The Magazine

Good for Art

Money helps, and talent too.

Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Patronizing the Arts

by Marjorie Garber

Princeton, 272 pp., $24.95

After reading Marjorie Garber's Patronizing the Arts, I conclude that the ideal arts patron is a shy, retired Mafia don without the least interest in art: in other words, a rich man who prefers not to discuss the source of his wealth, would never wish to push himself forward for publicity, could not care less about what an artist does with his money, and is content to walk away quietly with his tax write-off in his suitcoat pocket just above his shoulder holster. Professor Garber, chairman of something called the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard, and the author of books on cross-dressing and bisexuality, concludes otherwise.

Professor Garber describes all but the last few pages of her book as a chronicle of "patronage and its discontents." As her book makes clear, no perfect patronage exists, certainly not in the arts, which offer special problems to any patron and not a few to artists. Patronage in the arts tends to illustrate the cynical proverb that holds no good deed goes unpunished. Although generally sucked up to, by artistic institutions and by artists, patrons, in the restricted sense of men and women who come up with money to help make the creation or performance or display of art possible, have been mocked at least since the days of Samuel Johnson. After his rocky experience with his own patron, Lord Chesterfield, Johnson in his Dictionary famously defined the patron as "commonly a wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery."

Professor Garber's general view of the arts, like her language, is that found in most humanities departments in the contemporary American university. She finds "paradigm shifts" and spreading "commodification," avails herself of such hideous words as "contestation" and "misprision," and makes little jokes that only students, that most hopelessly captive of audiences, might find amusing. As for her taste in art, she likes it, in good academic fashion, hot and edgy, challenging and confrontational. She even continues to believe, quaintly enough, that there still exists something called the avant-garde, unmindful that, as Paul Valéry long ago said, "everything changes but the avant-garde."

Owing to her entrenched views, Professor Garber's survey of the history of patronage in the arts is perforce tendentious. In her book the required contempt for government support for the arts under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is nicely in place. The fear of being left behind by art--to end up one of those dunces who scratched at Matisse's early paintings or broke chairs at the first performance of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps--haunts her pages, so that she appears to feel that nearly everything in art that is new is, ipso facto, also to be applauded. She takes the opinion of the world ("that great ninny," as Henry James once called it), or at least that of the art world, as the final arbiter on aesthetic matters. Andy Warhol, for example, is for her a great artist, case long ago closed.

Because of these general views, Patronizing the Arts has a cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys quality. As in a low-grade Hollywood movie, with Professor Garber, you always know for whom to root and whom to boo. Some figures who cross her screen are, to be sure, worth booing, or at any rate being suspicious of. She is perfectly correct, for example, to question the depth of love for art on the part of such corporations as Philip Morris, Absolut Vodka, and ExxonMobil in sponsoring the various artistic projects and events they do. The question here, obviously, isn't what's in it for the talent but what's in it for the corporation. The answer, just as obviously, is high-sheen public relations for companies that feel themselves much in need of it.

But more often Professor Garber's cowboys and Indians approach merely coarsens a richly complex subject. Not least among its complexities is the real relation between patron and
artist. When patron meets artist, artist patron, what does each think? Does the patron, if only to himself, ask, "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" And does the artist, in his turn, ask, "If you're so rich, how come you're not smart?"

We know what the artist is getting out of the relationship: First and foremost, funds to begin, carry on, or complete his work. Not uncommonly, taking the funds comes with strings--even ropes, on occasion handcuffs--attached. My friend Samuel Lipman, who grew up as a piano prodigy in San Francisco, had as his patroness the daughter of the woman who was the patroness of Yehudi Menuhin. For her monthly stipend, which Sam's parents used for his piano instruction and out-of-classroom tutoring, she put him through his paces, having him over regularly to play for the amusement of her friends and never hesitating, in brusque fashion, to correct his table manners.

The patron's rewards are more
subtle. They run from acquiring a reputation for generosity and, possibly, for artistic sensitivity, to the cachet of what passes for culture in capital-S Society, to perhaps moderate relief from guilt for wealth ill-got, to the obvious, frequently overlooked motive of simple honorable altruism. Professor Garber does not seem much interested in the complexities of this relationship.

Neither is she much aware of the ironies with which her subject is so heavily laden. A few years ago Mrs. Ruth Lilly, of the Lilly pharmaceutical family, died and left a bequest to Poetry magazine of more than $100 million, a fact Professor Garber mentions without further comment. Yet this testamentary piece of wildly extravagant patronage could well end in setting the traditionally modest and historically significant Chicago journal well off course. Poetry and the Poetry Foundation, I think it fair to say, don't know what to do with so much money--an actual embarrassment of riches. I have myself received mailings--sent, I gather, to a great many people--surveying me on how best it might be spent.

Everyone is stumped, and with good reason. The undirty little secret here is that it will take more than enormous infusions of money to make even quite well-educated and bookish people care about contemporary poetry, for the only people who do currently care are those who write or teach it. What is needed are great poets, and nobody knows how to make them; mountains of cash, fairly safe to say, won't do the job.

Upon emerging from the old Museum Theatre in Boston after a ballet, Ralph Waldo Emerson is supposed to have said to Margaret Fuller, "This is art!" Miss Fuller is said rapturously to have replied, "Ah, Mr. Emerson, this is religion!" And so art is, for many people, religion by other means.

Professor Garber appears to be one of the parishioners of the good Church of Our Lady of Art. For her art is a purely approbative word, and not merely a noun that permits many adjectives to reside beside it, among them: trivial, highly politicized, wretched, dreary, and simply crappy. Nor does she seem keenly aware that all these latter kinds of art appear to be in exceedingly great supply just now, with almost no demand for any of them, even though such art wins prizes and its creators are solemnly wreathed in honors and weighted down with gold.

Not only contemporary poetry but most contemporary serious music has failed to find an appreciable--let alone appreciating--audience. Much new visual art has attracted market attention, some of it selling for prices that can only puzzle those of us who fail to see anything in it other than the comic contradictions that arise when culture meets capitalism.

When other explanations are wanting, one can't go wrong blaming America. Professor Garber points out that the Dutch, the French, and the Germans, among other European countries, spent greater sums per capita on state-sponsored patronage of the arts than does the United States. But then, traditions of art patronage in American life had, until the Depression, been thought mainly a private matter; the guardianship of high culture--masterpiece paintings and sculpture, orchestral music, ambitious architecture--was assumed to be among the responsibilities of the rich. This was, let it be said, a responsibility that, in the years between the 1870s and 1890s, the American rich did not eschew, building and stocking the country's great art and scientific museums and symphonic halls, and starting many of its important universities.

Only with the Depression, which brought into being the Works Progress Administration, whose function was to invent work for artists--allowing painters to do murals in public buildings, writers to indite state guide books--did the United States government get into the arts in a major way. The WPA ended with World War II. In 1965, with the advent, by act of Congress, of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the relationship between artists, the arts, and the government became complicated.

The tendency of the National Endowment for the Arts has not been at all to Professor Garber's taste. In recent years it has ceased giving grants to artists--with the exception of writers--and has expended its funds chiefly on institutions and programs, many of them bringing Shakespeare, ballet, and other traditional artistic wares to rural communities and other places where they are not usually available. The agency's modus operandi, Professor Garber finds, has been to seek consensus; its goal is, in her words, "to do no harm." She prefers harm, lashings and slashings, with ample money going to artists who don't in the least mind sticking it in the ear of the public, not least their patrons, the United States government.

I was a member of its National Council, or policy setting body, for six of the stormiest years in the NEA's history, from 1984-90. This was a time when the counterculture had become, in the arts at least, the mainstream culture. The result was that much art was of the in-your-face kind, especially in the visual arts and performing arts. These were the years of performance artists smearing their naked bodies with chocolate, photographs of men with plungers stuck in their rectums, crucifixes set afloat in bottles of urine, paper-towels smeared with HIV-positive blood sent skimming out on pulleys over the heads of audiences--all done either directly with the aid of NEA money or under the roofs of institutions funded by the NEA.

How very different from the old avant-garde--that extending from the French impressionists through
Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Arnold Schoenberg--a movement having chiefly to do with changing technique in the arts. But the avant-garde in the 1980s had turned largely political: It was about one form or another of ethnic or sexual liberation, of protest and leftwing politics. Its chief message tended to run: I'm an outraged gay or lesbian--or an angry black man, or an aging sixties radical--and I've had it with this detestable bleeping country, with its middle-class respectability, its vaunting of the family, its organized religions, its censorship, and hideous capitalist system. And by the way, nice to learn that I've been awarded an NEA grant, and when do you suppose I might receive my check?

Art is a house with many mansions, also garages, grease pits, small but real slums. Art can be wild, extravagant, offensive, obscene, vile, exhibitionistic, sado-masochistic, filled with political rage, outrageous--it can be all of these things and more. And no one is saying it shouldn't be what the artist feels the need for it to be, though none of this is my particular idea of a good time. But once artists take federal or state--that is, taxpayers'--money, they are under an obligation to be, at a minimum, not directly insulting. If they feel the need for their art to go on the attack--against the customs and institutions of their country--then logic and decent manners suggest they are under the obligation to create it on their own nickel.

The other problem the NEA encountered was that of democracy itself. Art isn't about democracy; it is an elitist activity. Place the word "mediocre" before the word "art" and it isn't any longer art. Yet so much in the funding arrangements of the NEA encouraged mediocrity. Affirmative action was, of course, a great blow for mediocrity in the arts--even NEA peer panels, which recommended grants, were put together along affirmative action lines--for the NEA was committed to helping the disadvantaged, which meant awarding grants to all putative victim groups.

Then there was the grubby political element to consider. A fellow member during my days on the National Council was a Florida state senator who couldn't tell a Picasso from a puffin, but saw it as his mission to make sure that Florida got its fair share of federal arts money, whether or not genuine artists or serious artistic institutions existed in the Sunshine State. And why not? Tax dollars come from taxpayers, so why shouldn't everyone get his fair demographic share?

Late in Patronizing the Arts, Professor Garber compares federal spending on the arts with current funding for science, or Big Science, as it is now sometimes called, next to which spending on the arts is of course puny. She argues that much science is artistic and art is itself becoming more scientific.

But the comparison doesn't hold up. The difference between science and art is that science is progressive, art is not; science is a collective activity, one generation building on the ones that came before, with a generally agreed upon agenda of what are the great problems that need solving. Artists don't solve problems; they work out their visions. And every artist is in business for himself and sets his own agenda. Scientists will tell you that, though Galileo,
Newton, and Einstein were of course great geniuses, if they had never been born other scientists would have come along and eventually made their discoveries. But Marcel Proust, and with him all other major artists, was sui generis; no one else could have written A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Professor Garber is attracted to the analogy of art with science in part because so much of science is done in universities and her book's closing argument is that the best possible patron for the arts is now the contemporary university. She makes the point that, increasingly, much training in the arts is done in universities in departments of theater and acting, visual art, film and photography, music, dance, and creative writing. (When one thinks of all the would-be poets and novelists being churned out by university creative-writing programs, one begins to understand what Degas meant when he said that "we must discourage the arts.") Professor Garber argues that the arts would be good for the university, but the greater question is whether the university is good for the arts?

My sense is that it would not. Professor Garber writes that "freedom of expression, the toleration of difference, and the high value placed on originality and imagination" are all found in the university. Wonder how, in my 30 years there, I seem to have missed it, and found instead deep conformity, beginning with political correctness and extending outward into anti-Americanism and a hardy loathing for anyone not aligned with all the okay causes.

This conformity cannot be good for artists or for their arts. When one thinks of the powerful critics of the arts in the past century, the best among them--Edwin Denby in dance, Virgil Thomson in music, Clement
Greenberg in visual art, Edmund Wilson in literature--almost all came from outside the university. Apart from actors and a few playwrights, most serious novelists, poets, composers, and painters did not acquire their training, or their inspiration, from the university, and fewer still found their subject matter there. The great world, not the university, will always be the ultimate training ground for artists, at least for those who wish to go beyond the academic in their ambitions.

Even with the great good luck of generous patrons, the artist is left where he has always been: attempting to master his craft, trying to narrow the gap between his talent and his ambition, alone with his mad passion, ill-rewarded if rewarded at all--a grant here, a small prize there--hoping to make a little dent in the world's great yawning indifference.

Think of his travail from time to time, and pray that your son or daughter doesn't come to you to announce that he or she wishes to be an artist.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of the forthcoming Fred Astaire.