the painting? To make money? See, ’cause I’m doing it for the money. It makes it very easy. I’m a professional artist. Professional means “for the money.” An amateur is one who does it for the love. I think there’s nothing wrong with being an amateur painter. At times, I’m an amateur painter, because I’ll do the stuff for nobody but me! At that point I’m being an amateur painter, one who’s doing it for the love. It’s not a job.

GROTH: But there’s not necessarily a qualitative distinction between the two, right?

MOSCOSO: Qualitative would come in terms of client and audience, and/or audience response. That’s the nice thing about commercial art, like with the posters — “Did you sell a lot of the Doors posters?” “Oh, I sold millions.”

GROTH: Is your frame of mind different when you do what you consider commercial art, versus what you might consider your fine art?


GROTH: Explain the difference.

MOSCOSO: Client. In other words, when I’m doing a piece for myself, I’m doing it just to please myself. When I’m doing a piece for a client, I’m doing the piece to please the client and myself. I gotta be pleased with it. I am the factor, but I see myself as a tailor. You walk in, you want a single-breasted, three-button suit with a vest. Belt in the back, the vest, flap pockets, slightly flared pants, pinstriped. In fact, when I’m talking to the client, by the time the client has told me what he wants, I usually have it designed, just by listening and making notes. I let the client design it for me, because that way he’s gonna be pleased with it. That’s my job. If he’s not pleased with it, I didn’t do my job. I know who it is that I’m trying to please. A “fine art” artist — unless he’s like Robert Williams, an exception — doesn’t know who the fuck he’s going to please. Robert does because he’s got a list of people who actually are commissioning him! He is a commercial artist!

GROTH: That’s right, but they’re commissioning him to do whatever he wants to do.

MOSCOSO: Right, so he straddles that area.

GROTH: I guess one definition might be that in commercial art the ratio of craft to art is higher.

MOSCOSO: I agree, because you can’t get away with the kind of shit that you get away with in the so-called fine arts. [Groth laughs.] A foot of dirt in the gallery? “Oh man, that takes a lot of craft!”

GROTH: But good fine art should have that degree of craft in it as well.

MOSCOSO: Well, de Kooning did. Franz Kline did. I was really impressed when I found out that Franz Kline did these tiny little sketches, around two inches square, blew them up with this schoolroom-overhead projector, and then painted them very carefully! I said, “Out of sight! That’s how he did it, man!”

GROTH: Now you know, another artist that you admired, and that I understand influenced you and that I wanted to ask you about, was Arshile Gorky. Can you tell me what you admired about him, and how he influenced you?

MOSCOSO: I liked the stuff he did, especially his black-and-white stuff. He and de Kooning were pals there for a while, and they did some black-and-white abstract things in enamel paint, and it was neat! I haven’t seen them in years, but they really grabbed me. Plus the realistic stuff they did; they did WPA stuff for a while, before they went on to their abstract stuff.

GROTH: Gorky was also influenced by Picasso, who was such a giant twentieth-century figure. I wanted to find out if you were affected by him.

MOSCOSO: I have been, I’ve done a couple of recent paintings where I’ve been copying Picasso. Yeah, I’ve always dug Picasso. Not his paintings in the blue period, but Demoiselles d'Avignion and a painting of his at the Peggy Gugenheim Museum in Venice, which is these children on the beach, which is just beautiful. Tones of gray. He’s not a colorist. Matisse was a colorist. Picasso was more of a draftsman. I could relate to him that way. At that time, I wasn’t much of a colorist, either. Now I can relate to Matisse more than I did before.