9:59 am - February 18th 2008
So, who wants to hear a joke?
Q: What’s the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?
A: Under anarchism, the poor people get to shoot back.
Boom, boom. I guess that’s more a caricature than a joke, as such. Anyway, I’m not here for the standup. What I want to address is the arts, partly by way of reply to Chris’s post here last week, specifically the estimable libertarian objection to arts funding. In libertopia, arts funding is for private individuals. “There is no such thing as society” (some of them really write stuff like that, non-ironically), so spending on the collective is wasted. Immoral. Theft. In any case, the Dead Hand of the State (10,300 Google hits for a phrase I’ve never heard anyone actually speak) can only have a pernicious impact on private interaction, and what could be more private than art?
Let’s look at some evidence. First stop, Renaissance Florence, for which you’ll need a little background on patronage. You won’t often read that it was the ‘government’ of the city-state that commissioned and paid for such-and-such a painting. If it isn’t a religious order, the name on the contract is usually a Medici. The Medici were the government. They ran the city and taxed as they saw fit; they contracted and extracted, meddled and tinkered, in everything from the design of palazzi to the precise composition of works that appear to us the product of one artist’s genius. It wasn’t unusual for them to insist their kids appeared prominently, or insert their family saints. The grovelling tone of a letter from Fra’ Filippo Lippi to his public–private patron reproduced in this book shows just how much had to be approved, how often the Dead Hand of the client was holding the brush too.
Of course, the great Tuscan artists didn’t work only for the state. Giotto’s triumph was a private job (though he later freeloaded off the people of Naples). Piero Della Francesca did his best work for the Bacci family, but also served as a town councillor; Masaccio for the Carmelites.
Andrea Mantegna, the greatest painter to hail from that flat bit between the Apennines and the Alps, would have found himself even lower down in libertarian esteem. He did more than just cash the odd cheque from Mantua’s ruling Gonzaga dynasty; he worked for them. He was a waged bureaucrat, who according to Evelyn Welch even managed to cadge himself a bit of woodland.
The same pattern is repeated in Northern Europe. From 1512 until his death in 1528, engraver and painter Albrecht Durer made a living scrounging a stipend from the epileptic Emperor Charles V. Instead of going out to find a proper job, he studied Humanism and perspective – as well as Bellini, Leonardo and Mantegna. The waster. Roger Van Der Weyden sponged off the people of Brussels; Burgundian public money supported Van Eyck in Bruges.
But for sheer meddlesome bureaucracy, we need to rewind a couple of centuries and head back to Tuscany. Siena in the 1300s was a civic, republican culture that both nurtured and was nurtured by public art. Almost all funding came from The Nine, elected burghers who ruled the city for one (relatively) enlightened century until the Black Death. Gothic creativity blossomed, in painting and architecture. Forget the Sistine Chapel, Siena’s medieval town hall is the greatest site of public art on the planet – precisely because Simone Martini’s 1315 Maesta and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government was conceived of as public art. Reminders, frescoed on the walls of the council chamber, of the essence of good politics, which for medieval Sienese included justice, trade, concord and cross-dressing dancers in the piazza.
There’s no ducking it: this art wouldn’t exist without state funding. It was paid for by the people of Siena. In any case, at any reasonable estimate of the discount rate, the Sienese have got their money back. Never mind that there’s a world of costs and benefits that we haven’t worked out how to count, yet.
So, where am I going with all this? Here: that there’s a tendency on the ‘free market right’ to think that public choice theory describes the world, rather than just provides a frame in which to sketch bits of it. Say I suggest that the US’s overdependence on private arts funding only produced Regus meeting room pap like abstract expressionism. Or propose the absence of any British art of merit between the Wilton Diptych and JMW Turner for the same reason. Or that it’s the Pre-Raphaelites‘ commitment to art as a public good that makes them the only British movement worth the name. And so on. The world doesn’t work like that. It isn’t that deterministic. Or simplistic: causes and effects, measurable and unmeasurable, public and private, aren’t distinctions that can easily be made when it comes to art. Great art, anyway.
Q1: Is the State’s hand really all that Dead?
Q2: Should we fund the arts?
A: It depends.
Also published here.
Donald is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a travel journalist, editor, author and copywriter. In the wake of the 2005 General Election, he co-founded and edited The Sharpener for a couple of years. He writes the occasional book or newspaper article for money, as well as sharing his thoughts here for free. Also at: hackneye donaldstrachan.com
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