Given that the New Worlds series is made possible via Patreon, it’s about time we discussed the role of patronage in the arts!
This actually builds off an arts-adjacent topic I brought up during Year Five, which is the concept of intellectual property. We invented that idea in order to support artists and inventors, constructing a legal framework that would allow them to profit from their own work (and thereby spend more time on such work). But intellectual property is fairly new, as legal systems go. Before that came into being, what did artists do?
They had patrons. People who directly paid them to make pretty stuff — or clever stuff, in the case of inventors, or essay upon essay on the topic of worldbuilding, in the case of me.
Modern crowdfunding is a fascinating return to an old way of doing things, but with a fresh twist. See, it used to be that artistic patronage was very much the province of the rich. Who else could afford it? But the combination of post-industrial prosperity and internet facilitation of microtransactions means that it’s possible now for people en masse to each contribute a little, until those small amounts add up to enough. Rewind the clock, though, and you had to pin your hopes on one generous benefactor.
It wasn’t just that your benefactor could provide you with income to live on. Depending on your chosen art, even acquiring the materials to practice it might be well beyond your personal reach. Marble for sculpture? Pigments for painting? A composer theoretically needs little more than paper and writing implements, but their music won’t get very far without people to perform it — people who often need expensive instruments and their own income to live on, too. Especially once you get past trios and quartets into whole orchestras and choirs, the scale of the undertaking is out of reach for all but the most wealthy. And the performing arts also need performance spaces: stages and concert halls in which to display their efforts to best effect. None of this stuff comes cheap.
But there are also other, less obvious reasons artists might need patrons. Bear in mind that while some artists are independently wealthy enough to fund their own work, the sorts we’re talking about here are largely not members of the elite. Having a person with greater legal and social privilege support their work lends a form of legitimacy — and legitimacy, in turn, is a form of protection. Especially when it comes to the performing arts, the law might outright require patronage, or at least strongly push for it: English authorities in the Tudor period were deeply suspicious of “players” and tended to view traveling theatre companies as mere vagabonds, subject to legal penalties. Bearing the imprimatur of some noble benefactor meant they were no longer untrustworthy “masterless men.” And if your art holds the potential to be interpreted as mocking or criticizing people in power — which is true not only of plays and poetry, but paintings and even (in some famous Japanese examples) pornography — then you want a buffer between you and the person targeted, whether the mockery was intentional or not.
Plus, let’s face it: artists like having an audience. And because we’re social primates, we especially like having the shiny monkeys admire our work, i.e. people with status. Having an elite patron opens doors that would otherwise be closed to you, thereby raising your own status in turn.
That particular benefit goes both ways. There’s a great deal of social cachet in being the patron of an admired artist, even before you factor in the likelihood that the artist is going to create works specifically glorifying their benefactor. Depending on society’s attitudes, the patron might be acclaimed almost as if they created the work themself. But even if the artist gets the credit they deserve, the patron earns a good deal of renown, because the work is seen as demonstrating their excellent aesthetic taste. After all, they’re the one who selected this composer, this sculptor, this poet, out of all the candidates clamoring for attention and support.
What has been granted, though, can also be taken away. The problem with patronage of the old sort is that it makes the artist heavily dependent on a single person. Modern commercial artists do need to please their audience, but the mass nature of that audience means that no one individual really has the power to destroy someone’s career. Even if I fall out with my editor, there are other publishing houses I can turn to. A writer or painter who loses their aristocratic patron, though, is often in deep trouble, because the odds that someone else will pick them up are low. They’ve either alienated that patron (which harms their own reputation), or the patron has fallen out of favor (which means anything associated with that person is tainted); neither situation bodes well. Artists have been punished, imprisoned, or even executed for such missteps. Which means that if you’re in such a relationship, your livelihood and maybe your life depends on pleasing your benefactor: often creating the art they want instead of what you’re eager to do, and making very certain you do nothing that might bring them into disrepute.
This situation has changed — though not completely. These days, for many artists, the capitalist sale of reproductions taking the place of a single person’s support. The industrial ability to create such reproductions cheaply and easily has also democratized art, making it accessible to a much larger swath of the populace through printed books, sound and video recordings of performances, photographs of famous paintings and sculptures, and so forth.
Not all kinds of art, however, lend themselves to that kind of mass-market approach. If you’re making (say) monumental sculptures, the market for your work is very small, and the market for photos of the sculpture is not much larger. The pool of potential buyers or commissioners looks a lot like the aristocracy of the past, even if the people involved don’t have literal titles. Similarly, although symphony orchestras can and do sell tickets, they’re still heavily dependent on charitable contributions from wealthy individuals to stay afloat. Some art forms, like poetry, pay so poorly nowadays that people mostly do it for the love, with a few vestigial positions like “poet laureate” acknowledging our societal feeling that we ought to be supporting such things.
All of our systems have flaws, whether it’s capitalist sale, elite patronage, or crowdfunding. But somehow, despite that, the art still gets made.