Try this: pick any famous artist and google their name plus the word “mug.” Chances are very good that you’ll find websites selling merchandise with their work printed on it.
Most artists whose work can be found on mugs didn’t have a say in that decision. But if you’re an artist who has a say in what is done with your art, is having your work on a mug a good thing or a bad thing?
After talking to many artists about this, here’s what I understand: if the art is being used to sell mugs, that’s not OK. Getting “used” is the same thing as being disrespected, and it’s reasonable that an artist would object to that.
And yet, if the mug is being used to sell the art, that’s different. The art is not being used for anything. The mug becomes a way to bring art into someone’s life: it’s about the art, not about selling mugs.
Just looking at a mug with art on it, it’s difficult to see the difference. But it’s an important distinction, one that dwells not in the physical item, but in the intentions of everyone involved.
If you are an artist thinking about whether you would allow your work to be reproduced on a mug, a shirt, a notebook cover, or something similar, the distinction is a valid one. Intentions matter because who you choose to work with matters. And since it’s your art, it’s your distinction to make. Where would you draw the line, and what questions do you ask yourself to know which side of it you’re on?