The Confines of Creative Commissions


July 29, 2023

Are your commissions currently open?

   It’s quite likely you’ve seen in it an artist’s bio before; their commissions are either open, or their commissions are currently closed. Yet why do we create commissions, and how do they impact our creative energy, reach and potential?

   The concept of an artistic commission is nothing new. Put in the most simplest of terms, a commission is a piece of art asked or requested by a person, business, or government.

   Commissions have been occurring for many millennia. From the Ziggurats of Ancient Mesopotamia, to the powerful pyramids of Ancient Egypt, and the Parthenon of Ancient Greece. From the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus of the Persian Empire, to the Roman Colosseum, and even Michelangelo’s David. Regardless of where you look, it’s quite clear that the act of commissioning art has been happening across many millennia, and has even resulted in some of the most iconic works which still stand in revered relevance to this very day.

 Yet why exactly do we still deal with commissions in modernity? How has this term survived from the humble fertile crescent, all the way to the digital landscape we exist within at this very moment?

   There are quite a few reasons why creativity is an act commissioned by many. They provide an income for artists, the opportunity to add a personal touch, a call to creative growth, the wider accessibility of art, and they offer moments of cultural and local significance which greatly enhance our lives.

   For one, the ability to work with a client offers artists the chance to make a somewhat steady income. If you’re reading this, there’s a high likelihood you’re familiar with the trope of the starving artist. Regardless of your opinions on such matters, these tropes exist for fair and relevant reasons. Artists by definition push culture forward, and that comes with a high degree of uncertainty, as the concept of creativity itself is a call from and then towards the greater unknown.

   The chance to create a commission also offers artists with the ability to leave their personal touch on a piece to live beyond themselves. It’s easy to notice that this is common with all works of art, but the artist who creates a commission often does so with their own style and artistic influences. Despite being somewhat chained by their client’s demands, the resulting work of art made by commissions capture some element of the original artist, whether conscious or otherwise.

   Commissions are also a call to exploration and, by nature, offer growth for the original artist. The demands of a client when creating a commission is an inevitability, and that often requires the creator to journey beyond their limits in one way or another. This may be seen in technical ability where they agree to create something using materials or techniques which they’ve never encountered. It may also be seen in the request of a vision which they’ve never dealt with before, whether that be a new image, theme or general concept.

   There also exists the opportunity of widening the range of accessibility of art to a broader audience when creating a commission. During the 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution took hold and made goods cheaper than ever before, that blessed many with more money to buy other goods, including products that weren’t a necessity of literal survival such as works of art. One may argue that mental health is just as important, but the scenes and themes of starvation were much more familiar to our ancestors than they are to us today. Regardless, the new and burgeoning middle class now desired works of aesthetic beauty to fill their homes, and finally had some extra income to do so. Coincidentally,  or perhaps incidentally, the French Academy was in the midst of being challenged by the Realism movement under artists such as Manet, and eventually by the Impressionists with artists such as Monet.

   Due to the challenging of authority and the breakdown of cultural convention, many individuals were then liberated alongside their desires for creative expression. Combine this with the growing power of the Middle Class, and the demand for art absolutely exploded. Commissions were being requested at a rate never seen before, and that allowed aesthetical beauty to be available to the masses en large. Not only did this offer an alternative source of income to artists outside of higher forms of authority, but it also commodified the act of creative expression itself, further expanding the accessibility of art to grand new heights.

   Finally, and perhaps most punctually, the commissioning of art creates a local cultural identity. There are many reasons people still visit the city of Rome in Italy to this day, one of which being the sheer amount of creative commissions and works of art in general. After all, it is one of the most dense areas in the world of great works of art.

   Consider your local village, town or city as an example. It is quite likely that you pass by dozens, if not hundreds of artworks daily without even considering it. Not only is this a testament to the proliferation and accessibility of art, but it also points to the immense importance of creative commissions in creating a local identity. Save for unwarranted graffiti, most artworks such as murals, sculptures, and advertisements were likely requested by a local business or by the city itself. This offers the artist a unique opportunity to, once again, make their mark on the world around them. Areas which are considered rather daft and dreary are able to be worked on and evolved into spaces which are pleasing to exist within. This beauty is essential to the cultural health of a local village, town and city.

   Now that we’ve explored the many ways in which artists benefit from the concept of creative commissions, and even if these are all quite true, I’d like to ask a seemingly simple yet important question.

What if commissions are holding artists back?

   Let us return to the rather obvious fact that commissions require the artist to negotiate with a client, who acts as a central authority to the eventual result of the work being requested. Isn’t the artist subjugating their creative spirit to the demands of a controlled entity, whether that be a person, business or government?

   One of the most obvious examples may be seen in the context of propaganda. During the 20th century, we witnessed the subjugation of creativity towards political ends on a scale never before seen. The creative ability of hundreds of individuals were forcibly aimed towards the will of a powerful and highly repressive state. Although hundreds may not seem like much, the rarity of truly creative individuals who actually realized their talent, and then were forced to create propaganda, is an occurrence not to be understated.

   Next, imagine the artist who has finally achieved their dream of living in the difficult destination of New York City in the United States of America. They, quite rightly, view their ability to make money as a central tenet of their survival in the relentless city of the big apple. It’s practically inevitable that they’ll be required to create commissions and negotiate their creative output with a client whether friendly or otherwise. Now, what if they spent their entire life doing this? What if, at the age of eighty, they come to realize that they’ve spent their entire life using their creative ability to meet the demands of someone else as an outside authority?

   Any time spent creating commissions might be considered minutes spent not in the act of exploration with yourself in the driving seat. Although not always true, as our system requires voluntary cooperation when exchanging goods and services, the artist may refuse at any time. Yet even despite this, the artist must still make some money to survive.

Shifting from commission-based work to freelance can be an incredibly daunting prospect for artists. With commissions, there's a guarantee of payment. With freelance work, however, there are no such certainties.

What do you truly wish to create?

   Even when choosing to create what you wish, the problem of “The Market” will surface time and time again. People inevitably buy art they wish to own, and that inherently creates a demand for more beautiful, pleasing and relatable forms of artistic expression.

   Although it’s safe to say that the average person isn’t searching for works depicting horrific gore, the presence of new markets fueled by strains of Punk and Goth culture have certainly created a greater demand for darker forms of art. Of course, putting the obvious smut scene aside, this new strain of demand has gifted artists working on more marginalized forms of creative expression with an audience willing to buy and support their artistic output.

   Even though this new demand is true and quite telling, the fear of failure is always relevant as a starving artist. This fear is encapsulated in a single, chilling question: What if no one purchases your freelance work?

   The financial uncertainty can be paralyzing, preventing many artists from taking the leap of faith necessary to break free from commissions. This is a legitimate concern, as not all artists have the privilege to create without the assurance of a steady income. For many, the economic constraints of survival supersede their desire for unrestricted creative exploration.

Is commissioned art a creative constraint?

   On one hand, commissions offer financial security, professional growth, and public recognition. They provide an opportunity for artists to contribute to their local cultural identity, thereby leaving a tangible mark on the world around them. This provides artists with opportunities while posing substantial challenges. 

   On the other hand, the pressure to align one's creative expression with market demand, as well as the constraint of working under someone else’s vision, can indeed stifle the artist's true potential. This compromise may not always align with the artist's innate drive to innovate, explore, and challenge the status quo.

   Understanding this dynamic can help artists make informed decisions about their professional paths, aiding them in their quest to create truly fulfilling and impactful works of art. What an artist truly wishes to create should be the guiding beacon amidst these tumultuous and turbulent waters.

   Another question, therefore, might not be whether commissions are inherently restrictive or liberating, but rather, how these artists can navigate this dynamic landscape to maintain their authenticity…

How can artists balance their need for financial stability with their inherent desire and even fundamental need for creative freedom?

With all that’s been presented in this piece, one question is left for the reader:

Are artists held back by creative commissions?