THE IMPORTANCE OF PATRONAGE

(c)1996, 1998 by Michael Riversong

Some of the greatest art in history flowered during the Renaissance in 15th Century Italy. Largely spared the hysteria of witch-burning which dominated countries to the north, Italy enjoyed the rule of enlightened monarchs, in charge of small and manageable city-states with relative autonomy. Merchants flourished, and a number of families grew wealthy both inside and outside the ranks of the nobility. They in turn financed wonderful works of painting, sculpture, and music.

Now before we get too sentimental here, this was still not a great time to live. Petty wars raged everywhere, innocent youngsters were sent off to fight in them, usually experiencing degrading death from disease instead of noble achievements on the battlefields. For those who stayed home, life expectancy was not all that good. In other words, ordinary life in Renaissance Italy was pretty much like life everywhere else in the world at that time. And yet magnificent art was produced, which has the power to inspire people even 500 years later.

The key element in this production was patronage. It was the money of patrons that allowed artists to live long enough and well enough to produce their wondrous achievements. Most prominent among these patrons were the Medicis, a large family which over several generations developed a reputation for favoring beautiful works, and allowing these to be produced.

In the history of music, patronage also plays a large part. The name of the game through the Baroque and into the Classical periods was either work for the church, find a patron, or both. The most successful composers could generally pick their patrons. Sometimes the system failed, as it did for Vivaldi, who died on the streets of Vienna after rumors involving two nurses who traveled with him became intolerable to his church superiors. And a few composers who were well supported in their own time, such as Vejvanovsky and Reger, are almost unknown today, despite the high quality of their music.

In modern times, there has been a trend away from individual patronage. It is somehow considered "elitist" and thus does not fit into the mold of certain political philosophies. So instead the government is expected to shoulder the burden of funding artists, providing art for all the people this way. Who exactly gets to create and deliver this art is chosen by committees, in the usual government manner. Few artists thrive and create great work in this kind of environment. About the only well-known composers of the Communist era in Russia were Prokoviev and Khachaturian, and both were often threatened with imprisonment. In fact, Khachaturian was nearly banned altogether after releasing his "Organ Symphony" simply because members of several committees felt that the work was "anti-proletarian". The problem was, the orchestra needed for the work was unusually large, and this in itself became a political issue! The sheer beauty and power of this work was largely ignored in debates at the time. As for the Socialist Realism schools for painting and sculpture, the less said about those, the better. Several great painters, such as Roerich and Kandinsky, simply fled the Communist regime.

This leads us to the current scene. Socialist or Communist doctrines have infected most of this planet's governments to varying degrees. Churches have largely stopped funding new works in most countries, leaving the burden on the shoulders of governments. Opportunities for musical performance and display of new graphic arts are severely limited worldwide, to varying degrees. The evolution of Classical music has been incorrectly tied to the "New Age" movement, largely turning the public away from new works because they think the music is associated with repellent and unpopular philosophies. Book publishing, which has not been as greatly subsidized by governments, is still relatively open, at least in the United States, England, and Netherlands. Dancers are struggling to stay alive at all.

Most psychiatrists and psychologists, who are predominantly government funded, tell the artists they encounter to be realistic, adjust to the environment, and learn how to be happy without creating art. In fact, a fundamental doctrine of many psychological schools states in essence that creation of art works is a pathological condition in itself! This was stated by Freud about 100 years ago, and the idea has worked its way into several modes of psychological practice.

Meanwhile, popular culture rules the airwaves and what few performance venues are left. The art of this culture has become increasingly rude, destructive, and obnoxious. Much of the contemporary sculpture displayed in public places in the United States and many other countries is ugly and disturbing. Sales of music have generally been falling worldwide for several years. Many people say they hate what they hear on the radio, but have no choice. Just when it looks like music can't get any worse, the nameless and faceless boards of directors of the largest record companies put out something which manages to offend every intelligent person left listening. And the tiny amount of funding which the United States government puts into arts is being threatened, largely because too many of the works funded were things that no sensible, moral person would ever want to see or hear.

Great artists are dying from lack of support. A case in point is guitarist Robbie Basho, who released several albums starting in 1964. He lived a life of complete dedication to his music. His songs were complex, with an unusual, exotic flavor of ancient Persia, and were flawlessly executed. Basho never attained great commercial success, mainly because of the exotic nature of his music, but those who knew of him were usually very excited about what he did. Patronage could have saved this man. Instead, he took a string of physically demanding, low-paying jobs, damaging his health beyond repair. He died of a probably treatable cancer before attaining the age of 50.

What is the relationship between a patron and an artist, and why can it work well? Sometimes the patron is a political ruler, but more often simply a successful businessman of some kind. The main characteristic of the relationship is that it is between individuals who make their own decisions. Committees are often said to be a great way to avoid doing something. It is therefore always individuals who are truly responsible for anything which happens. Even in a committee, any actual work to be done must be delegated to one individual or another. And when committees decide on which works of art to sponsor, the decision does not usually go to the most beautiful, or inspiring, or uplifting -- instead it goes to the "safest". A guy who sings "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" 10,000 times has a better shot at booking performances with government-sponsored festival committees than someone who has composed symphonies which are the modern equivalent of Beethoven's.

Individuals working together might come up with great ideas. However, it is a truism in the computer software industry that the best products are created by at most three people. If any more than that are on a team, the project always gets compromised somehow. (Making good, useful, esthetic software might as well be counted as an art form anyway.) Who ever heard of a great symphony composed by a bunch of people, or a great painting which has seen the touch of several hands? Art which lasts through the ages is ultimately conceived and executed by individuals. Individuals ultimately determine the value of art. After all, it is a single person who buys a tape, a CD, or a computer program. It is an individual who views a painting and decides what it says. The achievement of a great artist is that eventually, a large number of individuals make the decision as to the greatness of the work.

When an individual patron supports an artist, there must be an atmosphere of trust. The patron must feel that the artist can and will deliver something worthwhile. In order to secure future patronage, the artist had better deliver, too -- or prepare to go into some other line of work. This is not a subsidy for artists. In some way or another, patronage needs to be tied to production in order for it to work. A case in point is a rich man who financed the rehearsals of a band for about a year. He poured money into this venture, but never bothered to arrange for booking them. Before he had a chance to take this group to the public, his wife came into the rehearsal hall, demanded a divorce, and tied up all his assets for the next couple of years. The band split up without ever having played a note for anyone outside the rehearsal hall. This is an example of subsidy not being tied to production, and it came to a bad end, as all such ventures eventually will.

What is the patron really buying? If this is done in a true atmosphere of free enterprise, certain realities must be acknowledged. First, the artist probably does not have the resources available to distribute to a large population. The inviability of political or committee decisions about art has been recognized. And most important, the value of the artwork to society must be agreed on by both the patron and the artist. If these three factors are not present in the transaction, then there is the possibility for misunderstanding later on.

In the highest aspiration of a patron, what is being purchased through support of an artist is the improvement in society which will result from further dissemination of his or her work. This ultimately benefits the patron as an individual, as it improves that person's working and living environment, even if indirectly. If the patron has faith in this factor, then the transaction is honest and potentially fruitful. As time progresses, and attention is paid to bringing the art to the public, it will eventually have a real value to society if it is any good. Only the public can ultimately determine that over a period of time.

It may be possible at times that these transactions would fail. An artist may run into unexpected disasters, a patron might not have the purest motives, or third parties might insinuate themselves into the picture and wreck everything. However, it is important to our civilization that patrons still try, and artists have the opportunity to produce. Those who wish to support what they individually feel is great art should keep this in mind. This art, if it is inspiring, puts out an important message, or creates even more beauty in its wake. This will do good, even if only for a small portion of society. Many small good actions add up to a general uplift of society.

If the patron's intentions are good, and the artist is honest, there will be a response from society which will bring about many unexpected improvements in the whole scene. Then the dreams of the artist can be available for anyone who wants to pursue them, and the artist can continue making bigger dreams for a better future. This is the true joy which is made possible by patronage of the arts.


MRiversong@earthlink.net

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