Patronizing the Arts

The relationship between creatives and their backers can be fraught, discovers Sally Feldman

December 11, 2008

In a recent Channel 4 television programme, The Mona Lisa Curse, the art critic Robert Hughes railed against the commercialisation of art. The rot set in, he claimed, in 1963 when the Mona Lisa was exhibited in New York and was treated "as though it were a film star".

"People came not to look at it, but to say that they'd seen it," he said. From that time onwards, he argued, collectors started buying works of art not because they liked them, but because they expected a financial return.

Marjorie Garber would take issue with this condemnation. In Patronizing the Arts, she asserts that art has always been inextricably linked with commerce.

Even in the ancient world, Virgil and Horace were supported by a wealthy Etruscan nobleman. Renaissance art would not have flourished without Medicis and popes. Kings and aristocrats would invite artists, writers and philosophers into their courts and their homes.

Today's art world, with its complex network of markets and speculators, is not that different: the relationship between patron and artist, between money and talent, has always been hazardous, with its complex weave of gratitude and resentment, admiration and disdain.

Garber argues that the underlying reason for such tension is the ambiguous nature of patronage itself. Artists are patronised in that they are supported financially and institutionally, whether by private donors, corporations or the state. But they are also patronised in a more negative sense: art may be considered trivial, recreational rather than serious.

There is a further twist. Art may also be overvalued. Garber observes: "Some people feel that it is beyond the realm of regular experience, therefore a work of art (art as object and as process) is also beyond, or even above, a normal discussion of valuation and evaluation - it is 'priceless,' as they say."

By raging against what he regards as a debasement of the value of art by market forces, Robert Hughes does come dangerously close to this position. Writing in The Guardian, Germaine Greer accuses him of being a "stuckist" who singles out Damien Hirst for special ire because Hughes has not recognised the way in which art has changed.

"Damien Hirst is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. Hughes still believes that great art can be guaranteed to survive the ravages of time, because of its intrinsic merit. Hirst knows better. The prices his work fetches are verifications of his main point; they are not the point," says Greer.

Garber might not go along completely with Greer's typically savage riposte, but she would most certainly share her impatience with those who seek to separate art from finance. For her, their inter-relationship is inevitable. It is not as though Hirst and Tracey Emin are the first generation of artists to embrace the market. Gleefully, Garber informs us that Gauguin had been a stockbroker. Van Gogh and his brother Theo were both art dealers. Picasso was happy to be represented by entrepreneurs. And Renoir once declared: "There's only one indicator for telling the value of paintings, and that is the sale room."

At the same time, though, Garber is sensitive to the precarious nature of any form of arts patronage. The most obvious danger is that a patron will wish to influence the commissioned work, whether it's a super-rich Medici demanding to appear at the Nativity, a government crushing expressions of dissent, or a gallery forced to remove images that might offend.

Charlotte van de Veer Quick Mason, for example, a rich widow who gave generous support to some of the key Harlem Renaissance figures expected them, in return, to conform to her highly romanticised view of African art and culture, attempting to influence their work to the point of distortion.

State patronage can be equally pernicious, which is why so many writers, in particular, have rejected it. Wordsworth refused to accept the title of Poet Laureate unless he could be assured he would not be expected to write to order, as have many of those eligible for the American equivalent.

John Updike perfectly captures this stance: "I would rather have as my patron a host of anonymous citizens digging into their own pockets for the price of a book or a magazine than a small body of enlightened and responsible men administering public funds."

Writers may well be more categorical in their opposition because they are better able than fine artists to operate without sponsorship. But whoever the recipient, there is always the danger that government support may contaminate the artistic vision. How could the relationship be other than fraught, when so much contemporary art is dedicated to challenging and subverting the very principles on which state politics are built?

In 1939, the US Congress dissolved the pioneering Federal Theater Project, which had launched the career of artists and writers such as Arthur Miller and Orson Welles, because it regarded it as propaganda for communism. Decades later, sponsorship for individuals by the National Endowment for the Arts foundered amid a sea of public outrage prompting government condemnation of works such as Andres Serrano's plastic crucifix in urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe's sadomasochistic portrayals of gay erotic culture.

Patronizing the Arts is focused primarily on the United States, although other cultures, and particularly the UK, are summoned as reference points. At times, this perspective is jarring. Garber fails to mention, for example, the enormous influence of the BBC as patron of the arts, with its five orchestras, its commitment to new music and its commissioning of new writing. And while she is authoritative about the role of wealthy sponsors in the US, she is glib about the influence of collectors such as Charles Saatchi on the landscape of British art.

But some cultural contrasts are revealing. In the US, Garber explains, the main sponsors of artists are corporations and private individuals, alongside dealers, agents and galleries, with a relatively small contribution from the state, whereas in the UK, along with most of Europe, the main arts patrons are governments. The ratio is similar to that of the funding of higher education.

This parallel proves to be productive. For when Garber considers how artists can best be supported with minimal interference, censorship, distortion or repression, she mounts a powerful case for the role of universities.

Science has always been supported by a melange of corporate, private and public funds, with the university as its natural home.

Art, argues Garber, should enjoy the same status and therefore a similar model of support, with universities not only investing themselves, but acting as the conduit for corporate sponsors and for the new "venture philanthropists", as is already happening on some campuses.

Instead of regarding the arts as a peripheral activity, universities would benefit from embracing them as central. Garber argues: "As the modern (or postmodern, or post-postmodern) university tries to reevaluate its role in a world at once more redundantly 'global' and more culturally fragmented than at any time in recent history, wrestling at once with issues of basic education and of professional and preprofessional training, the arts may, surprisingly, be in a position to supply the missing piece that holds this edifice together."

Artists, insists Garber, are not a subsidiary luxury but a vital force for a healthy society. Their greater presence within universities would do much to revive the nature of those institutions as homes of expertise, scholarship, education, innovation, cultural discernment and, most precious of all, of free expression and free speech.

Patronizing the Arts

By Marjorie Garber

Princeton University Press

2pp, £14.95

ISBN 9780691124803

Published 14 August 2008

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