Review of Marjorie Garber’s Patronizing the Arts

Joseph Campana

Princeton University Press, $24.95 (hardcover)

If one of the great paradoxes of art is that creation incites destruction, perhaps no period of cultural making proved that point more clearly than the Renaissance, an age in which the making and breaking of art were as intimate as lovers. The same era that witnessed Michelangelo’s fervor for painting and sculpture also witnessed Savonarola’s fervor for burning books, paintings, and other purportedly lewd objects. Shakespeare’s England had just undergone the most destructive era of iconoclasm in the history of Christianity. Perhaps it is fitting that a book on the state of the arts in America would be written by a distinguished scholar of Renaissance literature; for another great paradox of art was cemented in the Renaissance, which Marjorie Garber makes her subject in Patronizing the Arts. As she puts it, “The arts are doubly patronized in America today. On the one hand, they are supported, financially and institutionally, by foundations, corporations, universities, and private donors. On the other hand, they are condescended to, looked down upon, considered recreational rather than serious work.” The interlacing of these attitudes or, as Garber describes it, the under- and over-valuing of art is endemic. As this is, in her view, a condition neither to lament nor cure, what is the point of a book published in 2008 on the civic life of the arts?

In part, Garber’s task is to describe the history of the current mode of “patronizing” of the arts. She does so with the characteristic breadth of a scholar and the anecdotal flair of the cultural critic. (Garber has authored several cultural studies on topics ranging from cross-dressing and bisexuality to real estate and dogs.) Much of the first chapter, then, treats the notoriously complex relationship between artists and patrons, from the Medici family (with its many geniuses) to the MacArthur Foundation (with its “genius” grants). Garber’s reader is treated to quotes from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens and Samuel Johnson’s testy letter to his unresponsive patron Lord Chesterfield. The sheer variety of facts can overwhelm, organized as they are in short paragraphs with disjunctive or absent transitions. Where might this history lead? From nineteenth-century Europe to the Harlem Renaissance to the definition of the “culture vulture” to “postmodern” art galleries and their practices to Ruth Lilly’s donation to Poetry magazine, Robert Frost’s originally intended poem for the Kennedy inauguration, and the history of the poets laureate of the United States: all in a few pages. The second chapter traces the history of American governmental support for the arts, with brief comparisons to the state-sponsored arts funding of other nations. The third chapter explores the complex and often controversial relationship between corporations and cultural funding, and there’s certainly much to learn here. At times exhilarating, at times, dizzying, Patronizing the Arts won’t leave the reader wanting for knowledge. Such drive-by histories are all the rage of late, but they can also leave the reader hungry for more analysis and less anecdote.

Garber’s most interesting and potentially significant claims come as she attempts to relocate the arts, first in relation to the sciences and then with respect to the university. The sciences, Garber suggests, provide “a better analogy for the activities of art-making” and her chapter on that subject not only traces the history between the arts and sciences as disciplines (even in their privileged locations the laboratory and the studio) before tracing the migration of notions of genius from art to science over the last few centuries. Garber encourages not only a greater relationship between art and science (such as BioArt, which makes the scientific manipulation of organic matter its practice and medium) but also wonders if artists might not take on board the model of massive science project, funded to make possible the presence of dozens or hundreds of collaborating hands working toward one goal.

As for the university, this is Garber’s last best location for artists. While she maintains that patronage for the arts should reside everywhere (while also admitting this to be an insufficient if accurate assertion), she describes the university as being “in a position to supply the missing piece that holds the edifice [of arts patronage] together.” Noting the increasing hiring and tenuring of artists in the university, Garber encourages another analogy with the sciences, which hire and tenure professors in fields possessing theoretical and practical application, such as engineering, physics, and chemistry. “The makers of art,” she asserts, “should be housed in universities.” Most of Garber’s examples tend to be visual (a consequence, no doubt, of her post as chair of Visual and Environmental Studies and the director of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard). Garber avoids in this late chapter the highly fraught relationship between creative writing and literary studies, a subject about which whole books might be written (though elsewhere she advocates the separation of artists and critics along the lines of art studio and art history).

Ultimately, one might wonder if there is sufficient specificity, applicability, and innovation in Garber’s suggestions to move beyond platitude to the real cultural reformation that would place rigorous creativity at the center of cultural activity. Still, her defense of the arts from charges of subjectivity, arbitrariness, or amateurishness may be heartening to artists if they are reading this book. It isn’t clear if they are or will be though this is not necessarily a failing of Patronizing the Arts. For whom will this bell toll? It may most profitably address the cultural bureaucrat, the patron of the arts, the corporate arts liaison, the head of funding agencies, or the development officers, deans, provosts, and presidents of academic institutions, all of whom might be persuaded to abandon the patronizing of the arts and enhance the patronage of the arts, lending more support to creative acts of all varieties. It is a virtue of the book that it takes seriously the role of the arts in an often indifferent age. Moreover, Garber’s interdisciplinary approach to the arts reflects an awareness of some of the most exciting frontiers in creativity. As such, Patronizing the Arts might do some real good. Of course herein dwells a paradox Garber most certainly recognizes: the institutionalization of art is as vital as it is threatening to artistic innovation. Anyone who can resolve that paradox deserves a genius grant.

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