A rather rotund man hunches over a walking stick disdainfully in the reception room of an obviously powerful and busy Grand Signor. The man is but one of many individuals crowded together uncomfortably, some attempting to pass the time as entertainingly as possible, others patiently waiting their turn to be called for an audience. At the end of a great hall a door is open slightly, and we catch a small glimpse of the noble personage as a client stoops in a low bow before entering into his master’s presence.
This scene is depicted in a rather overdone painting by Edward Matthew Ward. It is one of those historical set pieces that were very popular with the Victorians, meant to illicit a chuckle or teach a lesson, sometimes both. In this one we have the recreation of a famous moment from the life of Samuel Johnson. According to Johnson, in an attempt to garner financial support for his proposed dictionary of the English language, he was one day kept waiting by his patron Lord Chesterfield too long, and when finally heard treated with a perceived indifference. The incident was the cause behind the composition of a letter today hailed as a declaration of independence for the modern author. In it Johnson famously asks: “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?” However, as usual, the facts of history are far more grey than they at first appear. Chesterfield’s involvement in the plan was always minimal at best, and the project as a whole was from the first proposed and financed by London publishers. Johnson’s outburst is more one of childish resentment at a perceived slight than a declaration of anything more profound. Nevertheless, this image of authorial liberation misleadingly remains.
In truth Johnson’s fiery missal merely represents a transition between the educated aristocratic world of thoughtful discernment and the new world of mass production for mass gains. In other words, Johnson only exchanged one master for another of less discriminating taste. The costs of such a transition are still in evidence today.
Since classical antiquity the client/patron relationship had had a special status as the only respectable option for the artist who sought financial independence. Ideally, the arrangement was like a friendship. The Roman poet Virgil was treated by his social and economic superior Maecenas as one of the family, and was never made to feel like a beggar at the door. Unfortunately, the opposite was more often to be the case, as the satirist Juvenal infamously outlined the daily itinerary of the poor client in Satire V:
First of all be sure of this—that when bidden to dinner, you receive payment in full for all your past services. A meal is the return which your grand friendship yields you; the great man scores it against you, and though it come but seldom, he scores it against you all the same… For [the master] a delicate loaf is reserved, white as snow, and kneaded of the finest flour. Be sure to keep your hands off it: take no liberties with the breadbasket! If you are presumptuous enough to take a piece, there will be someone to bid you put it down: " What, Sir Impudence? Will you please fill yourself from your proper tray, and learn the colour of your own bread?" "What?" you ask, "was it for this that I would so often leave my wife's side on a spring morning and hurry up the chilly Esquiline when the spring skies were rattling down the pitiless hail, and the rain was pouring in streams off my cloak ?"… And so you all sit in dumb silence, your bread clutched, untasted, and ready for action. In treating you thus, the great man shows his wisdom. If you can endure such things, you deserve them….
As bad as this may appear, it is to our discredit if we fail to see how little has changed in two thousand years. The modern writer or artist is still as much in need of letters of introduction as in the past if any hope is to be had of success in the larger world. Today however, the minimum number of those letters are three—M.F. A. But these come at a far higher cost than the bit of bowing and scraping expected of previous generations. Today one is less a name than a number, while as a student you must compete against an army of worthy applicants. In addition, even should you succeed in acquiring your degree, you may spend a lifetime in paying it off. Even Johnson was not expected to reimburse Lord Chesterfield for his contribution.
This returns us to the competitive nature of this new system of patronage. As I said, one must not only pay for a letter of introduction, one must also have friends in high places. For, as it has seemingly almost always been, it is less skill and talent that makes a man than his friends. Once the proper credentials are acquired and, quite frequently while still attaining them, the artist is forced to hobnob and network, to debase herself in a manner even more deplorable than Juvenal ever dared imagine, in large measure because at least Juvenal’s client knew he was debasing himself. The modern bootlicker is not burdened with any such self-knowledge; instead he or she is simply “playing the game.”
This has become the primary method of seeking patronage but in our digital age, it is no longer the only one. Now, with the help of websites such as the aptly named Patreon or Go Fund Me, one can request money for one’s projects from perhaps millions of strangers. In some instances one need not even have a project, as “cyberbegging” has entered the lexicon as a new phenomenon. If you have trouble paying the rent or need a little extra gas money, there’s no shame in asking.
Finally, what does this say to us about the state of culture today? It has certainly become more democratic. The artist is no longer the personal adornment of a single patron’s ego, a servant to his whims and obliged to flatter his desires such as with the Medicis. But, even in the past this was rarely the case among the greatest. The patrons of a Johnson or a Beethoven at the very least only required a mention from time to time, very often as the dedicatee of a new symphony or an epic poem. More importantly, by commissioning work from an artist, a patron of high taste and education could direct the artist’s talents where they may never have been applied on the artist's own initiative. Pope Julius gave Raphael the Papal apartments to decorate, and Michelangelo the Sistine, two projects of unsurpassed genius that have come to define an entire age.
On the other hand, today's artist has not one patron but perhaps thousands, and each often expects far more for their money than a humble admission of thanks. The artist is no longer the private adornment of the aristocrat, a servant whose works were meant to display the taste of the patron, if not the wealth to afford it. Now he is viewed as the personal possession of a thousand enthusiastic persons. One only need recall Beatlemania and its often silly, and sometimes obsessively dangerous (and in one case deadly) excesses, to see what I mean.
Yet above all what has been lost is that quality of educated discernment. Remember, artists were patronized precisely because they were perceived to have cachet, or social capital, which was the special province of the privileged class to recognize and reward. An artist achieved fame through a benefactor, but it was the benefactor who basked in the reflected glory of the artist’s accomplishments, a reflection too of the patron’s high taste and discrimination that perceived the potential.
What Dr. Johnson forgot when he stamped out discourteously from Lord Chesterfield’s study that day, and what we have forgotten through equal impatience and the infinite dilution of quality by quantity, is that good taste, like good manners, can never be a property of a mob. The days when the artist was forced to bow to one master are irrevocably lost. Art, or what we now call art, is now the servant to a multitude, and in such a sea how much glory has been drowned we can never know.