What is the difference between fine art and décor?

The difference between fine art and decorative art lies with intention. While both can be beautiful and expertly made, décor serves a more straightforward function than art. Literal in meaning, décor exists to embellish interiors; fine art on the other hand, is about more than its subject matter. In an effort to crystallise this, here’s our guide to distinguishing between décor and fine art.


Content Over Subject Matter

Iconic art critic Jerry Saltz observed the difference between content and subject matter in fine art. For him, subject matter constitutes what is depicted, while content relates to how this is depicted. 

In the case of Anne Hall's work, her subject is frequently portraiture. However, her approach to this subject matter is anything but ordinary; instead it is characterised by a profound intensity that seems to envelop the very essence of her subjects. Rather than conforming to tradition, her work, exemplified by Hidden Portrait (below), evolves into a profound exploration of the human psyche. True to Anne Hall's consistent style the innermost reality of her subjects persistently emerges.

In the case of décor, subject matter is pride of place. If a bridge is depicted, then the picture is about the bridge. Fine art, however, reflects Saltz’s hypothesis. Style, material and creative process unite to manifest the artist’s vision, which injects familiar forms with new meaning. Because of this, fine art values originality in a way decorative art does not.

John Olsen   The Ship Arrives

Rick Amor   The Bridge

Amor's work is psychologically incisive, taking ordinary landscapes and filtering them through an emotional prism. Through his vision, a deserted bridge becomes a site of alienation, melancholy and melodrama. A sense of foreboding percolates, as though something is about to cut the quiet.


Fine Art Makes You Feel

Most saliently, fine art and decorative art have different aims. Decorative art is, by name, decorative. It is palatable, efficient and accessible – poised to adapt always, with a winning smile.

Conversely, fine art wants to make you feel. Whether you flinch at Charles Blackman’s Street Games, awe at David Rankin’s landscapes or ponder at Yosl Bergner’s The End of the Party, fine art rarely just looks nice – it lives to move you.

Charles Blackman   Street Party

David Rankin   Hillside at Night I - Diptych

Yosl Bergner   The End of The Party

Yosl Bergner said that with all the trauma in the world he couldn't paint pretty pictures, so he painted the human condition. He believed that art could change the world. Much of his work is rich in symbolism and can take quite some time to understand. But there is also love and playfulness and joy at innocence. Everywhere in his studio were toys and cheese graters, hurricane lamps and other household objects that find their way into his compositions like this one, The End of the Party.


Decoding Messages

As it makes you feel, fine art also communicates. Whether about culture, nature, the artist or something else, fine artworks spin a delicate message that reads differently with every glance. The message of décor, on the other hand, is straightforward. Its reduced aesthetic function means that communicating something deeper is not really necessary.


An Investment in Culture

There’s a reason we find more fine art than décor in museums. More than a pretty picture, fine art sheds light on the past, present and future of culture. Artists like John Peart & Dorothy Napangardi transform the land into layered memory, while Auguste Blackman, Philippe Le Miere, Lin Onus & Rona Green deliver punny pictures that simultaneously sting politics, gender and form. 

John Peart   Mirage Scape XI

Peart has a philosophical approach to landscapes, an approach grounded in internal feelings over exact topographies. His practice is a visual mantra, a resonance repeated until the viewer feels centred, engaged and at peace — as one critic reflected, “Peart’s life is a spiritual quest; painting is a process of ‘becoming’ through aesthetic perception”.

Dorothy Napangardi   Untitled

Auguste Blackman   Dystopian

Like a matured ‘Where The Wild Things Are’, 'Dystopian' is delightful yet somehow sobered, keenly aware that on either side of pandemonium is existence in all its complexities. In Auguste’s universe, even the fantastical strive for connection.

Philippe Le Miere   Charles kelly sidney school girl lost ned blackman nolan

Lin Onus   Pawns - Yellow

In ‘Pawns – Yellow', Onus depicts a chess board in the colours of the Aboriginal flag – red, yellow and black. He is making a political statement, alluding to how White Australia has treated Aboriginal peoples as pawns in their colonial agenda. As always, the result is tongue in cheek, playing with perspective, history and identity.

Rona Green   Rendezvous at the Opera


To collect Fine Art then, is to invest in Culture

The line between art and décor is a fine one. Figuring out what suits you, means asking yourself what you desire from an image. If you want it to decorate, then décor may hit the spot. If you seek more from not only your walls but life, meaning and yourself, then fine art is the rabbit hole for you.

Our tip: If you’re still unsure which is right for you, ask yourself - what do I want my walls to say about me? Do you adorn, or do you collect?

To learn more about collecting art, click here.