Saturday, April 14, 2018

Art Patrons and Viewers as Patrons

The question that I raised in the last essay was regarding the nature of the (art) patrons/clients/consumers. In this essay, my intention is to elaborate on that subject and see the conventional understanding about it could help in any way in a changed scenario where the artists have almost become obsessed with the idea of patronage; or rather seem to do so. There may be some voices that would come up to dispute this aspect of artistic obsession with patronage and such voices would definitely argue that the primary intention of the artist is not the existence of a patron but creativity itself. In this front I cannot raise a counter argument for the voice of earnestness is true beyond any doubt. Almost all the artists who are not doing ‘commissioned’ works at any given time and are involved in their studio practice, while working on their works of art do not really think about the possible patrons. But at the same time I would add that the moment an artist finishes a work of art, from somewhere or nowhere this thought about the possible patrons somehow creeps into the mind of the artist. That is not a wrong thing to happen. On the contrary that is the right thing to happen because the moment a work of art is finished within the four walls of a studio (I am still thinking of an artist working from a conventional studio) even the artist cannot predict its possible trajectories of journey and the encounters that it might experience. While certain amount of predictions are possible about the possible patrons along the way, beyond a point it is impossible to conceive the nature of the patrons in whose hands or homes the work of art is going to find a permanent or a temporary home. 

Here again the concern seems to be overtly of a patron who would shell out money to possess the work of art in concern. But does a patron mean only a buyer or a collector? Who is a patron and what exactly is his/her nature? The Latin origin of the word ‘Patron’ is ‘Pater’ which means ‘father’. This very definition should tell us the ideology of a patron in any field though the nature of a patron has been undergone various evolutionary processes and currently the word has been used in many other contexts without its original underpinnings. The etymological meaning of the word tells us that a patron is always a male and a father figure. During the early days of social organization under religious and royalty, religious establishments were the patrons (fathers) and an equal role was played by the royal kings and emperors. In a polite society an artist was a person who was supposed to obey the wishes of the father and create according to His needs. Thinking of a female patron (then it should be matron) was an impossible task as women were kept not only out of decision making but also out of money making. Deprived of both power of discretion and power of transaction women more or less remained outside the parlance of art patronage and it was always the Father who took all the decisions regarding art. It took many years that had seen the separation of religion from state, industrial revolution, evolution of the modern individual self and feminist activisms, for facilitating a change in the idea of patronage. Today, patron is also a matron and a patron need not necessarily be someone who always ‘buys’ or ‘collects’. He/she could simply be a promoter of the art and artist simply by frequenting the art shows and artists’ studios.

Today’s patron is also a viewer; a spectator. He/she frequents the places where an artist presents his/her works. He would follow the artist very closely both physically and intellectually. When it is needed he would write about him in the magazines and journals and also would introduce him and his works in the cultural circles that he frequents. By doing this he makes a contribution to the life and works of the artist/s. And in rare chances, this viewer could become a patron in the conventional sense too. That means, he could buy an odd work of art for the sheer pleasure of it. To put these observations in differently, I would say, a patron is a person who is a fellow traveler of the artist; this travel could involve collecting works of art from the artist or even becoming a frequenter in his art shows. Out of these patrons, an artist would definitely like the former one for the financial input that he/she is able to make but at the same time the artist cannot just do away with the patrons who come simply to look at the works of art on display. An artist is a hungry person who looks for appreciations by words of praise, criticism and consolation. Perhaps, someone who gives a lot of value to appreciation by the patrons wouldn’t even mind if his works are not sold at all. Human beings are suckers for appreciation and recognition. Even a hungry person’s face would shine up if someone tells him/her that he looks beautiful even when he is tired. Give him a free meal, he would satisfy his hunger but would forget you immediately. The face and words of a person who says good words about an artist gets etched in his/her memory than the face of a benefactor who has made a cursory buying. But yes, the artists do remember the names and faces of the patrons who makes substantial buying.  

In an art scene where collection of works of art for sheer pride has been replaced by the idea of investment the idea of patronage also has changed considerably. Today’s buyer is not a loyal buyer though there are a few still around as the last specimens of an extinct species. Today’s buyer is a person with an eye on profit. He knows what he is investing in and the possible benefits that he would reap from such investment in art. This works against the meanings of the word ‘patron’ which come closer to ‘charity’, ‘philanthropy’ and ‘benefactor’. The buyer is not a person who would give much stress on these ideas of philanthropy and charity. He is not out here to help an artist or promote his aesthetics. His idea is to invest money in a particular product which has a speculative price in the future markets. In this matter he is advised by art consultants and galleries. Therefore these art consultants and galleries are not really the patrons either. They no longer want their galleries and viewing rooms are to be visited and frequented by the people who just come for aesthetical appreciation alone. They want potential buyers to walk in and make the investment. They know how to coax them to do that. Hence, the patron in the form of an appreciator has more or less lost the value in the eyes of the gallerists, dealers and art consultants. They believe that an art establishment could be functioned without the presence of patrons as viewers and fans of aesthetics. This has started reflecting in the art scene ever since the art market became global collapsing the regional boundaries though much of the patrons still have parental affiliations with the artists due to their specified citizenships. However, the global superstars in art investment and patronage have transcended the geographical affiliations and citizenship and have become real global market players but their number is very limited and remains inaccessible to a large contingent of artists from all over the world. Or to put it in other words, this large contingent of artists remains invisible to these global patrons due to their provinciality and immobility. 

 I do not mean to say that there are no art patrons in the provinces and regions. They are there but unfortunately they keep emulating the bigger players in the market in all the possible ways, at times almost making their acts farcical and pathetic. However, they do play a role in keeping the local market active but again the problem is that the model that they replicate is insular in many ways and within that insularity they are able to promote only a very few artists and slowly they become patrons and middlemen at once. While they behave as local patrons to the local artists, in the next level they become the middlemen for the bigger players elsewhere. This chain continues creating a very impenetrable hierarchy because as the hierarchy strengthens itself, the aesthetical decisions get homogenized and the plurality that is a prerequisite for the flourishing of cultures in any country slowly fades off either by the conversion of the artists into this new homogenized mode or by the gradual withdrawal of many artists into marginal areas of art activities. That means erstwhile patrons become dealers and a sort of feudalism comes to get reestablished in the art market. Today we see the adverse effects of this feudal set up in the market and it would take a total revolution to make any difference to it. Interestingly, in the present scenario nobody knows what could be the right way to create an alternative patronage in order to facilitate that revolution. Most of the people in the art scene know for sure that the survival is assured only by accepting the existing terms and conditions of the homogenized market or perish. 

In such a scenario, artists can survive only one kind of patronage; that is the patronage of the viewers and the critics and historians even if their opinion on the works of art could be severely critical and at times detrimental to the positive thinking of the artists. But it is important have someone to speak about the art. Many viewers who frequent the galleries (therefore worthy of being called as patrons of art) generally try to speak to the artists and get some inspiration. In fact, it is the other way round. If you talk to an artist whose works are on display, your kind words would make him/her happy than a wad of currency notes offered to him as charity (there are some crazy rich people who would walk into a gallery, offer some money to the artist as a booking advance for a particular work and never turns up to collect the work). In my view, the first step towards change in patronage is to create more viewers for the art than to create more buyers for the art. When there is an increase in viewership, there would be a chain of reactions happening around it. A flurry of economic activities would follow this crowd which in turn would bring the attention of the media. Here you may ask me whether it is all once again going back to the economic aspect. Yes, patronage is eventually to help artists financially also. But my point is that today the patronage has become quite insular, exclusive and partial. It has created an economic hegemony within the art scene. This can be broken down provided different levels of economic patronage are created within the art scene. This is possible only when more and more people take interest in works of art and visit the galleries and say a few words of critique or appreciation to the artists. History happens with people. Market is only an addition to the history. History could be fashioned by market only when people involve in markets. Otherwise it would remain as a vintage section raising only curiosity and anxiety but never interest and love for the objects of art and their creators.

It is easier said than done; the creation of viewers. The first question is why there should be viewers at all? As one of the seminar respondents in Kochi asked, why someone insists that people should come and see their art. If you have the right to create a work of art and put it in public, the public has the right to see it as well as avoid it. There are a number of books being published every day and the reality is that we do not read all what is published. Still there is a flourishing book market and that is not concentrated in one place. But the difference is that there are readers for the books even if they are not a united lot and are seen dispersed all over the place. Compared to them art viewers are very less in number. If the numbers are increased, even if they are not a united lot, there would be a market generated around them. All the books are not collectibles; they are multiples and easily affordable. Similarly, all the works of art need not necessarily be strictly collector’s choices; they could be multiples and be targeting a plural patronage and of course in an affordable price. The possibility of an alternative market could be created only through the creation of mainstream viewership. That may sound a bit ironic but that is the reality. You create mainstream viewers for the art, then you see the magic of alternative markets sprouting up around them. All the markets need not necessarily driven by products; it could be driven by consumers also. In the art scene, there is still a chance for the creation of an alternative market through the creation of viewers; which means a consumer driven market than a product and capital driven one. Seen against this scenario, we understand how difficult it is to find viewers for works of art. And the question is who is the art viewer? May be that demands another essay. 

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