The Magazine

Good for Art

Money helps, and talent too.

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