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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?"