Art + Culture / Fri 22 Sep, 2017 SERIES: Why would a Christian give to the arts?

But What Exactly Is Arts Patronage?

The role of patronage in the arts throughout history

Jonny Mellor / #church, #history

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So, we’ve just started our patronage scheme, and hopefully we’ve filled you in on what it is and how it works. However, I recognise that it may be worth taking a further step back and delving a bit more into patronage itself.

We’d love to encourage the church to take up a significant role in art patronage again, and when we get a handle on what patronage is and why it is important, it should become clear that this is not just a call for the more creative part of the body of Christ to get our day in the sun. This has potentially huge ramifications for the whole church and for the world we’re called to be salt, light and yeast in.

What is patronage?

The arts have always been underpinned by a system of patronage. In short, this means that artists have traditionally not just received financial support through units sold, but certain individuals or organisations have taken it upon themselves to personally back artists, providing them with opportunities, encouragement and also financial support.

In the Middle Ages, artists were seen essentially as skilled labourers or tradespeople. Patronage then would often take the form of an artist being commissioned to produce a piece of work to certain specifications. So a rich 14th century noble man may have commissioned a portrait, a fresco or a sculpture in a similar way that today we might order a bespoke bed or a birthday cake for a special occasion.

Modern patronage

But times have changed. Since the Renaissance, the image of the artist has shifted dramatically. No longer simply craftspeople, artists have become seen as important thinkers and innovators within society. However, systems of patronage have continued.

Of course, things are now a little different. In modern times, a more diverse range of artists operate under this sort of system. Whereas painters and cathedral builders would have been the main beneficiaries of patronage in days gone by, now there are grants and subsidies for a far wider range of artists- from poets to DJs, fashion designers to documentary makers. Arts funding today is not just given to commission specific pieces of work either, but to develop the arts more organically, for example, helping young artists to develop their potential or developing programmes to help specific groups to express themselves creatively (eg people with disabilities).

Another key difference (and I’m sure you’ve seen this one coming) is that the Christian church are no longer at the forefront of arts patronage.

The government is probably the major arts patron in the 21st century. In the UK, the Arts council intends to invest £1.1 billion of public money (plus £700 million of lottery money) between 2015 and 2018 ‘to help create art and culture experiences for everyone, everywhere’. However, the role of individual rich patrons is also important. Charles Saatchi was a key patron of the Young British Artists from the late 1980s, and was largely responsible for the rise to prominence of Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst et al. Going back a few years, Paul Durand-Ruel did a similar thing for the Impressionists. ‘Without him, we wouldn’t have survived’ was Monet’s verdict.

Why should the church patronise the arts again?

So, the arts still get patronised. Art still gets funded. What’s the problem? Is the church simply sour that it isn’t needed as it was in days gone by?

Actually there is more at stake here than prestige. Patrons directly affect the content and tone of the work that is produced from their support.

Historically, this has been taken to some reasonably silly extremes. For example, patrons in the Middle Ages often liked to be included in the paintings they commissioned. For example, in Jan van Eyck’s ‘The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’, the titular canon is depicted kneeling on the right before the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

However, it is easier to miss the more obvious way in which patrons affect the work they patronise. Take Van Eyck’s masterpiece above as a case in point. Canon Van Der Paele was a clergyman. The painting he commissioned as a memorial may have shoehorned himself rather anachronistically into the scene, but he is far from the main character! When the Christian church was the key art patrons on the scene in Europe, the paintings tended to be very heavily focused on biblical content and the tone of these works would have shown a deep respect for this content. I suppose it’s common sense that if you pay for artwork, the artwork will likely reflect your values.

To use a simple example, imagine I was to commission someone to paint my portrait. It’s unlikely (though admittedly not impossible) that my painter would go out of their way to accentuate the size of my nose, my receding hairline, or the bags prematurely congregating under my eyes. They shouldn’t ignore them, but it would be fair to expect that there would be a measure of generosity they would show me as the one who is footing the bill.

This may seem a little off to you. Some may accuse this kind of arrangement as stifling artistic freedom, however, it’s important to recognise that this situation cannot be avoided.

In our day and age, people often cherish the view that they are totally objective and biases and prejudices are things that other people have. This is especially likely to be the case for those who would have no religious or political commitments.

I remember when I was training to become an RE (Religious Education) teacher, and a friend of mine reacted dismissively, bemoaning the fact that I wouldn’t be able to give the students a balanced take on religion because of my own personal faith. I doubt that he would have made the same complaint if an agnostic (or probably even an atheist) friend had chosen such a career path and this is where the blindpsot lies. Everyone has a set of values and philosophical commitments, whether they are a Christian, a Buddhist, an anarchist or a typical post modern agnostic. And these worldviews will affect how we live and how we interact with others, whether we acknowledge them or not.

This is true of every artist, and it is true of every patron of the arts. I think that for some, they look back in horror at how the church influenced the art it paid for years ago, as if poor old Michelangelo would have much preferred to have decorated the Sistine Chapel ceiling with obscene imagery, mythical creatures or even just a simple vase of marigolds, but was forced to tow the line by the man paying his bills. Now who knows what the great man would have done if the chapel had not been a chapel and Pope Julius II had not been a Pope. However, we can say with some certainty that if Michelangelo was around today, he wouldn’t be getting Lottery money for decorating the Bristol docks with pictures of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel either!

It is not only the artists of yesteryear who produced work that reflected the worldviews of their patrons. It is how it always works. In Britain nowadays, art is largely patronized by a government that operates upon secular humanist principles. And what kind of art is in the ascendancy? James Elkins professor of art history at the Chicago Institute of Art, put it quite bluntly in 2004, when he wrote:

“Contemporary art is as far from organised religion as Western art has ever been and that might be its most singular achievement.”

What a coincidence!

Now, I know that I am simplifying things hugely. There are plenty of other non-financial factors at work in this whole picture, but with that said, if you ever want to find out why people do things, ‘follow the money’ is never a bad place to start.

So what?

What do we learn from all this then?

Well, perhaps it shouldn’t have taken 1500 words to come to this conclusion, but the main thing I glean from all of this is that if the church would like there to be more art that reflects the Christian worldview, then it’s probably going to have to pay for it.

Or let me put it another way. Think of the effect of Charles Saatchi’s patronage. Whatever you think of dissected sharks and unmade beds, through his financial support, he propelled an entire art movement into the public eye that otherwise would have fizzled out completely. Think of Paul Durand-Ruel. Without his patronage, we would never have heard of Monet, Degas or Renoir.

Patrons don’t just get to support artists. They can shape entire arts movements. And as we keep underlining on this blog- art shapes life.

Now, I know that very few readers of this blog would have the expendible income of Charles Saatchi, but the church would. The church would have it many times over. In fact, if every church in the UK gave £10,000 to the arts each year, we could match the Arts Council funding goals.

I know that sounds like a lot, but it would only mean about £200 per year per Christian.

Is that likely to happen any time soon? Not really, no. But we’ve been out of the game for quite some time and I’m very interested to see what happens if we get the ball rolling again.

Perhaps you can join us in doing just that.

I rap. I write. I help run Sputnik. Yes yes y’all.

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