The Right Patronage

Note from the Editors: This essay is an updated version of “The Right Patronage” included in our first print edition “Art & Literature for Dissidents”.

Why Strong Patronage Networks are Essential for a Renewal of the Arts

How many people discussing architecture online today have effectively tried to change urban planning rules? How many people criticizing postmodern art have become involved with local structures in order to influence the training of new talents? Countless commentators have very specific conceptions of beauty and aesthetics. Many of their gestures and affected sentiments anonymously litter the internet. But their energy is rarely translated into results.

What is lacking isn’t just the courage to align convictions with actions. Incentive structures for private patronage today have been annihilated. In a field where people barricade themselves behind several layers of smoke and mirrors — from arid, corporate birtspeak to hedged nepotism — outsiders feel bewildered.

The shift in the social role endorsed by contemporary artists, leaning more and more towards political activism, does not help either. It is hard for small, private donors, who entertain some form of dissent, to know where to give money away or trust who to endorse. The amount of work, courage and luck any financial transaction takes in this atmosphere is enough to repel most.

In the visual arts, for example, big private investors tend to go to auctions (generally dealing in dead artists’ art) which supply private collections. This type of investment is directed toward oneself. It rarely participates in reflections and actions that benefit the common good; and, if it does, only in tiny doses. In the same field, smaller patrons give support sporadically, once a year or more rarely. Too often it’s a one-off game.

It gets even worse. Younger people’s only real resource is time and energy. Behind the loveliness of volunteering hides the powerlessness of a generation. Offering help cannot shape the whole machine. Arguably, a few well-placed activists can shift part of an institution thanks to some strategic maneuvers. But whereas the Left has understood the power of peer pressure, what have conservatives done?

The dissolution of creative networks has different causes. Whilst the pre-modern Ancien Régime nurtured a wealthy bourgeoisie ready to step up to the plate if aristocratic or religious spheres lacked means or will-power, the post-WWII apparatus has sapped it. The cultural appetite correlated to this multi-layered patronage ecosystem has been put on a severe diet. The annihilation of such networks only reinforced a crisis of cultural self-confidence.

While the West revels in its ‘soft’ power, the truth is that cultural hegemony does not exist without real power. Stripped from finances and coherent political planning, ‘soft’ power is a discarded image of oneself, and its jurisdiction slowly decreases.

The West today lives in the ruins of its past, the crumbs of its cultural politics. Its glory is not sustainable as long as its members don’t put their hands into their own pockets. Culture used to be the potent wrapper that bound a society together — a fundamental act of faith. Repackaged and neutered, blocks of subcultures alongside fantasmagorical blasts from our cultural heritage don’t offer enough coherence for populations to find a sense of shared identity and a telos.

Robust patronage, when it does not fall into the dominion of the state, remains a toy for a handful of powerful elites. Despite all the rebranding that they carefully put together, affluent patrons are like everyone else. They believe that art should impact the world around them and ‘make a difference’; except that beauty and other sophisticated concepts don’t particularly stimulate their generosity. Given larger players interfere with creative structures, their interest in artistic creation is tangential at best.

While artists look good in the portfolios of the wealthy, the goal of the latter is rarely to push for new creative juices. Art is almost always politically instrumentalized. When big money doesn’t naturally lean to the Left, culturally speaking, it embraces a status quo that profits the Left or that simply doesn’t benefit their political opponents.

If patrons of the arts try to remain as neutral as possible, politically speaking, they might simply like to pursue the honoring of the canon. That strategy easily embraces a museal vision of the arts, a creative formula under anesthetics that turns too much of its back to the future. Money goes into the same hotbeds of classics with a few little twists around trendy themes — such as gender and race — which keep the machine going. Even when political neutrality is out of the window, the gesture remains almost the same, except that the ‘canon’ employed is then centered around the post-WWII status quo. Those who pretend to fund avant-garde creation today have generally succeeded in preserving the superficially rebellious activism trends that festered in a few pretentious, elitist — and definitively not anything other than ‘progressive’ — intellectual circles.

Take, for example, Jeff Koons. The man who set up the latest record for a living artist with his Rabbit sculpture above which sold in 2019 for $91.1 million. Koons has not produced anything new since the late 20th century. Nevertheless, he is endorsed by enough people amongst cultural elites as some beacon of contemporary art to remain somewhat relevant. Not only does he smell passé, but he also has no interest in changing. Koons is an entrepreneur — arguably a talented one — who has established the right formula and simply replicates it ad nauseam. Why does public money goes into his Bouquet of Tulips that triggers more public disapproval than cheers is not a difficult mystery to crack. Koons, like many others, embodies a crucial political victory in the second half of the 20th century; that of the Left over cultural discourse, the start of its long march through institutions.

The list of crimes with big juicy numbers printed on the tag price is almost endless: the Heart of Paris by Joana Vasconcelos (€650,000), the Stix by Christian Moeller ($750,000), Cloud City by Tomas Saraceno ($11 million), ArcelorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor ($36 million), Stairways to Nowhere by Thomas Heatherwick (almost $150 million), etc. Those who abide by the canonical laws of the Left don’t need to justify themselves when they throw tons of money at ugly and insipid art that fulfills the postmodern creed. That’s their power.

Inauguration ceremony of Jeff Koons’ “Bouquet of Tulips”, Paris, 2019

Of course, there is room for nuance, especially when browsing the palette of artistic disciplines and the markets dragged by each of them and their sub-genres. Political undertones may vary between painting, cinema and music. Intellectual consistency may vary between theatre, sculpture and digital arts. But the trend remains the same: the large majority of artists follow where the money flows, that is to say, it actively leans to the Left when it doesn’t simply denigrate or ignore intellectual opponents.

Potential investors should perceive this as a gap in the market and, therefore, as a tremendous opportunity for profit. Artists don’t have a monopoly over the modern expression of humanism. More than that, they shouldn’t think of themselves as solely pursuing this mission. The first collateral victims of that game that relies on consensual, friendly, non-edgy emotions are the artists themselves. By removing from their radar the necessity to occupy a market field and the importance of selling (oneself and one’s own art), artists annihilate their possibility to thrive.

When institutions need to cut their funds, one of the first reflexes is to penalize the arts. It doesn’t matter how polished past projects have been in terms of ideological wavelength. Art and culture sell only in specific situations. Any painter who pretentiously affirms that his or her art is beyond worth would briskly find a number to tag on it if his or her mortgage were threatened. Thus it is logical that governments and other big structures that pretend to care for what is theoretically priceless reconsider their position in times of economic crises like ours. When public money runs low, what used to be invaluable soon finds a very specific price, a label with clear numbers that aims at reassessing its risk value. 

Current patronage that pretends at the surface level to emulate an aristocratic ethos does, in fact, the same. Art matters when people decide it matters, not for itself. Funding art for the sake of it only, as if it never mattered what artists did or said, is a recent (and elitist) invention that lies to creators and debases them, making them more vulnerable to ideological sleights of hand.

The pandemic has been a wake-up call to some. Several artists have been struck by the impact of lockdown authoritarian measures on their condition. Institutional structures, whether public or private, have not defended them. Worse, many of their kind seem to have accepted as a fait accompli the need to surrender to those who don’t believe they are worth fighting for. Where have the rebellious tones of artists gone? Faint protests emerged here and there. But who had the temerity to channel nascent artists’ dissent?

Although I am not arguing in favor of a renewal of patronage through the sole lens of ‘lockdown dissent’, it is nevertheless concerning that no one has seized the opportunity for harvesting those embryonic sentiments of contestation. What better occasion than the Covid crisis to break the yoke of institutional compliance by flooding the art market with new assets?

Another missed opportunity is, without a doubt, the reconstruction of Notre Dame. A symbol of a nearly-vanished Catholic and medieval Parisian soul, the renovation of the Cathedral could have opened a new chapter in contemporary private patronage. It could have gathered big and small names, famous and anonymous benefactors, collectively assembled to defend a renewed vision of live creation (at the service of patrimony). Instead, the millions assembled fuelled the same painful political debates. The momentum of shared faith, care, and combined efforts evaporated.

There is a divide on the Right between the relative importance of culture and the attachment to shape and fuel cultural politics. Despite the moral posturing, most right-leaning actors have effectively neglected the arts. If we agree that private patronage can serve political dissidents and give birth to a fresh artistic flow, what needs to be done is to delineate a new contract between patrons and artists; a contract that isn’t afraid to lay down in plain and honest terms the shapes and contours of what returns on investments in the world of art means, and that understands that funding the arts is a long-term game, one which aims at creating a sound, sustainable ecosystem.

In order to positively secure ways to invest in new art, not only devoid of progressive ideology but also beautiful, conservative and right-leaning entrepreneurs must bolster as much influence as possible at the pertinent scale. Of course, big scales are attractive, and it is good that patrons with the right assets attempt to play at this level. But massive infrastructures dealing with art generally absorb to their core the progressive corporate values. Consequently, as appealing as their aura gets, the end goal of their operation rests on quicksand.

If it is arduous to enact change where the stronghold of institutional powers is too established, it has to be gradual and incremental. This leaves us with small-scale projects, somewhere between the ultra-local and the regional. Transforming sub-systems is the key strategy of the long march back into the institutions. A good example of this is the impact achieved by Philippe de Villiers, French politician and entrepreneur, who briefly served as Secretary of State for Culture in the 1980s, and almost single-handedly reformed his natal region, the Vendée. Most famously, he founded the Puy du Fou theme park. By offering at a manageable scale the confidence to push for alternative cultural paradigms, the strength of his initiatives has reached beyond de Villiers’ geopolitical sphere of influence. Of course, those types of initiatives require not just patience but also, crucially, humility. 

Part of these goals is to give a chance to artists not because they are means but because they are ends. Our new patronage contract, then, must try to round the edges of the risks entailed by such promise. How can we make sure that the investment in a person tallies up as much as possible with one’s personal beliefs and interests? In their attempt to invest in human flourishing, patrons must create a ‘family’, a sense of shared business and condition at a small scale, thus sparking political change from the strongest social unit that exists. It could be centered around a revival of arts and craft, a renewal of the artistic vocation via artisanat, built on personal mentorships and small artist residence programs. The process is particularly well developed in the sectors of performance and cinematic arts. Left-leaning corporations, such as Netflix, have captured those models but there is no reason they shouldn’t be copied by others.

Lola Salem is an art critic from Paris and an Oxford-based scholar specialized in performance arts and early modern European art institutions.

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