Artists and Patrons

Handicraft at a govt. emporium, Sikkim

All arts, it maybe presumed, developed by patronage from heads and leaders of societies or kings of countries. It was obviously performed for the pleasure of the patron in principle but in practice it must have been accessible for commoners too.  Many of the artists depended on their patrons for their material well being or even survival, excepting those who were born to good fortune. How far were their artistic aims and quality influenced by the patrons? How many of the artists flourished without having to please their patrons by their art? Some of the greatest artists have used their talent to portray their patrons in favourable light. Poets in ancient Tamil kingdoms, and probably in other kingdoms too, had the practice of heaping praises of their kings and their achievements. Shakespeare depended on patronage by nobility and royalty and his famed sonnet 72 is believed to be in praise of a patron.

In the present times where do the artists get their support from? Artistic variety and production has grown exponentially now compared to medieval times. People of wealth, business and state organisations are the main patrons of artists. The most economically secured artists are the ones whose works have high commercial value. When there is a change in the board of directors of a company or change of govt. some of the artists’ good times take a nose dive and some others’ soar.  The great Milton too had too experienced such oblivion when his patron the King of England was replaced.

And some of the greatest artists of the world have lived apparently without patronage and and died in poverty. Keats, who became famous only after his death… Spencer, one of the pioneers of English poetry. It is fortunate that their names have become immortal in the world of literature but how many great artistic creations were made that were lost without ever seeing the light of the day for want of patrons and supporters is left to imagination. Today we can see every government has its preferred band of writers, poets etc. Some writers who set out as very anti-establishment and revolutionary later sell their talent to further the name and influence of the establishment and its kingpins. Some who are haplessly dependent on a socialist state system open to manipulation experience something akin to a mild Stockholm syndrome. They begin to imagine those who want to control them and stunt their free growth as their great protectors and try to strengthen them by their arts as it was in Soviet and in China now.

Amazingly some truly great artists never bothered to leave their names for posterity as many paintings such as in Ajanta, Ellora etc and probably all temple sculptures in India stand testimony to. The ideal society should provide all necessary material and moral support for genuine artists irrespective of whether their work has commercial appeal or is not sub serving those holding the reigns of prevailing governing system.


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3 thoughts on “Artists and Patrons

  1. Ruslan July 29, 2010 at 8:22 am Reply

    The Vedic hymns may have been first produced in a written form eight to ten thousand years ago, but were “created” (if we can use the word!) much earlier: an infinite number of years ago! Their “authors” (or rather, transmitters) often lived in “humble” forest hermitages and did not need expensive cell phones, leave alone fame and public recognition.

    Even in recent times all those who want to learn an art in order to use it as a means of self perfection ought to have no problem in doing so. When Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi asked Krishna Yogi to teach him music, he refused, which prompted the desperate Venkata Kavi to get free tuition from Sri Krishna himself.

    There is no need to presume that arts developed by patronage from heads of societies or kings of countries. Any high quality artistic production will always have a high commercial value. The medium of the Internet has decentralized the distribution.

    Actually, “art” used to be considered as having a functional, not merely ornamental, value. For instance, the devadasis used to be invited to social functions because they were believed to be able to bring “good fortune”.

    The idea that every great artiste must have a Rolls Royce and needs to live in a palace is a modern aberration of the materialistic society. You may consider as “penury” the very modest lifestyle of the temple devadasis, but they didn’t do so. The truth is that our real materials needs, as the Mother put it, are much more modest than we may imagine.

    If some “poets” (or rather, poetisers) in ancient Tamil kingdoms sang praises of their kings and their achievements, the majority didn’t. In fact, in the Melattur style of Bharatanatyam there is a ban on such compositions because Mangudi Dorairaja Iyer thought that it is only the Divine that is a worthy subject of the artistic endeavour.

  2. jothicharles August 2, 2010 at 3:45 pm Reply

    Thanks Ruslan for adding interesting information on the topic. Let me too add some more. Even Subramania Bharathi, the great Tamil poet had to look for royal and wealthy patrons to support his life as a poet. That he might not have enjoyed the relationships and broke them to live in poverty most of his life is another story.

    Closer home and to present times I have seen on accasions a poet’s inability to see a bureaucrat (one of the rajas of our times) as a servant of public or at any rate on an equal footing. For example, while she was annoyed at the bikes travelling close to her house, she was quick to agree if the bureaucrat would like to take his car right along up to his house. Another poet, a more famous one, with her poetic and linguistic flourishes almost manifested out of thin air a crown and throne for another retired bureaucrat – while making all in the audience delirous at their very good fortune to have had his august presence. The proud ones in the audience sqirmed being transformed into his meek subjects. It is in their blood brother, praising the rajas, their patrons… I mean there maybe exceptions of course. Perhaps you may like to look back at Russian or European court history and regale or enlighten us about the relation between artists and their patrons there.

  3. Ruslan August 3, 2010 at 9:18 pm Reply

    Until 19th century, artistes were supported by mainly by aristocrats, the church, the merchants, as well as the courts. It quite decentralised already, and a matter of social prestige. The arrival of democratic ideas in Europe with the French Revolution leveled out the social hierarchies (which has not happened in India) and any attempts to glorify a patron now were considered as ridiculous.

    As for Russia… The greatest Russian poet, Pushkin, was an aristocrat himself and criticised the Tzar. The Tzar, in return, hired a guy who provoked Pushkin and killed him at a duel. So much of the royal patronage. Poets, composers and painters have always been fighting with the censorship of the state or the church.

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