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Artists and Patrons, December 23, 2001 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: December 23, 2001
"Artists and Patrons" [permalink]
    keywords: artists, patronage, paintings, drawings, sculpture
    soapbox #: 325
    written: January 5, 2002
    words: 2068

"Artists and Patrons", an Essay

Wouldn't it be cool to spend your whole life writing or painting or composing music, while a rich benefactor patron footed the bills generated from your mere existence? Wouldn't it be great to justify everything that you wanted as part of the process needed to create wonderful pieces of art? The sheer materiality is tempting in itself, but even with all the dreams of luxury and bling blings aside, what's even more interesting is how such freedom from paying the bills affects the creative process. At least, that's what's interesting about artists and patrons to me.

Okay, that wasn't a great introductory paragraph. I'm just trying to crash through this until I reach the point where I finally start writing what I wanted to write about. I'm not an art historian, or very knowledgeable in this subject at all, but I know enough to think about it and I know that in today's world, the artist and patron system don't really exist as a consistent rule.

I went through high school reading a bunch of aristocratic Roman authors like Horace praise to no end their patrons, doing what probably today would quickly be written off as selling out and betraying the artist's honesty and integrity. I went through college learning about artists and scientists and other people who benefitted from patrons: people like Tycho Brahe, Raphael, Richard Wagner, Beethoven, and virtually everyone else who created out of biochemical reactions ideas that changed the world. The irony of their patron system (my definition being strictly limited to the subject matter discussed thus far) is that we know very well who the above men are, but it is far less general knowledge what the names of their patrons are, even though these artists and thinkers were brought in to extend the longevity of their patrons' reputations.

Sure the artists had to compromise their work by creating plenty of laudatory masterpieces to those funding them, like Horace's never-ending references to the oh-so-great-may-I-touch- the-hem-of-your-garment Augustus (which no doubt ties into the whole thing I have about loving people like the satirists Catullus, Martial, and Juvenal, and not the more overt sellouts they loved to talk about but probably resembled more than I'd like to admit), but these artists also were given plenty of time to spend pontificating on the subjects of life that truly interested them. These people, despite the luxury they must've lived in, did not come up short in the number of great works they created.

And while I learn about these people and their relationships with their patrons, I can't help but compare it to the systems we currently have in place, which have pretty much done away with the artist/patron system in favor of more contractual/commissioned/JIT relationships. Sure there are such things as grants for professors, and musicians and writers signing multi-work contracts, and so on. Sure you can be taken under the wing of some company, and if you're popular enough, like NSync or Britney Spears, you get virtually anything you want while you're on tour or producing your next album. But really, these people are not so much artists as entertainers, and I think in this century there is a marked difference between the two terms. Sure Will Smith or Julia Roberts can rake in mad amounts of cash per movie, but once again, those are more entertainment than true art.

And while perhaps I'm romanticizing the old days of the artist/patron relationship while dismissing modern day business relationships as cold and corporate, I do think that something is being lost there in terms of the efficiency in producing truly great artists.

I mean, in our day and age, it really is perceived that it is the "starving artist" who is the one who is really creating art, and not the glorified sell-out pop celebrities who everyone knows. I hear that many Broadway and off-Broadway actors still have to scrape together a living through other means. Poets and writers often require a job teaching or whatnot for a consistent salary and trusts/grants/whatnot. Musicians are stereotyped as people living with their parents until they're 30, playing music no one likes until it eventually becomes fashionable and they become rock gods. I mean, even with all the young newcomers in movies and music and whatnot, really the ones who are closest to being artists in any respect are actually much older, like 35 and above. They've had to pay their dues, as far as I can gather, slumming off friends and cheapass waiter jobs in NYC or LA or whatever. So I'm told. There's long lines of people trying to catch their big break, and even the ones who eventually make it might not ever become artists at all, but just good-looking fluff people.

Maybe one thing I think of in the old artist/patron system that modern, more anonymous and competitive systems don't have, is that early on an artist shows tremendous talent, and is then financed to refine that talent into skilled talent, whereas I almost get the feeling that the people trying to make it big now sort of blow their load just trying to get attention. I dunno. It's like there's less refinement among those who deserve the attention, and the rest is just a nameless mass of undisciplined people who aspire only to be bit players.

Personally I see it as a tremendous inefficiency. My dad remarked that the US hasn't really yet created a truly timeless artist, even though it has had many extremely talented artists. I don't know who he had in mind, but I would imagine someone like a Da Vinci or a Shakespeare or a Newton. I'm sure people could come up with two billion examples to counter this, but it seems to me like Americans are pragmatic people who create things out of a physical necessity for it, like Edison and Bell with their devices, and the whole dotcom mess that did actually help the Internet integrate into our more boring, tangible lives.

Whereas Socrates would teach Plato and Plato would teach Aristotle and Aristotle would teach Alexander and eventually he would conquer a huge mass of land in one push, establishing a mentor/student tradition that is still cherished even today, now we have faceless masses going through undergrad and grad work, citing dead people as their inspiration more often than their professors, taking faceless jobs to create faceless products or faceless music for TV promotions or faceless artwork for faceless corporate informational bundles, and so on. The people who do spend their whole lives expanding philosophy, music, religion, psychology, poetry, and so on never really achieve any sort of financial or popular success, it seems. Of course, again, maybe I just can't see the forest through the trees because I'm living through this time period and am not reading a historical summary of it.

I'll try to simplify. Artists now go through very corporatized processes to get financing for their work. And more often than not, they have to do it for each piece of work they want published, because they have to shop it around each time. Some famous people are lucky and don't have to, but I imagine most have to. Artists are not given all the time they need to create the pieces of genius their minds contain, because their energies are diverted into earning a living for their families or for their often ridiculously excessive lifestyles and habits. Creating art almost turns into a hobby, a nice thing to do on the side but nothing that can really put food on the table. Or if you DO try to do it full-time, it turns into a cold, no-time-wasted business project. Creativity is not rewarded in any way while the long spreadsheets of book sales, royalties, grosses, etc. are.

Also, the tradition of belonging to a certain school of artists or thinkers is gone, along with the prestige. There are so many people out there, all with ever-broadening influences thanks to the wealth of available information and the increasing number of educated writers, painters, and so on, that it turns into one big melting pot of pseudo-art. Not to say that important work is not done, and heavily criticized and debated and praised, as it definitely is, but that true genius still manages to get lost in the great sea of ideas out there. My dad rattles off long lists of really creative people he knows, but no one else would know these people.

(Does that matter?)

Do kids aspire to become painters or musicians like the recent contemporaries they admire?, people like...well...okay...art history isn't taught until at least college, or maybe 11th grade if they're smarter. Do wannabe artists ever become more than bitter film school critics who pettily scorn pop culture in favor of the most obscure movies they can find? Are there artistic geniuses out there who just aren't discovering how great they could be, because there's no money to be found in pursuing art, when they could easily get an MBA and become a slick, hip, young peoples' boss at a tech company, earning a shitload of money every year?

I fear a brain drain, and massive brain underutilization. I see how bad and inefficient companies are, and they often end up selecting artists for their movies or TV shows and whatnot. I don't trust their ability to find talent.

What I would like to see is for very wealthy people (of whom there are many in the US) to start financing artists, under whatever conditions they want, whether it be painting pictures of them and their families, or producing art to be showcased in the atrium of an office building. I'd like to see cities pour in lots of money for beautifying neighborhoods and creating visual works of art that help those communities realize their identities and uniqueness. I'd like to see humanitarian projects to create art for countries trying to get back on track, to help them learn about their own heritage as well, since many impoverished countries are full of people who may only loosely know their own country's history. I'd like to see artists given extended commissions to make the world a more beautiful and unique place, so that people may know Dallas to be a city full of wonderful Japanese gardens or something, and some other fairly culturally underdeveloped city having its own particular identity. I would prefer that greatly to the ever-increasing neighborhoods of cookie-cutter strip malls and restaurant chains. I would like to see a proud American country that was as unique as travelling to old, wonderful cities elsewhere in the world, like Rome, which has magnificent monuments everywhere you look, including a stark, stunning columned bright-white marble building which I forget the name of but is near the Colosseum. And then you go up another street some and you find yourself in Bernini's Piazza. And so on.

And you can't just give me the excuse that America just has companies that need a reason to plant a big skyscraper somewhere. We're a nation full of people who spend excessively, yet we can't create excessive monuments that will span the centuries? We don't have enough pride to build more Lincoln Memorials or Mount Rushmores or St. Louis Arches? I mean, fuck, our fucking Statue of Liberty wasn't even made by an American, naturalized or born a citizen. How fucked is THAT?

People complain all the time about most parts of America looking the same. Well let's do something about it! And personally, I think reviving parts of the old artist/patron system might help that effort greatly. However, I fear this will go ignored just like my suggestions for greatly increasing common sense security of our country, as well as my suggestions for taking more pride in how we as Americans act. I'm not disappointed in Americans at all, I just seek ways to make it better, prouder, more glorious, more culturally and historically significant, instead of the Borg-esque, corporate suit and tie, impersonal persona that is often ascribed to it.


 
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