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Patronage and Today's Artists: Everything Old Is New Again

The 18th century system of patronage – which I’d loosely define artists being paid to create stuff by random non-artists – is back. It’s the same kind of thing that the greats like Mozart, Beethoven, and Michelangelo relied on to pay the bills, but in new forms like Youtube, Patreon, Instagram, and Twich. Back in the old days, a rich guy or gal (or prince or princess!) footed the bill and controlled the creative genius of the likes of a Mozart with Ducats and Shillings. Now a collective noble entity called “subscribers” play the role of funding prince or princess, as they control the artists of today with Likes and Follows.

How is the patronage of today different? How can you get in on it?

Patronage of Old

Wikipediaoffers a historical background on patronage, extending it to include “musicians, writers, philosophers, alchemists, astrologers, and other scholars. Artists as diverse and important as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all sought and enjoyed the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons.” It’s never been easy to make a living in the artistic world, both as an 18th century court jester or a 21st century stand-up comic.

Patronage in 2020

We can identify many examples of modern-day patronage. In addition to a multitude of apps where artists can post, gain followers, and earn money, support from other types of entities has gained traction. Crowdfunding, platforms like Patreon, angel investors, and the results of the expansion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) offer ways to earn money as an artist. Our system of grants from non-profits fits, to some extent, into a “more publicly supported system” described below, but the fact that many of the grants are through wealthy American “royalty” like Bill Gates or Warren Buffetlooks more like patronage than public systems of funding.

Bowing to a Muse

Patronage, no matter what the century, raises the age-old question of whether you follow your own creative direction or if you bow to the dictates of another. Who is your master? You…or the one with the money? We like to think our artists are unaffected by the almighty dollar, and we are likely to turn our backs on artists whom we deem lacking in authenticity (i.e., Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Milli Vanilla lip synching, Olivia Jade’s college dis-aspiration). Certainly, fans today get angry when they find out that favorite Youtube and Instagram artists are not disclosing who is paying them, and when people realize that the content is government propaganda, it’s even more maddening.

Rich Meitin, answering a question in Quora, nails the creative dilemma of the artist in servitude to the patron (whether the artist was living in 1720 or 2020): “If it was financed by dimwitted inbred royalty, the music will frequently be dumbed down to their level of appreciation. If the music is financed by a rabid fan base of millions of 14-year-old girls, the same is true. If the music is created as part of an academic composer’s responsibility to her university, the music will conform to a certain academic standard. If the music is created for a Hollywood movie, it will be affected highly by the director’s taste.”

A Capricious Commandant

It’s never easy pleasing others. Rich 18th century royals and modern 14-year-old girls have a lot in common there, and a lot of power of their artist. Mozart irritated Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo of Salzburg so deeply, legend has it, that the prince’s valet kicked Mozart down the stairs.*

Mozart was 15 years old at that drubbing, about the same age slews of popular gaming, musical, and dramatic artists blowing up Youtube in 2020. For artists of any age, getting and keeping patrons is tough. Robert Capps of the NYTimeswrites that “viewers frequently change their subscriptions, and Amazon Prime members have to actively re-subscribe to a streamer every month. This makes subscribers a fickle lot.”

Me, Me, Me!

Where’d patronage finally go, when it ended back in the old days? Wikipedia’s answer is that patronage gave way to “the more publicly supported system of museums, theaters, mass audiences and mass consumption that is familiar in the contemporary world.” We’ve still got those, for sure, but the likes of us don’t have much of a change to get our creations into the Met or on Broadway.