Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series
Silicon Valley didn’t invent the “gig economy.” On the contrary, the life of a contractor with neither benefits nor security would have been very familiar to Leonardo da Vinci.
According to Dr. Matthew Landrus, a member of the history faculty at Oxford and a specialist on the artists and engineers of the 14th-18th centuries, Leonardo was a “working artist” with frequent commissions, yes, but he made most of his money from civil and military engineering. And if he was constantly in demand, it was because “he worked hard to make sure he was in demand.”
In fact, of the voluminous journals that Leonardo left us, including his thoughts on art, engineering, science, nature, history, and even (up to a point) social customs — there is virtually nothing indicating his political views.
“That was too dangerous,” Landrus said. “He didn’t want to risk offending a patron.” Leonardo was a celebrity, he was a legend in his own time, but he didn’t have a safety net. There was no plan B.
The “gig economy” (or “service economy” if you want a less accurate euphemism) is not an innovation but a recurrence of an earlier model and an earlier time. Artists have usually lived on the economic fringes of society, but for most of Western history everyone was, in some way, dependent upon the largesse of a patron.
It was the rise of the middle class — the very bourgeoisie whom 20th century artists delighted in mocking and shocking — that made the idea of an independent citizenry possible. The “nation of shopkeepers” were what made an independent avant garde a force.
But if economic forces were vital for art’s liberation from patronage, it still didn’t happen by accident. The man who is most often credited for freeing artists from the patronage system lived almost 300 years after Leonardo, and it’s a story every artist should know.
Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote the first full dictionary of the English language, and when he began the project, it was under the patronage of the 4th Earl of Chesterfield. But after providing an initial grant, Chesterfield stopped supporting it for the entirety of the seven years it took Johnson to finish. After it was done, however, Chesterfield began mentioning the Dictionary publicly, along with his own “involvement” in the project.
Johnson, notoriously easy to offend, responded with a public letter in which he trashed Chesterfield — and the idea of patrons as a whole.
“Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?” Johnson wrote.
This letter, now infamous, has frequently been referred to as literature’s “Declaration of Independence,” and was the symbolic beginning of our idea of artists as independent laborers who could depend upon public sales rather than moneyed patronage to support their lives and livelihoods.
Today we see our society moving towards both models at once. Crowdfunding and social media allow artists and makers direct access to their publics on an unpredicted scale — but the erosion of the middle class means that more and more art and arts institutions are increasingly dependent upon the largesse of a new class of ultra-rich patrons.
Burning Man is straddling the crest of both waves. Founded entirely by volunteers and small-scale participant donations in its early years, funded almost entirely by ticket sales in its period of massive growth, it is now perhaps the largest hub for crowd-and-participant funded art in the world. At the same time, it is also famously the new favorite playground of the ultra-rich, who spend ungodly sums of money to do what the rest of us used to do on the cheap.
Anyone who has actually attended Burning Man knows the presence of the 1% in Black Rock City is significantly over-hyped by the media (is anything under-hyped?), and the vast majority of Burners would never know that Richie Rich’s wealthier brother was on playa if people off-playa weren’t complaining about it. But whether it’s causation or correlation, the rise of the 1% at Burning Man does correspond very closely with an increase in the epic scale of the city’s infrastructure, and its art.
As Black Rock City gets bigger, its art has gotten grander — and correspondingly more expensive. To be sure, it is still possible to have profoundly affecting art projects done on a small scale and without permission, but Burning Man has become increasingly associated with the kind of scale and spectacle that requires either a massive crowd-funding campaign or a very wealthy patron.
This is an uncomfortable tension, and maybe unsustainable. It’s also hard to talk about.
Art and money have never been separable, but somehow the idea of talking about them together has become a great taboo. We admire “starving artists” in a way that we would never endorse for “starving teachers” or “starving firemen.” We have a notion deeply embedded in our culture that anybody who talks about doing art for the money must not be a “real” artist. There’s something to that, but it’s also in part a modern concept. It certainly wasn’t Dr. Johnson’s view. He said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
The musicologist Peter Schickele once similarly pointed out, in a hilarious performance that it kills me not to be able to find anywhere online, that most of the correspondence we have of the extraordinarily influential composer Johann Sebastian Bach (a contemporary of Dr. Johnson’s) is not about music at all, but mostly complaining about the cost of living and the fact that his patrons didn’t pay him on time.
(If anyone reading this knows Dr. Schikele, please ask him if he has a clip of that performance we can show.)
So we’ve gone from a period where artists were hyper-aware of money, and open about it, to a period where artists talking about money endangers their status as “artists.” This would be understandable, even laudable, if artists were actually less worried about money, but since they’re not — since in fact we live in a time of profound economic uncertainty about artists and arts funding — this just won’t do.
The 2016 theme of “da Vinci’s Workshop” and Renaissance Florence is intended in no small part to violate this taboo and open this conversation. For the sake of artists, let alone society, we need to think about how we want arts to be funded, how we can do so in ways that are consistent with our values, and how we can create the impact on the arts and funding that we want to have in the world.
To be sure, no one wants to return to the days before Dr. Johnson’s declaration of independence. Leonardo himself illustrates, in his refusal to talk politics, just how stifling that system could be. But not wanting to go back doesn’t mean we can’t learn from history — indeed it’s one of the few things we can learn from. For all its faults, there are many ways in which the Renaissance is exactly what we want to look to for guidance about both what to do and what not to do. If the 21st century is to have patrons, what are best practices for them? How can they be part of the solution, rather than a bottleneck for art and a source of anxiety for artists?
The Renaissance certainly teaches us that there was more than one kind of patron — and more than one reason for making art. While “patronage” today is virtually synonymous with “getting money from a rich guy,” much of the greatest work of the Renaissance was paid for by the church, and many of Florence’s most significant public treasures were paid for by its various guilds. If it was a period every bit as obsessed with money as ours, it was also a period when the most powerful institutions in society saw the creation of art as central to their missions. The glory of God and the state were tied in closely to the art created in their names; a nation or church without public art lacked a fundamental legitimacy. They were not doing their job. Nobility and merchants who did not engage with and support the arts were equally lacking. Money was a means to an end; simply accumulating money served no legitimate social good. Sponsoring art was an alchemy by which money transformed into a higher purpose.
Ironically, we live in an era that claims to value art for its own sake, but that also sees it as far more optional than the Renaissance did. The virulence of a Savonarola against art is only possible when you in fact take art seriously.
Our era has the potential for an unparalleled artistic renaissance. Not only is there plenty of money — if we can only figure out how to access and harness it — but our distribution networks for art and artists are leaps and bounds beyond anything ever envisioned before. We live in a time, to paraphrase Clive James, when it is possible to experience much of the greatest art ever created, for free, without even leaving your home.
Indeed, the ease and quality of the distribution network is part of the problem. Possibly it’s an even greater problem: many societies have tried to address issues of money, equality, and art before, but to my knowledge no society in history has needed to address the problem of art and culture being too easily accessible to everyone. That seems truly a first. It may be, when we dig deep, that some issues of money may not really be about money, much in the way some issues of sex are not really about sex.
But we won’t know until we call them out.
We hope this theme will give Burning Man’s legions of artists, doers, and creative thinkers permission to actively embrace this taboo and a space in which to explore these questions. What can we learn about the relationship between art and money from the Renaissance, and what can we do — what must we do — to embrace the potential of our own time to be the next Renaissance? Hopefully a renaissance as concerned with human dignity and agency as it is with technical advances and artistic accomplishment.
In the series of essays that follow, leading up to the event itself, we will be examining questions that we hope will offer insight and inspiration to anyone looking to address these issues or take on this theme.
Our history, like the histories of those before us, will be defined by our art. Virtually no one remembers Leonardo for his military engineering, but his paintings helped define an era and changed the world. It is a matter of historical record that the only reason anyone really remembers the 4th Earl of Chesterfield today is that Samuel Johnson made fun of him in a letter about an art project that altered the course of civilization.
It may be new technologies and economic forces that make our future possible, but it won’t happen by accident. We need a new Declaration of Independence for artists.
Leonardo, Dr. Landrus tells us, viewed art as a guide to the future. He imagined things that did not exist so that he could build them. So, too, Burning Man: We study the Renaissance in order to imagine a new one. We imagine a new one in order to see if we can build it. In Black Rock City, and around the world.
Re-imagining the relationship between Art and Money, artists and funding, is how we begin.
Coming next: Case studies in being a Renaissance artist