Patronage & The Arts

As the commission ‘The Dead Man’s Hand’ nears completion, it seems a good opportunity to blog about patronage and the arts. It.s a vitally important question for art aficionados and artists: what sort of culture produces what sort of art? Or is there a system that produces the best and most exquisite art? If so, then this is something that can be aimed for.

‘Patron’ is an unappreciated term these days. Perhaps it.s associated with ‘patronizing’, which is definitely pejorative: images of a patron standing over the artist.s shoulder giving pointers. When drafting the contract for the commission, the standard language between the parties in online sample contracts is that of ‘Artist’ and ‘Collector’. In the contract for ‘The Dead Man’s Hand’, I changed it to ‘Artist’ and ‘Patron’. I like the patronage system. Why? Well, the cover of Paying Melpomene’s Price didn.t absolutely have to have artwork. Lots of books have text in a sort of a captivating design. That works too. But I had the idea of the dead man’s hand poker combination as being a visual analogue to the idea of the unexpected (which is one of the focus points of the argument). So an illustration was a way for the book to advertise itself among the sea of all the other books. That was one reason. The other was that the commission was an interesting way to connect with the community. Patronage is community based. It is different than mercantile art (I am not using this term in a pejorative fashion) which sells finished art at a fixed price.

In the process of making the commission happen, I had a chance to go out to galleries and art schools, talk with art collectives, talk to artists, and see what sort of art people are making. People would talk about how their galleries functioned and teachers would talk about their techniques. Once the project started, I had a chance to go out and talk to various locales where the photography could be staged: restaurants, lounges, theatres, coffee shops, and so on. I had to sharpen my pitch (instead of ‘Can I do a photo shoot?’ it quickly became, ‘Can I book a party and oh, by the way, we will be doing some camera work’.). In the process of finding models for the photo shoot I connected with friends I hadn.t talked with in too long. And then, it.s been a fantastic experience watching the artist in her studio bringing the concept to life. Old friendships reacquainted, new friendships made, and people coming together for the sake of art. That is what I mean by saying patronage is community based. Mercantile art (finished art for sale at a fixed price) meets the needs of the artist for income and perfect self-expression but at the expense of losing something of roots in the local community.

Patronage in the Past

Patronage is a tried and true system that leads to great art. Beethoven wrote pieces for Count Rasumovsky (the three Rasumovksy quartets) and Waldstein (piano sonata). Haydn wrote and performed for Prince Esterhazy and would summer at his cottage along with other symphony members (the ‘Farewell Symphony’ was written as a protest to an extended stay: players left one by one until only one instrument was left playing; the Prince got the message and let the players go back home to their families). Pope Julius II ‘patronized’ a young Raphael, who produced in their partnership ‘The School of Athens’ among many other works. Michelangelo also was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel under his watch. Durer likewise was busy doing altarpieces at this time. In the theatre world, Corneille could count on the patronage of Cardinal Richelieu. Racine wasn.t initially so lucky: he would dedicate his plays to would be patrons but it wasn.t until after he dramatic career was over that he found a patron.

How Art is Created Today

Art seems to be mostly mercantile these days. Art aficionados can go online or to galleries where finished works are for sale. Painters, for example, can work in solitude and produce enough to hold bi-annual shows. Growing up, my friend MC.s dad was an artist. He.d spend his days painting and also had a home based picture framing business on the side. Twice a year he.d have shows. Since he had won a bunch of awards, it.d be a who.s who of business owners at his exhibits. There would be a little price sticker on each piece and pieces which had won awards at juried competitions would fetch five or six times more.

If you don.t have enough pieces to have your own show, then the trick is to get your stuff displayed in a gallery. From what the gallery owners are saying, this is a tough sell: they get lots and lots of artists coming in showing them their portfolios. A lot of good artists get turned away.

The other way artists can make a living is to apply for grants. I don.t have much knowledge here but basically there are various government organizations who award funds to promising looking applications. Could be music, writing, performative arts, plastic arts, or painting.

Patronage is still around but the patrons have changed. Patrons are always changing. In the heyday in Italy, it was first powerful local families (i.e. Medici), then the popes, then the foreigners. Today corporations are probably the best patrons. Like the Medici family or the popes, they are the ones today with the deep pockets.

How art is created today is quite different than the patronage system of old. In the patronage system of old, if you wrote a string quartet for a patron, it was expected that the patron would perhaps play a part himself. If you did a painting for a patron, he would give you tips on the subject, size, location, theme, and so on because it would probably be part of his family altar. Today, if you are doing mercantile or grant art, the artist is also the audience. There is no mediating force between ‘something that works in the real world’ (i.e. the patron.s suggestions) and the artist.s ‘inspiration’. And with the corporate patronage of today, there is a mediating force but it.s some corporate entity, not a real person. So it.s not quite the same.

So, part of the decline in art–if there is a decline in art, future generations will pass judgement on that–is due to changes in the patronage system. That.s what argued for a long time.

But perhaps it.s time for a change of opinions. The old patronage system that I like so much undoubtedly created a lot of masterpieces (my favourites). But it.s not coming back. A large part of its raison d’être was to create religious works: altarpieces and other objects of devotion. Faith and art were intertwined. An economist, when asked what the economy of the Middle Ages was, replied that it was based on building cathedrals and singing hymns of praise to God. He wasn.t far off. In such an economy, there would be lots of opportunities for paintings of the Madonna and altarpieces. The world has become secular since then. A large part of the raison d’être of the old patronage system was to show off (i.e. ‘look, my altarpiece is bigger than your altarpiece’). Today, we can buy the Porsche GT3. Or the house on the water.s edge. Or the shinier Rolex. Everyone knows Porsche = made it. Even if you don.t play that game and equate Porsche with douchebag, you know the meaning behind the prancing horse. If you got a sculpture from a famous sculptor, not everyone would know its worth. So there are easier ways to show off than by purchasing art. So right of the bat modernity takes away two of the pillars upon which patronage stands.

The Future of Art without Patronage

It.s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. But since been blogging and looking around at other sites, noticed that a lot of them are really beautifully designed. Art is on the move. But as technology and modernity evolve, so does the idea of art. The Renaissance or the Romantic idea of what art should be is giving way. Art is going electric. Cinematography, graphic design, and maybe even coding: these are the forms art takes today and tomorrow. This is what a Beethoven or a Michelangelo would be working on if they were alive today. They would be too busy making art to lament the death of art.

Patronless though I am, I am still Edwin Wong and, as always, Doing Melpomene’s Work!

PS come to think of it, instead of writing a book for dramatists, perhaps I should do what Michael Tierno has done and write something like Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters!

4 thoughts on “Patronage & The Arts

  1. Lloyd H.

    Edwin, you sure have an eclectic group of articles! You must have a large gigabyte hard drive on top of your neck. Enjoyable and thought-provoking. Don’t know how you find the time. Maybe forsaken your day job?
    PS: why do you use “.” instead of ” ‘ ” for your contractions/possessives?

    1. Edwin Wong Post author

      Glad enjoying Lloyd and thanks for the kind words! I wonder if apostrophes instead of periods would be easier for readers? Have been using periods for contractions/possessives to try to make writing a different flavour for readers. But it probably works against me when search engines index things. What do you think–distracting or unique? BTW re day job, stay tuned for the next post, got an idea for something to write!

      1. Lloyd H.

        More often than not convention endures for good reason (but not always). It’s your creation, my friend. Thinking outside the box is frequently the path to legitimate changes in ways of thinking/doing. In this particular case I’m on the side of convention – but that’s just me.

        1. Edwin Wong Post author

          You know what, I’m ready to give convention a shot. Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate it!

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