To abolish aristocracy, in the sense of social privilege and sanctified authority, would be to cut off the source from which all culture has hitherto flowed.

—George Santayana

Though I do not share Santayana’s sanguine attitude towards the aristocracy, I think this quote does bring up a vital point: the relationship between art and its patrons.

Nowadays we take it for granted that artists make their money the way that anyone else does, by trading their services on the open market. The buying public—concert-goers, music purchasers, companies that need songs for commercials, and so on—is the ultimate art patron. But this has not historically been the case. Wealthy institutions and affluent individuals have more commonly played this role. So what does this shift from artistic feudalism to capitalism signify?

This question is far more than merely financial. For the artist, however proud and independent, cannot help but be influenced by their audience and supporters.

It is easy to deprecate the vulgarity of popular art in the age of capitalism, but I am not sure aristocracy was much better. Goya’s most profound works are not his portraits of his aristocratic confreres, however excellent these may be; and the same goes—with some extremely notable exceptions—for Velazquez’s many portraits of the royal family. There is no logical reason why an aristocracy of power and wealth should also be an aristocracy of taste.

True, hereditary aristocrats, freed from laborious duty, do have more free time to devote to artistic appreciation. Without the necessity to make their way in the world, they may decide to compete in aesthetic refinement or in sponsoring living artists. This is possible, to be sure, and has happened many times in history. But this method of patronage—private, wealthy individuals—can easily lead to self-aggrandizement; the art it fosters, by being too allied to worldly wealth and earthly power, becomes yet another form of conspicuous consumption.

Perhaps the greatest art patron in western history has been, not royals or nobles, but the church. In music and the visual arts, at least, religious patronage has led to some of the greatest accomplishments in our history: the works of Palestrina, Bach, El Greco, Michelangelo. The advantages of church patronage are clear. An institution of enormous wealth, it can recruit the best artists and all the resources they need. More than that, though also prone to self-aggrandizement, the spiritual aims of religious art free it from the worldliness of the hereditary aristocracy.

Even more important, perhaps, is the continuity of tradition fostered by religions: establishing subjects, tropes, styles, and techniques, that are refined and passed down through the ages. How could Bach have written his Mass in B Minor, or Michelangelo conceived the Sistine Chapel, if they had not been the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of religious tradition?

Granting the church its honorable place in the history of art, we may, however, still admit that religious patronage can lead to a sterile conformity. There are only so many ways, and only so many emotions, that can be portrayed in a Madonna and Child; and, in any case, the church will not prove congenial to nonreligious artists—of which history is full. The Dantes of this world may find in the church all they need; but a Rabelais can never be so satisfied. Inevitably a religious organization will overlook or squelch some aspects of the human experience.

This became clear when a new patron emerged in history, far removed from the grandeur of nobility or the magnificence of the church: namely, the mercantile middle-class. The prime example of this are the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. All patrons, to an extent, like to see themselves represented in what they patronize; thus the newly powerful Dutch capitalists gravitated towards private portraits and intimate scenes of daily life.

The artistic advantages of this shift in patronage are obvious, opening up unexplored vistas for artists to explore. Neither an aristocrat nor a clergyman, for example, would think of buying a work like Vermeer’s The Milkmaid—a work that has nothing to do with aristocratic virtues or spiritual consolations. Of course there is a downside to this, since the qualities that help merchants succeed have nothing to do with artistic appreciation; and, even if guided by exquisite taste, bourgeois art pays for its wider scope with limited depth. It is an art of prose, not poetry, with a weaker tradition to guide it and quotidian values to embody.

The ideal situation may be a mixture of patronage, such as was the case with Shakespeare. Having every rung of society as his audience, from paupers to princes, he had to strive for universality—and obviously succeeded. But the bard was clearly an exceptional case. Striving to please everyone can easily turn into pleasing nobody in particular, creating something bland and unobjectionable. While the particular taste of patrons may be constraining for some artists, it may help many others to focus.

In recent years the university has become a major source of patronage, especially for musical composition. The advantage of this is clear in an age when the general public has little to no interest in art music. But the nature of the university, as an institution, can also have negative artistic repercussions. Unlike a church, guided by spiritual values, a university is above all a place of exploration; and thus academic music tends to be experimental. Experimentation is usually an artistic virtue; but when cut off from any common set of aesthetic ideals, art degenerates into intellectual exercise.

The economy of the visual arts has diverged quite radically from either literature or music. In the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, the physical uniqueness of a painting has made it an ideal collectors item. Thus paintings are once more a form of conspicuous consumptions, with wealthy patrons spending millions on single works. And unlike in former times, when the aristocrats were the only ones able to afford art, the easy access to reams of high-quality art puts pressure on them to distinguish themselves through extreme taste as well as extreme expenditure. Given that the prize can be so huge, this is an irresistible incentive to inaccessibility—the competition to appreciate the unappreciatable.

The book and music industries are, by contrast, dominated by a relatively small number of giant publishing houses and record companies. Being companies, their fundamental motivation is profit. This makes them naturally risk-averse, since it is always safer to reproduce success than to bet on something different; and this encourages a conformity to commercially successful styles and topics. Acting as gatekeepers to fame, these companies can therefore exert a standardizing influence. And for obvious reasons these companies favor simple, popular styles in order to maximize their clientele.

But does an artist even need a patron? What about the Dickinsons, the van Goghs, and the Kafkas of the world, toiling away, unknown and unsuccessful, in some remote corner? It is true that many great artists never managed to make a living off their art during their lifetimes, relying on extraneous work or their families for support. And this arrangement does have the key advantage of allowing the artist to pursue her individual vision, without having to adapt her work to any foreign tastes, preserving her originality whole and entire.

Yet even this blessing is not unmixed. For patronage, if it subjects artists to sometimes undesirable pressure, can also give artists the direction and external challenge they need. Not every artist is self-sufficient enough to work in silent obscurity, following the bent of their own genius. The structure imposed by patronage can turn a vague or self-involved aesthetic impulse into a focused piece.

It may seem sordid to think of art in these monetary terms; but, as I hope I have shown, this is not a purely aesthetic question. Part of what gives any age is characteristic art is the way that artists make their living. The internet is now opening new possibilities for artistic entrepreneurs. The ultimate aesthetic effects of this new medium are only just beginning to appear.

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