A brief history of artistic patronage
Throughout the centuries, the patronage system has allowed for the redistribution of wealth from the business class to the creative class—the members of which were often assumed to be starving and in need of such redistribution. The basic idea is that a wealthy individual, family, or business pays the living wages of a playwright, musician or artist (often providing food and shelter) so that person can concentrate solely on their creation. In return, the artist often dedicates their works to their patron. In this way, the business arrangement has the potential to make both parties immortal.
This week, the New York Times wrote about a modern iteration of patronage—one between a large corporation and an already very successful musical artist. Pepsi and singer Beyoncé have struck a $50 million deal, which includes a "creative content development fund," for Beyoncé's various endeavors. Why not just pay Beyoncé for traditional advertising wherein her face appears on billboards and she dances in a commercial or two? "This way feels less polluting. It feels like there are more good things around it. It creates an all-around good will," explains behavioral economist Dan Ariely, the author of The Upside of Irrationality.
The downside is, of course, that art and consumerism become intertwined—but history teaches us that, for better or worse, art and business have always been intrinsically combined, often to aid the creation of timeless masterpieces. Here are a few examples.
Gaius Maecenas / Horace, Virgil
During the golden age of Latin literature, the Roman diplomat Maecenas was a benefactor of poets Horace and Virgil. His endowments to the men allowed for the writing of Virgil's "The Georgics" and Horace's "Satires 1," "Epistles 1," and "Odes 1-3." It is unclear how Virgil first came to meet Horace, but scholars believe he was the one who introduced the statesman to Horace, the son of a freed slave. It is also believed that Virgil composed his didactic poem about agriculture and public life, "The Georgics" (a seven-year undertaking), under order from Maecenas, who wished to see the Roman Empire return to a more traditional bucolic lifestyle.
Horace did much of his writing at a small estate with eight slaves and five tenanted properties called the Sabine Farm, gifted to him by Maecenas. The farm gave Horace the security to continue his writings in peace, and in return Horace addressed the first book of each of his series, Satires, Epistles, and Odes, to his benefactor.
The Medici Family / Michelangelo
The politician and businessman Lorenzo de Medici (humbly nicknamed Lorenzo the Magnificent) was famous for inviting artists to live in his Florentine palace while they were under his patronage.