Oh, Patron, my Patron!

Catherine and Lorenzo de’Medici did it. So did Queen Elizabeth I and Pope Julius II.

Without it, Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare or even Mozart may not have been famous.

The relationship between artist and patron was often a complex dance of artistic vision and political motivation

What is it? Patronage, that old-fashioned, mostly out-of-style idea of the wealthy supporting talented artists, musicians, writers and scholars as they plied their craft for the betterment of society.

Chances are good you’ve heard or imagined it going something like this: A struggling writer or painter, so gaunt his clothes hang off him like a coat rack, is barely able to scrape together the meager coin needed to buy his ink/paint, much less put food in his mouth. In only a few days he will have no roof over his head and it is all because of his ruinous, yet irresistible muse. All seems lost…until, seemingly out of nowhere, a noble chances upon a scrap of his poetry or a half-finished drawing discarded in the gutter in a fit of artistic rage. The noble is immediately besotted with the work and seeks out the artist, promising showers of gold in exchange for more samples of what must be heaven-sent inspiration.

Chances are even better it went something like this: “William, dear, your last play was just divine. I’m trying to woo/embarrass Lord Blahbityblah, would you be so kind as to write him into the next one? Make sure to emphasize his virtues/vices, but not so much as to make it obvious or he’ll have my head…and I’ll have yours. Oh, and be certain to give him the role of hero/villain.” Let’s face it, as much as we’d like to believe these patrons to be noble, their intentions likely were not (always).

So whatever happened to the ancient system of patronage? Some argue that capitalism forced society into a system of public art venues made for mass consumption, such as museums and theaters, thereby negating the need for personal funding. Others might even argue that publishers are modern-day patrons, in that they pay writers for work they believe will be commercially viable.

While I write this post with tongue firmly planted in cheek, it does make me wonder what would happen if Hollywood celebrities, sports stars or ridiculously rich CEOs would sponsor a few up and coming artists. I know many of these people do wonderful work with arts and education groups, but what if one of them took a shine to an artists’ work and made it their mission to promote it? (Oh wait, Justin Bieber is coming to mind…make it stop!) Would we in modern society laud them as patrons or decry them as using their wealth to further their own agendas? Can we, in the 21st century, accept such support without suspicion? And what would it be like for the artists? Would it mean freedom to follow their dreams, or would they feel like sellouts beholden to someone else’s artistic desires?

Still, it would be nice to find out how that kind of support could change your life. I guess you know what I’ll be wishing for if I’m on the winning side of the wishbone this Thanksgiving. 😉