When is it OK to use art?

When I go shopping, I often see very attractive displays inspired by artists’ studios. For spring this year, Anthropologie featured abstract expressionist inspired paint drips and the natural canvas look matched well with spring linens and denim featured in the store. The overall effect was especially attractive to me because it combined my interest in art with a very actionable offer to buy a shirt or a dress that would hopefully get me closer to feeling like an artist.

There are many other examples of using art for commerce, but the easiest ones to spot are paintings as a theme in clothing retailers.

Anthropologie's custom painted installation in Cambridge, MA spans two floors.

Picasso and purses

J Crew last January (and I believe at each mini-season that aligns with a new academic semester) featured preppy blazers one might expect a professor to wear alongside books on modern art and scarves with beautiful abstract ink splatters.

Aritzia seems like a perfect example of a bohemian / artist vibe one could simply purchase, ready-made. Their store displays also feature books, posters and painted surfaces that feel like the inside of an artist’s studio.

Anthropologie uses rich textures throughout the store. This one mimicks a painter's studio surface.

Jackson Pollack inspired paint splatters decorate the store and quite successfully help sell clothes.

Every time I see this theme successfully implemented, I feel conflicted. It appeals to me as a customer, and works really well to elevate fashion apparel. But as someone who makes and researches art, I also see how easy it can be to exploit artists’ work and ideas for commercial gain. So what is it that makes it “okay” to use art in any project? When is it acceptable to adapt the style of a well known painter, and therefore use some of her built-up cultural value without compensating her for it? What if the artwork becomes too simplified and loses its original message in the process of interpretation?

Here are three directions to consider when adapting artistic and cultural works. Your approach may vary, but thinking about value, understanding, and context first will certainly open up more questions and increase the chances of a thoughtful collaboration.

Compensate for the value

One obvious, and primary motivator in commerce is financial gain. Artists are often expected and encouraged to work “for exposure” and simply because they would enjoy making the work. But any company that encourages such behavior will likely do so for their own commercial gain. Customers don’t often buy plain, tin lunch boxes - they buy the ones with art.

As artists provide value, it is important to compensate them for that value in a way that makes sense for them. Even if someone closely follows a famous artist’s style and derives commercial gain from the result - a more ethical approach would be to invite an artist for a collaboration.

So, the first thing to check for - if value is being created based on an artist’s work, there should be some form of compensation going back to them as a result.

Work from a place of understanding

I refuse to assume that artists are motivated only to sell their works to any willing customer. If any artist’s work or piece of shared culture is used outside of its intended context, or against its spirit, regardless of financial gain, it’s improper use. Asking “why” enough times can help get to a proper level of understanding.

Don’t use it in a weird way

And finally, even with enough understanding - sometimes the fit is just not great. Perhaps using a cultural or religious icon respectfully might be ok, while other use types would be offensive. Think of cultural no-nos like using a buddha head as casual decoration.

Anthropologie displays often mimick art.

So, is it ok?

My final thoughts on store displays with artist books - yes, those seem fine. Like furniture and plants, they are used in context and the clothing on display doesn’t seem to contradict the ideas in the books. As a consumer, I usually try to run off to a library and look through more art books instead of buying the clothes. Usually.

The practice of closely following ideas sourced (but not credited) from individual artists to decorate store windows may be less okay, even when it does not violate any current laws.

And any brand that wants long term success through collaborations with artists would benefit from a thoughtful, ethical and careful approach. While potentially more costly up-front, the resulting authentic brand story of collaboration (rather than exploitation) would more likely keep customers like me long term.