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On Patronage: Patrons, Artists, and the Public Renaissance

Yesterday I told the charming story of my opportunity to become a full-time artist on the charity of a noble patron. It was an arrangement built on bad information, but without it, you’d probably have one fewer writing advice blogs to help put you to sleep.

You certainly wouldn’t have this month’s creative writing series to think about, anyway. This entire discussion¬† (and, for that matter, much bigger things) sprang from a passing mention in an article at Ars Technica. The writer was talking about shortcomings in U. S. copyright law and said, “Of course there are alternatives — something like compulsory licenses or a new patronage model — but for now, copyright is the law of the land.”

That casual aside took me right back to that conversation with Kris, and then it got my mind rolling. If I were going to try to build an arrangement that could support me as a writer, knowing everything I know now, how would I go about it? How could we as a society make it happen? What would a new patronage model look like?

Before we can really guess, we’ve got to understand the old patronage model.

Room and Board

As Bryce pointed out in the comments last week, Michelangelo — a superstar artists if ever there was one — often had trouble finding room and board under the patronage system. Bryce sounded like he knew what he was talking about, but I wasn’t terribly familiar with Michelangelo’s story. So I asked Trish about it, since she’s an art history student.

“Oh yeah!” she said. “He almost died several times, and he always had trouble keeping a studio.” In terms of financial stability, that’s…well, it’s not worse than the fate most of today’s aspiring artists can expect to get from their creativity, but it’s not better either.

His situation was special, though. For his own reasons, Michelangelo didn’t want to work for the Catholic church or for the Medicis. I can certainly respect that — copyright certainly didn’t create the concept of the starving artist, going hungry for the sake of his integrity. But for many other artists, including names as famous as Michelangelo’s, steady and reliable patronage allowed them to live in relative comfort, with access to the resources (chief among them time) needed to perfect their craft and produce their great works.

In short, it was much of what I’ve wanted to do with my retirement ever since I was twelve years old. Patrons paid artists to be artists.

Supporting the Artists to Support the Arts

Of course, the notoriously cut-throat and ambitious Medicis weren’t supporting these artists out of a spirit of generosity. They were competing with the Catholic church and other noble families for public sentiment. The common folk expected access to art, and the family that funded a David or a Winged Victory could gain great prestige. A patron who recognized the talent of an aspiring young artist and supported him through the long path to mastery could gain even more.

In every case, though — no matter the purpose — the method of supporting these artists was to provide a stable and reliable livelihood for them while they worked. We make much of those famous artists who died before their art ever found a huge market, but we tend to forget that most of those artists were already well-rewarded for the creation of the art — for the time they spent imagining and studying and practicing, not to mention the time they spent executing the work, revising, polishing, and perfecting it.

In other words, by the time a work was published, it was already fully-funded. That’s a far cry from the way we approach it today, when it’s common for musicians to end up indentured to labels for life because albums don’t earn out. It’s common for any major motion picture to wind up in extensive litigation between the pe0ple who made it, because it didn’t earn enough profit at the box office.

How to Become a Master Artist

A new patronage would change a lot about the business model of art as we know it today. I’ll talk about that more next week, but we’ve still got another lesson to learn from art history, first.

Come back tomorrow to discuss how the Renaissance masters learned their craft, and how you as a writer can become a master artist.

4 Responses to “On Patronage: Patrons, Artists, and the Public Renaissance”

  1. Nicki says:

    I have an artist friend who has taken upon herself to model a new form of patronage. As farmers have done with Community Support Agriculture, she has started a CSA (A for Art) and gives the members art each month.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      That’s an incredible idea, Nicki! How is it working for her?

      It sounds like a lot of work, getting the word out and building subscribers…but no more than other artists have to do these days, even with labels.

      I’m excited just to hear that something like that is going on.

  2. Dave Doolin says:

    I’d like to write software like this.