What Powered the Renaissance? (Could It Have Happened Without Cash?)

Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series


We know that money can’t buy happiness (though it often doesn’t hurt), and we know that it can’t buy talent (though again …).

But can it buy a Renaissance?

Can money buy a thriving art scene that isn’t just busy in the present, but worth remembering in the future? Or is that exactly what’s outside its power?

According to Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Genius, the answer is right in front of us: city-states like Qatar and Dubai are spending sums of money that were unimaginable to Renaissance kings on art and architecture … and sure, the buildings are cool, but nobody really thinks they’re relevant. Las Vegas casinos throw gobs of money on artisans and creative endeavors … but while it’s turned Vegas into a tourist destination, nobody takes them seriously.

Disneyland is probably spending more money than the whole Renaissance several times over — but “Disneyland” is exactly what no one wants an art scene to turn into.

In fact, the current model of arts and economic development has “art” coming before “money” — artists congregate in a place (a Brooklyn, a San Francisco), transform it into a thriving scene, and it is the scene that attracts big money … eventually gentrifying the artists themselves out.

So our modern answer is “no,” an art scene isn’t powered by money. It’s ruined by money.

The artists of the Renaissance, however, had a very different answer — so different that they probably never would have asked the question at all.

“The disdain for money arises from the romantic obsession that a work should be independent, inspirational, and above all opposed to the status quo, and so in a certain sense, however anarchically or idiosyncratically, political,” said Tim Parks, author of Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth Century Florence. “These ideas were simply not around in the 14th and 15th centuries.”

Remember, Parks said: painting and sculpture require tools and materials — which cost money. Nor is it an accident that the vast public art projects we look back on as a high water mark in Florence occurred during a period when the city was leading Europe in new approaches to banking — and flush with filthy lucre.

Dr. Matthew Landrus, an Oxford University scholar who specializes in artists of the Renaissance, goes so far to say the Renaissance was powered “primarily by economic factors. The economic benefits to Florence from trade — in terms of skill sets and training, in terms of developing leading studios that could do things other places couldn’t — that had a lot to do with the success of the banking industry.”

Nor it is a coincidence that many other vital and historically important “scenes” coincided with flush times: the Harlem Renaissance happened during the Roaring ’20s, not the Great Depression. The Belle Epoch was likewise fabulously wealthy.

There is an undeniable correlation between the flow of money and the vitality of an art and cultural scene — one that Renaissance and contemporary artists interpret very differently. But what is the underlying relationship?

A close examination of periods of cultural genius, like that undertaken by Weiner, suggests there are key factors to a thriving arts scene that money can in fact enable and bring to fruition, but that money can also destroy.

The Three D’s

Broadly speaking, Weiner told us, his research suggests that there are three key elements to the creation of a scene likely to create “cultural genius.”

The first is Diversity.

This doesn’t just mean ethnic and racial diversity — though it does mean that — but it must mean intellectual diversity. The scene must be full of different ideas and ways of thinking that one can bump into and can’t always casually dismiss.

Renaissance Florence didn’t get diversity because it had money, but the trade and banking practices that made it wealthy also opened it up to global goods and cultures, and that made a huge difference.

“In Florence they were traveling as far as Afghanistan to get the dyes for their cloth business. The Athenians were great travelers and sailors,” Weiner said. “Places that don’t have free trade rarely have free ideas.”

Landrus agreed, saying that it was that openness to the world (along with a steady influx of money) that allowed them to recruit many of the leading artistic geniuses of the time. This brought not only geniuses, but geniuses who were thinking in different terms than the local artists and population, creating a fruitful mix of ideas.

But even beyond the importing of talent, the simple exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking has profound benefits. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates that “[i]nput from alien cultures might stimulate exceptional national achievements.” In a study they conducted on creative flourishing in Japanese history, it was clear that significant advances occurred following periods of openness to outside cultures and influences — even if there weren’t many actual foreign immigrants living in Japan. Exposure to new ways of thinking and problem solving itself leads to creative flourishing.

Another way in which Florence had diversity was in its economy itself: it had enormous wealth, yes, but unlike our contemporary Silicon Valley or Hollywood, it wasn’t a one-industry town. Textile manufacturing was a major source of wealth, but, by the Medici period, so was banking, with the more traditional banking centers in Italy having shifted from Siena to Florence, Dr. Landrus notes. The church was likewise a source of enormous institutional wealth, and eventually the arts themselves became a kind of economic powerhouse.

And while “democracy” in Florence was often a farce, as Medici Money so deftly illustrates, the constant shifting of committees and leadership — even if ultimately among the members of a limited number of family — meant that fresh eyes and perspectives were constantly looking at old problems.

“Many vital institutions, like the Opera del Duomo, required turnover every few years of leadership,” Weiner said. It’s likely no coincidence that these institutions were often responsible for the development of major civic treasures still honored and cherished today.

Also important was the concept of a “Renaissance man” itself — the idea that the ideal intellect was exposed to many fields. Engineers should know poetry and bankers painting. Artists should be scientists. Not everyone met this ideal – most people probably didn’t — but when it was ideal to be a generalist, that helped promote cross-pollination of disciplines to a significant degree. Specialists were chided, not exalted.

The second “d” is Discernment

“All of the societies I’ve studied that cultivated genius,” Weiner told us, “were colanders for sifting out crap. None of these places argued that all art was equally good. Or all philosophy.”

“An open, tolerant place isn’t enough,” he went on. “That’s just a mish-mash. There has to be discerning and separating, as a group. That can be harsh, but it’s necessary.”

The Renaissance was blessed, at least for a period of time, by a high quality of patron who was both risk-taking and discerning. “Cosimo de’ Medici was a great patron,” Tim Parks said, “in part because he had his personal reasons for wanting to use art to reinforce his position with the church and society in general and in part because he was genuinely fascinated by painting, sculpture and architecture, but without imagining that he knew better than the artist.”

It was a quality of patron that Florence had an abundance of for some time. Does that happen by accident?

Weiner thinks it wasn’t an accident, in no small part because Renaissance society valued artists so highly. He quotes Plato: “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.”

18th and 19th century Vienna didn’t get Mozart and Beethoven and multiple generations of Strausses by accident; it got them because the society elevated musicians and took a profound pride in whether its music was both high quality and cutting edge. 20th century America didn’t get Steve Jobs by accident; he came out of a time when there was incredible government and industry pressure to enhance technology and make sure that America was never behind on another metaphorical space race.

“These geniuses are cultivated by us,” Weiner said.

How do we cultivate discernment? Well, money and honor both do go a long way. But there are other approaches.

Everyone we’ve spoken to about Renaissance Florence emphasized how frequently it resorted to competitions to sort the wheat from the chaff. They wanted a clash of ideas, and they wanted the best to succeed. No one was grandfathered in.

But Weiner pointed out a corollary to that: failure was not held against the competitors, and “there was a place for the losers to go.” There was always more work available, more competition, another avenue to explore.

This is essential, Weiner suggests, because the more high-stakes these contests get — the more society clearly separates into “winners” and “losers” on the basis of just a few metrics — the more cultural caution is going to develop. If you’ve only got one shot, you’d be a fool to try something people might not like. You’re going to stick with what everybody agrees is a good idea.

It is when stakes are not life and death — when failure won’t cost you everything and you know you’ll be able to try again — that people are more likely to pursue a unique or surprising vision, and offer real alternatives to the received wisdom.

“Societies that cultivate genius give second chances, multiple chances,” Weiner said “Losers need avenues to do things. We say we believe in second chances in this country, but I’m not sure if we really do.”

The third “d” is Disorder. And this gets ugly.

“There’s usually some sort of stirring of the pot before a significant age of genius,” Weiner said. “Often it’s something very negative. In Athens, the city was sacked by the Persians, and rebuilding it was really Athens’ golden age. In Florence, it was the city getting savaged by the Black Death. That was followed two generations later by the Renaissance.”

“Negative” is an understatement here. The plague wiped out an estimated third of Europe’s population. That’s an obscenely high price to pay for a good art scene.

But the principle still applies: after things have been shaken up, greater creativity and a sense of purpose that leads to greater discernment often appear. Disruption can be inspirational.

But, Weiner cautions, only up to a point. Greater creativity happens after disruption, not during it. At some point it has to stop. “Chaos is a phase you go through between orders,” he told us. “The Renaissance didn’t happen during the plague!”

Indeed, Dr. Landrus emphasized that the Italian Renaissance was led by those city-states that had the greatest stability, not the least.

“Renaissance cities generally were possible thanks very much to the Peace at Lodi in 1454,” he told us. “While not ‘at peace’ in the sense that we would think of it today — the rivalries between cities like Florence, Milan, and Venice was very real, and had real consequences — this relative peace allowed these various cities to continue without military conflict, and to continue economically.”

By contrast, cities like Naples, which were in a semi-constant state of warfare at the time, did not develop nearly so significant a scene; the climate of disorder and constant threat of destruction was too great.

Disorder, then, while a genuine necessity, is also a cure that can be worse than the disease. Happy is the era that has just enough disorder to stimulate creativity and art, but no more.

While surely an oversimplification at some level, it’s clear how this structure — Diversity, Discernment, and Disorder — can be used as a guide to understand how money can supercharge art scenes, and how it can kill them.

How Much Genius for a Dollar?

To the extent that money brings in diversity — enhancing immigration and travel, creating new communities alongside old ones, and bringing people with different backgrounds and perspectives together on common projects — it can be an engine that powers an art scene.

But when money creates gated communities, gentrification, and epistemic closure it sounds a death knell for creativity and the local creative class.

To the extent that money is used to take chances in pursuit of excellence, it can be a boon to artists and the cultural landscape. To the extent that money conflates “bigger” with “better,” “repetition” with “excellence,” and circulates only among a select few rather than as a bridge to new talent, a scene is better off without it.

And to the extent money is the cause or result of a brief period of disruption, opening the door for new ideas to come forward, it is a tough but effective medicine. But when it creates a continuous climate of disruption in which no one has a chance to catch their breath, let alone develop best practices or inspiration, then it is simply cruel.

The Renaissance was powered by money.

Burning Man? Honestly, the jury’s still out. A legitimate debate can be had as to whether Burning Man’s increasing arts funding is being spent in ways that will best support its artistic community.

But right now it seems abundantly clear that in our larger society vast sums of money are being used to build gated, gentrified, and segregated communities — both literally and intellectually — that reduce diversity; that there is no clear sense of discernment across large institutions or donors when it comes to art; and that “disruption” is not just present, but a code word for whole industries, industries that on the one hand have unleashed tremendous creativity, but on the other are making it increasingly difficult for many communities to find the stability that they need to harness that creativity.

The problem isn’t that money is involved with art and creativity: the problem is that the 21st century West is doing something profoundly wrong that the 15th century West got profoundly right. What did they know that we don’t? Can we turn that around?

We’ll continue that discussion in our next installment, with a look at The Ethos of Money and Giving.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

2 Comments on “What Powered the Renaissance? (Could It Have Happened Without Cash?)

  • burnersxxx says:

    ‘“There’s usually some sort of stirring of the pot before a significant age of genius,” Weiner said.’

    …love it! Great post, Caveat.

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  • Tatiana (no Playa Name yet) says:

    Really interesting, thank you.
    While diversity fuels a thriving art scene, Chris Hedges in a recent article “The Great Forgetting” writes that devaluation of art and culture within American society has caused a parochialism, the opposite of diversity in thought and ideas. Generally speaking we have an extremely diverse society of immigrants, but racism and xenophobia creates hostility toward new influences. There is a vicious circle in effect. Lack of funding and support for arts and education increases a mindset that is prejudiced against new ideas.
    Plato: “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.”
    Also consider the effect of disruption on our culture. Poverty creates disruption. So called “Spacial Deconcentration” schemes of the 70s and 80s rotted out the urban infrastructure in cities like New York. I was among the wave of squatters who moved into the abandoned buildings and, rent free, enjoyed the opportunity to develop our creative talents and ideas. What appeared as poverty from the outside felt like luxury to us because we had an abundance of time. But this was only available to those who were willing to take risks and “drop out” of mainstream society.
    The moneyed elite who profit from war constantly manufacture a storyline in order to convince us that we are living in a state of disruption (fear), regardless of what we might experience in our day to day reality.
    When our society values money over art artists end up working for Disney Land. When art is valued, and discernibly good art is rewarded, then artists and the artistic process may be supported through patronage and the fertile environment encourages new artists and creative thought.
    I don’t know how to change the values in our culture so Americans will stop equating money with virtue and start appreciating substantive creative contributions to society instead. But I do know that artists create culture, and I feel incredibly privileged to be able to participate in Burning Man culture where art, creativity, creative process and experiences, participation and generosity are central values. I came to the party late (2015 was my first year) so I feel the contrast acutely, after a lifetime of cultural impoverishment.
    Burner culture is a part of the national landscape and our values, our support and patronage of arts can affect communities in the default world.
    Here’s that Chris Heges article:

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