On the radio, this morning, there was a news story about the discovery of some long lost, unpublished poems by First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon. What amazed me about this is that, during their own lifetimes, artists are frequently criticised for their works, often mercilessly. They are given every discouragement and disincentive to keep creating. Voices shout loudly for them to stop. Their every publication is an ordeal for the artist, knowing that they will have bad reviews and opprobrium heaped upon them. Yet, once they’re dead, people scour their bins for their B-grade material, their throw-away sketches and the discards they chose not to publish. Why the shift in attitude? Does it prove the rule that we never appreciate what we’ve got until it’s gone?
Working artists are too frequently treated with disdain and like the hired servant help, in their own lifetimes. They are afforded very little dignity or respect. Those with money, who are their patrons, have the audacity to try to call the shots, imposing their own aesthetic sensibilities, as inferior as they may be, on the works of people they have no capacity to emulate. They order them around, complain about how much it is costing and insist that arbitrary deadlines are strictly observed. Why? Good work takes it own time. The answer, of course, is to show the artist who is boss.
Somehow we seem to lionise the contemporary, moneyed patrons of the arts, while simultaneously taking for granted and minimising the genii among us. Even on twitter, there are many famous (employed) celebrities that take care to note that their opinions do not reflect those of their employer. That might be an expedient position to take, but it’s fraudulent. Why should any artist care what an employer might think of their opinions? Why would an employer of artists expect compliance with their own views, for that matter? Isn’t the whole point of an artist that they follow their own path, rather than complying and conforming to the views of the richest man in the room? The disclaimers are needed, of course, because every employed artist knows that, at some point or other, their patron will assert their own wills and opinions, for no better reason than to show the artist who is boss.
Throughout history, the patrons of the arts, these Dukes, Earls, Lords and Marquises, along with a raft of puffed-up bankers, financiers and powerful industrialists with an inflated, yet baseless, sense of their own place in the world, have sought to buy into the creative, cultural and intellectual glory of the artists whose works they seek to own. They sought to buy these rare and extraordinary artists, body and soul, like some kind of chattel. Yet, who remembers who funded Leonardo da Vinci? His paintings are still hung in galleries, centuries after they were made, but the wallets, medals and honours of his patrons are not. The patrons have faded into terminal anonymity. If they are remembered at all, it is usually as an impediment to the artist. We mourn the lost opportunities to have had even more of the artist’s work surviving, due only to the narrow mindedness or sheer egocentricity of their paymasters and patrons. That’s the real tragedy.
With their money and power, these funders of the great artists believed that they were purchasing permanent monuments to their own taste and discernment. Usually, the plan backfired. What we, as a human species, care about more is not the wealth and power of the patrons, but the genius, creativity, innovation and iconoclasm of the artists themselves. The soaring, human spirit of those who generously created beauty for all to behold is indelibly, immortally memorable, whereas the parsimonious accountancy of the wealthy, who paid the artists just enough to survive, is utterly forgettable.
In the long run and in the end, art transcends wealth.