Is Airbrushing “Fine Art”?
No, airbrushing in of itself cannot be considered fine art. Not any more than a pencil drawing can automatically be considered fine art, or a paint roller mark or a sable brushstroke. I know I’m being annoyingly literal here, but we tend to forget that it is simply a TOOL. What we DO with it is what counts, not what we use to get our results.
Realistically, I would say much of what is airbrushed is not fine art. The bulk of what we do is more illustrative, more commercial. There’s a whole gobb of gray area between “fine art” and “commercial illustration”, but much of the airbrush work out there is straightforward duplication of pre-existing commercial imagery. For example, even though it takes speed, control and skills to airbrush your average amusement park name shirt, even if the lettering is killer, I still cannot call it fine art. However, I HAVE seen fine art airbrushed on a shirt. The same goes for automotive work. You may paint some awesome graphics with cool textures, the perfect color manipulation and a unique layout, but even the US copyright office has a hard time recognizing “graphic design” as something that can be declared an individual piece of “artwork”.
I think this is also in part the answer to your other question of why airbrushed artwork has such a stigma in the “real art world” of not being “real art”. First, because the common substrates used are not considered traditional fine art surfaces. Shirts and vehicles are not by any means the only thing we airbrush on, but it is the perceived bulk of it. I believe it’s hard for many people to take decorated tennis shoes, trucker hats, skate boards or bowling pins seriously. Which is a shame, really. Secondly (and perhaps more importantly), because of its predominant exposure to the world as a tool for creating fast and often “underclass” citizen wares, it can’t be taken seriously. Who controls art galleries, high end art sales, art museums, etc.? Often corporate interests, or at the very least, the rich. While wealthy people most certainly DO hire airbrush artists to perform valuable services (cherubs in your foyer, ma’am?), it’s pretty safe to say that the bulk do NOT. To many of these people, “airbrushing” conjures up flea markets, amusement parks, low riders, truck tailgates and mediocre pinups on motorcycle tanks. To them, an airbrush is no more a tool for fine art than ColorWonder markers. Of course, this is a terribly narrow-minded and somewhat hypocritical view. After all, Andy Warhol made himself famous (and rich) by using tools and images of commercialism to create art, such as silkscreening and pictures of soup cans. Not many properly trained art snobs would suggest that he was not a “real artist”!
Which comes to the second reason why I feel airbrush artists are not seen as “real artists”. “Real artists” are generally formally trained, often in a four year program by other “real artists” at a school of decent repute, receiving a nationally recognized degree if they are deemed successful enough through the education process. Of course, a degree does not an artist make, and plenty of successful artists are self-taught. But as a rule, airbrush artists have no formal collegiate training, no nationally recognized programs or industry-wide member organizations, most are self-taught or attend several one-week private classes or learn on the job, and to an outsider, are held to no tangible, universally acceptable methods of learning or material techniques.
Ultimately, the question comes back to the age old one of “What is art?” I believe this question falls close to a similar one, “What is beauty?” Both are best defined by the eye of the beholder, ultimately. (As a side note, fine art need not be beautiful if it is compelling and draws a significant emotional reaction from the viewer that broadens his or her viewpoint.)
It’s a question worth pondering, if only to raise awareness of how our individual contributions can positively or negatively affect the perception of what we do. That is… if you actually care what anyone else thinks but yourself, your peers and your clients!