Essay — 10 Min Read

Maecenas, Patron of the Day

Press Release — 5 Min Read

The Story of the Museum of Contemporary Cuts

“The arts have always begged for money from the rich and powerful. The difference with Mecenas was that he understood how much the Liberal Arts could reshape people’s understanding of the world for centuries to come.

Lanfranco Aceti

The Museum of Contemporary Cuts (MoCC) is analyzing and discussing the role that money and power play in shaping the modalities of patronage and the understanding of the teleology of art (or art’s ultimate end).

In a world of competing interests in which the artist is but a servant of power, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s painting of Maecenas introducing to the Emperor Augustus the Liberal Arts, clearly exposes these power relations.

Social Bonds

The history of social bonds is complex since it moves between competing ethical and social obligations that were legally consolidated between the patron (or patronus in Latin) and the client (cliens) to establish the protective and supportive relationship of patronage (patrocinium).

The story of Maecenas and of his patronage is one of the earliest historical records that presents us with a tenuous insight into the relationship between art and power in the construction of the ideal image of an empire. Since then, the relationship between art and power, through Mecenatism as its major form of financial support, has been complex, to say the least. The complexity has increased over the centuries reaching a point in which, in the XXIst century, the relationship between artist and patron is formalized and neatly structured to avoid any form of upset with the resulting work. Patronage is no longer in support of an artist’s career but conceived as a one-off commission of a large work of art.

My analysis focuses principally on the differences between the role that patronage took in ancient Rome and the naivety of what passes for patronage in the contemporary art scene, in which artists do not have to compromise their aesthetics, since that compromise between art and propaganda was done at the origin, by engaging with a gallery system that pushes to the front what is acceptable by contemporary art fairs, dealers, and buyers.

Contemporary patronage appears to be failing at understanding the basic tenets of Mecenatism and the methodology needed to choose the artist that could be patronized. The complexity of the relationship between Mecenas and his artists was based on a patron-client relationship which in Rome had such a complex legal status, religious connotations, and moral obligations that is not comparable to the notion of patron-client that we reason with today. It is sufficient to say that the choice of artist was an investment on both parties, the artist and the patron, because the relationship that was to be established was a long-term one in which the patronus and the cliens would succeed and fail together in reshaping cultural history and not solely in creating a work to decorate a public square or an apartment.

It is, quite often, the ignorance and anti-intellectual stances of contemporary social structures that generate the fertile grounds for ignorance or for imposing a system that requires art to be none other than the decorative element of the propaganda machine of the nation-state, of the corporate world, or of a social group.

The reason for this mercantile and artistically demeaning framework is, in part, based on a so called ‘professionalization’ of art — a form of art that has lost its aura as a consequence of the artist’s near impossibility of engaging with a higher intellectual purpose — and is all focused on the importance of the advertising message and of the pleasing of the patron. If art-making has become a profession, as much as every other profession has lost place and value within society, higher purpose had to be eliminated from the work of art.

Art becomes the artwork that can be sold immediately to pay the bills, necessarily conditioning the artist to produce what sells and not what could be produced free from restraints. Tiepolo painted what his foreign clientele wanted to decorate their apartments: lovely views of Venice that would remind them of their time spent in Italy during their Grand Tour. They were not interested in the social problems that plagued the country at the time, but solely concentrated their fetishistic gaze on the romantic and decadent landscapes that covered the Italian peninsula.

Freedom and Art Production

It is, at its core, a question of freedom. Freedom from the materiality of the world to be able to carve out space and time to produce something freed from restraints that might aspire to be a work of art. Patronage and money enter directly and predominantly in this relationship and propaganda is just another element of the equation. Propaganda is but one element of the complex exchange between client and patron, and one not necessarily too pernicious, as Ernst Gombrich puts it, [1] compared to the preeminent need, superseding all other considerations, to cash art for dollars.

“When Clement Greenberg wrote his famous essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ in 1939, he formulated the memorable insight that while the emerging avant-garde sought to withdraw itself from the mess of politics and ideology all the better to preserve the very possibility and purposes of art, it was still, inevitably, bound to certain fractions of the bourgeoisie by an ‘umbilical cord of gold’. The game has changed radically. The none-too-subtle slippages between art fairs, with their intellectual decoration and outreach programmes, and biennales (of which there were at least 39 taking place in 2015 alone), with their intellectual framing of curatorial projects, create new ambiguities for the relations between critical and even art-historical analysis of this beast, contemporary art, and the conditions of our encounter with it.” [2]

Unfortunately, the straitjackets imposed upon the artists and their artworks have become multiple and so tight that the production of art, particularly art for public display, is conditioned not solely by money, propaganda messages, and aesthetic homologation but also by moralistic, ferocious, and divisive public confrontations that little have in common with debates and that prescind from dialogue, walking directly into the realm of fascistic censorship and moralistic fires.

“My chief objection to propaganda, apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it. For it leaves and speaks under the shadow of a dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens or supplicates. It is too extroverted for balance or poise or inner dignity and self-respect. Art in the best sense is rooted in self-expression and whether naive or sophisticated is self-contained. In our spiritual growth genius and talent must more and more choose the role of group expression, or even at times the role of free individualistic expression, ⎯ in a word must choose art and put aside propaganda.” [3]

Alain Locke presents us with one of the most lucid and most compelling arguments made in favor of art and against propaganda, particularly because it is coming from the side of the oppressed. One would have expected a more Soviet and moralistic approach to the idea of art as having the duty to be chained to and at the service of a cause, an ideology, or a moral. The intellectual sharpness of this argument makes it even more striking, particularly knowing and understanding the tragic complexity of the social background from which the author was delivering it.

Freedom of expression and not individualistic or group homologation is at the basis of effective patronage in support of artistic endeavors. Maecenas offers a great example in the empowerment, either willingly or unknowingly, of the poets of his time.

“It is significant that the common patronage of Maecenas did not succeed in bringing them together. One sometimes imagines the protégés of Maecenas as one solid united group with a common attitude to the problems of their art and of their times. But this is not the case. The members of Maecenas’ circle differed greatly among themselves in style, temperament, and outlook.” [4]

On the other end of the spectrum is W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of The Crisis, who collapses identity, art, and propaganda as a unique vehicle of social advancement and political fight. If, on the one hand, I stand with the analysis made by Locke, I cannot deny the importance of a message as part of the role that socio-political art plays in the public realm. Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso is just such a work of art, in which the artist’s aesthetics, the politics, the horrors of war, and the propaganda blend in achieving what Gombrich points at in his essay, the transcendence of propaganda and of the “umbilical cord of gold” that created the material conditions for the execution of the work of art. Art is such when it transcends the materiality of its origins and is able to speak a universal message or strike an emotional cord common to all of humanity.

“All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” [5]

Although the analysis of W.E.B. Du Bois and Locke have been presented as being in sharp contrast to one another, [6] it is important to consider that they might actually not be. If by propaganda we mean a message, the entirety of the history of art is characterized by visual and emotive messages. Without emotive messages, visible or hidden that they might be, art would not be anything else other than a doodle, with all of its limitations. If for Du Bois the propagandistic message to be carried is that of a cultural identity, then art’s role is that of creating a communion through the understanding of life and its possibilities. Art has always represented the message of a community even when it represented as its subject a divine figure, because the identity of a community, or the struggle of a people, it is an integral part of the artist and the context in which the work of art is produced. Different problem is if the message is such that it overshadows art itself, relegating the aesthetic to such a minor role that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to find the art in the midst of the socio-political message. The demands of the patron and/or of the community that should be reflected within the works of art, as Gombrich wrote, should recede and leave space to the free expression of the artist so that art might be made, even out of a political propagandistic message.

The argument I am making is to reinforce the idea that Mecenatism has an incredibly important social role that can offer the stage for free group expression and free individualistic expression. This is a role, that particularly in the United States, is still sorely needed and dramatically lacking. It is a role that the Museum of Contemporary Cuts is attempting to fill by mediating between patrons and artists, providing an understanding of the importance of platforms within which free expression is paramount to the achievement of works of art and not sycophantic, decorative, and propagandistic works at their worse.

“Our espousal of art thus becomes no mere idle acceptance of ‘art for art’s sake,’ or cultivation of the last decadences of the over-civilized, but rather a deep realization of the fundamental purpose of art and of its function as a tap root of vigorous, flourishing living.” [7]

It is the deep function of art as fundamental to the flourishing of social living that Locke had in common with Maecenas. They both spurred a social renaissance; Maecenas from a position of power, Locke from a minority’s status which makes his achievements the more astounding.

“Surely we must take some cognizance of the fact that we live at the centre of a social problem. Propaganda at least nurtured some form of serious social discussion, and social discussion was necessary, is still necessary. On this side; the difficulty and shortcoming of propaganda is its partisanship. It is one-sided and often pre-judging.” [8]

The ability to sharply seize the argument even to understand the role that propaganda might have in the support of art, is something that showcases Locke’s intellectual ability to describe and present nuanced arguments. This is a quality sorely lost on many in this earlier part of the XXIst century, when the shrill tones of propaganda [9] and partisanship have flooded social spaces, even the spaces of the arts, where freedom of thinking, speaking, and creating in the achievement of that teleological superior end of art should be held most dear in creating the opportunities for art to flourish in the representation of social struggles.

References and notes

[1] Ernst Gombrich, “Art and Propaganda,” The Listener (December 7, 1939): 1118-20.

[2] Griselda Pollock, “56th Venice Biennale,” Art Monthly, 387 (June 2015): 20-22.

[3] Alain Locke, “Art or Propaganda?” Harlem, I, no. 1 (November 1928): 12-13.

[4] A. Dalzell, “Maecenas and the Poets,” Phoenix 10, no. 4 (Winter 1956): 160.

[5] W. E .B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” The Crisis, 32 (1926): 295.

[6] Leonard Harris, “The Great Debate: W. E. B. Du Bois vs. Alain Locke on the Aesthetic,” Philosophia Africana: Analysis of Philosophy and Issues in Africa and the Black Diaspora 7, no. 1 (March 2004): 15-40.

[7] Locke, “Art or Propaganda?” 12-13.

[8] Locke, “Art or Propaganda?” 12-13.

[9] “Of late the word ‘propaganda’ has acquired so shrill an overtone that one almost hesitates to couple it with art. But if we forget for a moment that sinister modern technique, which gradually converts human beings into something like mental robots, and take the word in its original meaning as the ‘propagation’ of ideas or values, then it is not difficult to see that art and propaganda have at least one common frontier.” Gombrich, “Art and Propaganda,” 1118-20.

We will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy.