Fan Art or High Art – What’s The Difference?

Fan Art or High Art – What’s The Difference?

Imagine walking through an art gallery. A tough order, I know, but pandemic aside try to envision yourself taking an outing to a prestigious gallery for a day of cultural enjoyment.

Looking around, you see how paintings line the walls and sculptures litter the floor – the odd live performance may even pass by as you walk through the various rooms on show. For all intents and purposes, this gallery houses the best of the best in the art world right now.

Now I’m guessing the gallery you’re imagining probably has some very famous artwork in there – maybe Michelangelo’s David or Monet Water Lilies? Or something more recent, like an abstract Louise Bourgeois sculpture?

My point is, the image we have of the gallery is limited to what is known as ‘high art’ – artworks which can only be appreciated by those with cultivated taste, as opposed to being accessible for the masses. It’s one of the main reasons why we don’t see massive portraits of Wonder Woman or Jon Snow in the National Gallery. It’s just too common.

Even if the quality of the artwork is incredible, the subject and ‘uniqueness’ is a defining factor in what makes an artwork valuable. This eliminates the prospect of growing art genres, like Fan Art, from finding commercial value.

Wait, What’s Fan Art?

Fan Art is a genre of art that depicts famous characters from books, films and TV shows, as well as modern day celebrities (usually singers or popular bands). As the title indicates, these artworks are usually created by fans who have the intention of celebrating their muse through their own creative means. Fan Art is considered a form of ‘low art’ rather than ‘high art’, and so is not usually showcased in the spaces of prestigious galleries or museums.

The subject of Fan Art is what marks it as being lesser than other art forms – more specifically, the fact that the inspirations for Fan Art are narratives and characters from already well-established media, or celebrities. This has shaped much of the criticism of Fan Art, often being labelled copying, stealing other people’s ideas, and lacking any innovative or intricate meaning.

With these barriers in place, it makes it difficult for young artist who specialise in the genre to make a name for themselves professionally. With very few people treating their artwork as a serious investment, Fan Art artists are often pushed to the periphery of the art market.

As well as this, copyright on characters and artists makes it illegal for a profit to be made from Fan Art. By diminishing the market through legal means, it has become even more difficult to be considered seriously – especially as capitalist valuing drives the majority of art production today.

Authors of characters and agencies representing musicians and actors are usually only tolerant of Fan Art as long as it’s non-commercial, which stops artists from making a name for themselves in a more professional sense. With many artists relying on commission to pay the bills, it becomes a decision of moving away from the subject matter they feel most comfortable working with or keeping a low profile – both of which could inhibit the growth of that artist’s brand.

In contrast, quoting past pop culture is considered edgy and clever. Not only are most famous faces and characters dating before the 21st century considered an acceptable subject for artistic reference, they’re also mostly copyright-free. In other words, it’s easier to get away with using Tony Montana in your artwork because now it’s considered a cool nostalgia reference.

Why exhibit a portrait of Ariana Grande when you could add another Marilyn Monroe to the collection!

History Has Nothing To Do With It… Or Does It?

Examples of Fan Art are rife in Art History when you look close enough. During the Italian Renaissance, the majority of artistic content was taken from the Bible (the original fanfiction, if you will). Paintings depicted the same scenes over and over again, with the same saintly figures taking centre stage and being hailed as the highest of taste.

Religion was a large part of popular culture at the time, with the Church acting as news network, lifestyle advisor, and government figure all at the same time. With this mind, it’s not completely wrong to suggest that the canonical depiction of Jesus fits into the genre of Fan Art – a character from a written work that made a huge impact on all areas of society, and all classes too. People appreciated the ideas, stories, and messages that religious narrative conveyed, and so wanted to celebrate them through their own vision.

Similarly, a more familiar version of Fan Art can be found in Pop Art, which was an entire movement specifically dedicated to the celebration and satirisation of current pop culture. Artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Richard Hamilton lay the foundations for modern Fan Art by introducing brands, comic book parodies, and magazine culture to the forefront of trendy art practice.

Nevertheles, these thoughts raise a few questions: Could this mean that the content of pop culture today will only be appreciated once time has passed? And are artist therefore doomed to the fate of the “underappreciated genius ahead of their time”?

In light of our discussion on the prominence of the ‘Fan Art or High Art’ debate, we sat down with Xanthe Russell, an artist who specialises in Fan Art.

An artist of the digital age, Russell’s work explores fan culture through a mixture of traditional and digital renderings. From BTS to Supernatural, Russell’s subjects are simple in that they follow wherever her main interest lies in that moment in time – creating snapshots of contemporary culture from the viewpoint of the consumer.

With this interview, we hope to encourage all types of artists to pursue their interests and continue to create the art they want to – Fan Art or not.

Please introduce yourself to our readers!

My name’s Xanthe and I’m a 22-year-old female British artist from the South West of England, which is also where I’m currently based. I specialise in digital art, primarily portraiture, although enjoy exploring a wide range of mediums and subject matters.

The primary focus of your work is pop culture (celebrities, musicians, characters from films and TV shows) – what drew you to these subjects?

I think the main reason why I’m drawn to those subject matters is that I believe its popular media that helps shape us and makes us grow. The films, books, and music I grew up with were ones that I easily fell in love with, and being able to draw inspiration from that media is sort of my own way of ‘giving back’ to the industry.

There’s also the element of fandom and fan communities, which feels like a safe space in comparison to other art spheres to me. I’ve been very fortunate that over the years I’ve been involved in a variety of fan communities that have been incredibly inspirational and supportive, and have led me to make many good friends. There’s just something so human about loving the things other people create so much that you create your own art based on it that I can’t help but adore!

Fan Art of Dean Winchester by Xanthe Russell
Dean Winchester, 2020

You mention on your Tumblr that you are largely self-taught in your digital practice – what made you decide to take up digital art?

I’d actually only heard of digital after my sister started to show me some of the digital work she was doing around eight years ago, and it really intrigued me. Shortly after I got my first graphics tablet and began to draw with it. A part of me wishes I had read some books, or watched some tutorials when I first started, since the first few years were a big learning curve in figuring out what you can do in digital. But I’m also immensely proud of what I’ve achieved through trial and error.

Digital offers a lot more freedom in my opinion, facilitating more opportunities to experiment with style and colour in a way that traditional mediums often feel limited. It also means you can create multiple versions of one work of art whilst messing around with filters and effects on the software –  which is a function I definitely overuse!

What artwork of yours would you say was the most challenging or rewarding to create?

Having done probably close to 800 works of art over the last five or so years, I’ve got to admit it’s a little hard to narrow it down to just one piece. But one that I am still incredible proud of, and took a long time developing from the concept stage to finally painting it, is my BTS Rapline Triptych from 2018. I was heavily inspired by the work of surrealist artist Remedios Varos, as well as the three members’ mixtapes and music videos from over the years. As well as this, I poured a lot of my thoughts and feelings about the previous year into it.

There have been a few other projects I’ve done more recently, such as my character design for The Spirit of Somerset, which was a piece based on the folklore in my hometown and the surrounding county. It was very frustrating to do at times but incredibly rewarding when I’d finally finished it.

You recently completed an undergraduate in the History of Art. Have your studies influenced or impacted any of your work? Do you have any specific artists or art movements that you draw inspiration from when working?

Oh, for sure! One of my favourite things about studying Art History was being able to apply my knowledge from it to my artwork. I think there is still so much we can and should learn from artists of the past.

One thing I always try to do when I’m basing a work on an artist, like when I created an artwork depicting two characters from the show The Untamed in reference to Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, is that I never want to just copy a painting from that artist. Several years of art education has taught me that when you find an artist you want to draw inspiration from, you should take elements of that artist’s style or practise and try to meld it with your own.

I think experimenting with this allows you to both appreciate the techniques of artists from the past, as well as being able to develop your own distinct ‘style’ of producing work. It’s also a lot of fun, particularly if it’s an artist you like a lot!

I’ve always been drawn to artists like Klimt or the Pre-Raphaelites for stylistic inspiration, since there’s a lot of vibrancy in the colours used and the visual impact is something I find particularly stunning. But really, I find myself inspired by artists from any and every era.

Wanxian (Wei Wuxian x Lan Wangji), 2020

Do you find that some people take you less seriously for making Fan Art? If so, why do you think that is?

Yes, I definitely do. I remember countless art teachers turning their noses up at me or my fellow classmates’ ideas whenever we would even mention the prospect of fanart. I think even a lot of fellow artists see it as more of a steppingstone to ‘real art’ rather than a category of art in itself, which I think in part comes from a leftover snobbishness in the art world from bygone eras.

There’s also the way in which art is taught in schools, with the focus on ‘originality’ because there’s this assumption that art is only allowed to come from ‘personal experiences’. And anything that might be deemed ‘decorative’, which is often where fanart comes into discussion, is seen as a lesser form of art.

There’s also the fact that I think people mock fanart because ‘anyone can do it’. Again, this comes from old ideas that the art world is for the middle and upper classes. And since nowadays artists don’t need degrees or art lessons and can happily produce stunning works of art about their favourite TV shows, that elitism has returned in bounds.

 It’s a sad world to live in when a drowned cow is a more ‘valuable’ piece of art than nearly your entire portfolio, just because that’s ‘original’.

I noticed that a lot of your posts and stories on Instagram compare your recent works with ones you completed a few years ago. Why do you do this? Do you find it important to keep track of your progress while working?

In a way, yes. I feel like one of the problems with being a modern artist trying to navigate social media is that you find yourself producing work after work without really getting the chance to appreciate them individually. So, I find solace in looking back and taking time to be proud of what I’ve done over the years – even if the old works are kind of awful.

Another part is that I like being able to see how much progress I’ve made; it gives you a kind of confidence boost even if you’re feeling a bit down about your art. I think artists don’t do this enough because they think they’re coming across as conceited or vain, but I do believe it is really important to be proud of your achievements!

Spirit of Somerset, 2020

What struggles have you found when starting your business and career as an artist? Are there challenges you face daily? How do you try to overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges has been accepting the fact I’ve chosen this as a ‘career’ and attempting to tell others this is my life now. I have wanted to be some kind of artist for as long as I can remember, but in the insanely competitive world we live, trying to become remotely ‘successful’ in art is almost an impossible task.

I usually overcome this thought by reminding myself that if I were to do anything else, it would go against every single fibre in my being. So even on days when I feel drained of motivation, or that it feels like a hopeless endeavour, I still cling on to that.

Where do you see yourself this time next year? What goals do you have for the future?

I’m hoping to be more firmly set up as an artist, plus some kind of steady income would be nice – but I am also a realist, so I’d be foolish to expect that in just a year. I think if I can be here in a year’s time, still pushing myself towards my dream, then I’ll be happy. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t reward dreamers, but we’ve only got one life so we might as well make the most of it!

It’s your life, you owe it to yourself to be happy.

Could you give our readers some advice on starting their own business and becoming an artist?

Oh boy. Okay, so as cliche as it sounds the most important part of starting any kind of artistic venture is to genuinely enjoy it. You can get so caught up in the business-career side that you forget to have fun with it. Art is fundamentally about expression and creation. And being an artist is always about having something to say, no matter how big and important, or seemingly small and insignificant that thing may be.

Enjoy drawing your favourite musicians? Do it! Draw slash ships, paint abstract patterns of naked women, do strange performance art about giving birth to an alien, do it all! If it’s something you’re passionate about doing, then pursue it! You may not be successful, and there will be about 60 times every day that you’ll want to just give up, but I think if you’re doing something you love, and other people can see that, then success will follow on after.

Although I hate the term ‘networking’ with a burning passion, it’s a really good idea to try to get involved with other artists either online or in real life. Not only does it allow you to get involved with amazing projects, but also can help you to improve in your artistic ability!

The final piece of advice I would give is to allow yourself to have breaks! I’ve made the mistake in the past (and will probably make the same mistake again some point in the future) of not giving myself a break from doing and posting art online. The problem with art is that it is often genuinely fun, and if you’re anything like me you have about 700 art ideas at any one time and just not enough time to do all of them. Please remember that your health is just as important, if not more, than churning out a new work of art!

Illustrations by Xanthe Russell – see her Instagram here.

Looking for more art content? Check out Mouthing Off’s Art Section.

About The Author

Charlie Colville

I’m Charlie, a digital journalist and Mouthing Off's Editor in Chief. You'll find me exploring galleries, listening to podcasts, and using the gift of the written gab to get my opinion out to the world.

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