Art patronage has had a long, uneven, and agitated history, and ideas about it appear to have long ago been settled: we call “great ages” those with intellectual and artistic brilliance, and we also add that these achievements were largely public, since taste and splendor were manifested first of all in buildings, churches, town halls, statues, and burial places. Let us add another aspect: while Pericles and Augustus built palaces, temples, schools, baths, and sponsored philosophers, the latter’s friend and contemporary, Maecenas, whose name is synonymous with patronage itself, endowed poets lavishly by securing their estates from creditors and paying their expenses in Rome. Others—princes, kings, and wealthy men—founded libraries, in Pergamon or Alexandria, which were the predecessors of Western universities, themselves endowed by emperors and popes, and ancestors also of institutions like the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, the Wartburg Institute in London, or the Nobel Foundation in Sweden.

We see immediately that the distinction between public and private founding and endowment is not the really important dividing line for the classification of patronage. The division can be made between the objects for which the moneys pay and the taste with which they are created. Tn declining Rome the wealthy were expected to disburse enormous sums for circus games and public baths, but was that art patronage? It is questionable whether such modem conveniences as colleges, auditoriums for spectacles, shopping malls, amusement parks, or sport arenas can be called art patron age, since such establishments are aesthetically undistinguished, and inspired largely by profit motives (including tax benefits) and commercial interests. The millions invested in Olympic games or television programs by car manufacturers, sportswear makers, and banks do not even remotely remind us of Maecenas; they are on the same level as the expenditures of Roman candidates for public office, who spent fortunes importing wild beasts from Africa or running gladiator schools.

How do we classify rulers of old Aztec, Egyptian, Chinese, Khmer who built and maintained irrigation systems and temples? Was this part of statecraft or art, and if art, are the works beautiful? A related question: were burial monuments and mausoleums, for example the pyramids of Egypt and the temple complex of Angkor Wat, utilities or aesthetically valid art works in addition to their usefulness? Art patronage is not as simple a matter as we may think.

But art has some circumstances in common. Thus even the irrigation systems stood under divine protection, like all great monuments of antiquity whose completion and continued exis tence called forth belief in the divine and the miraculous. Just as the gods and spirits of paganism crowded the cosmos, they also presided over the choice of a site, the orientation of the building, the symbols attached to it. The men who planned and construct ed it stood under divine favor and were in this sense consecrated, hence public, figures. As recent a construction as the palace and park of Versailles is filled with symbolism apparent to the fore warned and the instructed. Louis XIV, a sacred figure, transferred sacrality to his palace, just as Pope Julius II acted as more than an art patron when he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Incidentally, we may marvel at the distance between then and now, when we learn that the chapel’s restoration is being photographed and filmed by Japan’s national television network, which pays the expenses (and so acts as a patron). 

Was Alexander the Great an art patron when he founded Alexandria, Alexandrette, and a number of similarly named towns along his route to Iran and India? Strategy, the need for trade ports and population settlements, Hellenic commercial interests—all these considerations went into these foundings, but only Alexander’s successors, the Ptolernys in Egypt, built and endowed the Mousaion, a center of studies from grammar to astronomy devoted to all the Muses (hence our word “museum”). The Medici family was luckier in this respect; not only were its members art patrons par excellence, but whatever they caused to be created, from chapel to translations of Plato, is associated with their name. On a reduced scale there are families, like that of the German-Hungarian industrialist, Thyssen-Bomcmissza, with its vast collection of paintings on display at Lugano (now transferred, for reasons of high taxes, to Madrid, where the government offered it an appropriate shelter in the Prado). There arc many modem families that qualify for the title of art patrons, yet the term is debased when private treasure be comes an industry and a speculative investment. Are Ferdinand Marcos, Adnan Kashoggi, and Mitsubishi act ing as maecenases simply because they buy up quantities of art that can be easily transported and sold for profit? Once again, a line ought to be drawn between genuine patronage based on a sure taste confirmed by posterity, and the phenomenon of collection as a short- or long-range investment. 

Yet another inquiry into patronage should be directed to writing for profit. In the past—that is, until the 18th and 19th centuries, when large-scale journalism developed-poets, painters, scholars, writers, musicians were never paid; their works fell into the public domain, could be quoted, appropriated, plundered and plagiarized by fellow writers. From Homer to Voltaire, creative writers were rarely paid, al though, beginning with the Renaissance, printers/publishers shared some of their income with the authors. Other forms of compensation still prevailed; thus when Erasmus supplied a steady flow of manuscripts to his publishers in Basel and Venice, he spent months with them as a guest while correcting the galleys. But as Etienne Gilson remarks, it would have been inconceivable for Dante to “cash in” on the Divine Comedy.

The unpaid character of this production accounted for the writer’s indirect call for payment of some sort, when he dedicated his poem to a noble lord or lady, a rich family, or a bishop known for his liberality and taste. The dedicatory piece was itself often a work of art or was included in the poem, as in the case of Lucretius, who described an inexorably material universe (in the Rerum Natura) in order to dispel his patron Memmius’ fear of death. Instead of money and in the absence of copyright, the writer or the artist obtained the most varied presents: from protection against enemies to protection against winter in the form of a woolen cape; from a horse for travel (“gift-horse”) to a slave girl. The picturesqueness and precariousness of this practice vanished when daily papers began paying for serialized novels (by Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky) and publishing houses could afford substantial royalties by selling books to a mass market. 

In general, commercialism has invaded the exquisite domain of art patronage, which as late as Goya’s time was still concentrated in the nobility and the monasteries. True art patron age was marked by several noble aspirations: immortality, public munificence, the cult of the supreme being or of ancestors, the stamping of an age with one’s outstanding personality and achievements. This spirit, in degraded forms, still exists in France, where the republican form of government hardly hides the royal impulse: presidents wish to leave monuments commemorating their mandate. But in what shape, alas! Pompidou will survive through the atrocious center named after him (called “aquarium” by many, and various unprintable epithets by cabbies). Mitterrand tops the list with the ugly glass pyramid erected in the court of the Louvre. These “things” express something about the century: its ignorance of the common good, its cowardly public spirit, its lack of originality.

Yet our time displays one new phenomenon in the area of patronage, although no longer in art itself. There has never been so much semiprivate, corporate wealth as today. While kings and churches no longer commission great art-a symptom of their loss of power and inspiration—huge business companies have art patronage departments, often staffed with graduates of courses in “art appreciation,” whatever that means. Even so, the public climate prompts these collective bodies to invest in culture, and as a result university chairs are endowed, musical com petitions held, scientific research financed. The caricature of patronage is never too far: my bank in New York has a pianist hitting the keys between 11 and 12 o’clock; another bank thought it would be a superb idea to house a live camel and a live giant snake when the Metropolitan Museum organized its exhibit devoted to Tutankhamen. The snake stood in for its ancestor that poisoned Cleopatra, and the camel for the desert sand and local color.

We are far from the happy Middle Ages, when Duke William of Aquitaine used to organize brilliant poetry and song contests at his court among the troubadors. Duke William’s grand daughter, Eleanor, married Henry, king of England, and transplanted the taste for poetry from French soil to her new environment. We may appreciate the change from the court of Aquitaine to the cultural department of my bank.

Is modern corporate patronage, at times in the form of foundations (Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan) of the same scope and quality as that practiced by Pericles, the Medici, the church? The differences are striking: compared with the strong personal involvement of the earlier patrons, corporate patronage is impersonal and diffuse; it hardly sponsors the art of which a renaissance is made; it does not stand at the summit of a great epoch. Its task is typically 20th century: spend money a little more “culturally” than for just another business venture, and spend it through a bureaucracy of heterogeneous people. The glory is expected to be spread like a culture mantle on the company’s shoulder—whose products and services will there by be better known and sold. Princes and bishops also expected additional prestige, but there is a great difference between the old and the new concept of patronage. Whatever the patron’s personal beliefs were, there stood above him an overarching cultic/civic motive that dictated the object, the style, the collective function. In its wide variations from Burmese stupas to the Mesopotamian ziggurat and the Aztec place of sacrifice, the pyramid had its cultic, thus artistic, constraints within each civilization in which we find it. But a museum of modern art and an amorphous modern church, let alone a painting or a sculpture, may take whatever shape is agreed upon by the building engineers or artists; neither the destination nor the indifferent public taste affects the designers. It is perhaps no paradox that art forms where the choice is limited and channeled by traditional models handed down through generations have greater aesthetic qualities than art left to so called free inspiration.

Ideally, the art patron is a man of taste, no matter whether he rules a nation, runs a business, or heads a corporation. Yet taste is not enough. He must also have belief in the community of men around him, its vocation, its secure place and time in history and eternity. Men do not build, write, paint, or compose in a spiritual vacuum, and men do not encourage, urge, and sponsor these activities un less they expect posterity to respond with admiration and gratitude. Thus art patronage is inseparable from the “guardian angels of the City,” from dimensions other than the present, or the economic calculus, the flattery of sycophants. In another age we might speak of the art patron’s immortality; how moving and at the same time how human were the lavish donations of warrior lords who built and endowed monasteries and sanctuaries in order to ensure their souls’ salvation at the end of a rough and dissolute existence. Were the donated buildings, sculptures, and jewels we still admire after many centuries embodiments of these men’s taste, that of the architect and the goldsmith, or of all of them together? They still fill museums, exhibits, photo albums, and the tourist’s itinerary.