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Masimo Listri /CorbIs

Patronizing the arts

What once implied fatherly concern now means mercenary speculation

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

The "seeds of dissent" that sprouted from Catholic Church patronage in the arts (see "Different strokes") have borne fruit both edible and poisonous. Consider Damien Hirst, the richest artist living. For The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a work commissioned in 1991 and on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hirst suspended a 14-foot dead tiger shark in formaldehyde-a piece one British tabloid called "£50,000 of fish without chips." The artwork sold for $8 million in 2004.

Hirst claimed that his highest selling work, Love of God, a diamond-encrusted human skull, sold for $73 million. But it turns out that the artist, his London dealer, and his business manager have the controlling interest in the work. Hirst began his career with a patron of sorts, advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, but eventually broke it off. Now he sells directly at auction, cutting out the art dealers and keeping the commission. "His buyers rarely even display his pieces, but keep them ready for resale," says expert Elizabeth Lev, an art historian in Rome who teaches college students studying abroad through Duquesne University.

"This isn't art about beauty or social commentary or a language among peoples, it is pure mercenary speculation," says Lev.

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Lev recently completed a consulting stint on the film Angels & Demons, which stars Tom Hanks and topped U.S. box office sales during its first weekend in theaters. A skeptic who sees a mercenary quality to the Dan Brown novels on which the film and its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, are based, Lev got involved in the film, she says, "because I truly hoped I could be an intelligent, articulate and faithful witness for my Church and my beloved Christian art."

Every work of Renaissance art featured in both films was carried out on commission under the eye of a patron: a religious order in the case of Caravaggio's Deposition, a wealthy family in the case of Bernini's St. Teresa in Ecstasy (pictured), and Pope Julius II in the case of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. Lev explains: "In most cases the patron chose the subject, then the artist produced a sketch for the patron's approval and the development of the piece went from there. Today the word 'patron' is associated with merely financial concerns, but historically the term derives from the Latin word for 'father.'" Earlier patrons watched over the artist to help him grow-often by welcoming a skilled but poor painter into a wealthy home to learn history, philosophy, and religion. A patron gave the artist contacts and helped him out of trouble. "Contemporary artists don't always get an education in drawing, let alone the exposure to the kind of intellectual stimulation that Michelangelo had," Lev says.

During the opening week of Angels & Demons in Rome, Lev told me she believes artists like Caravaggio and Bernini were the "entertainers" of their day much as filmmakers like director Ron Howard are today: "Bernini used incredible special effects like water, hidden supports, tricks of scale to enhance his art. His fountains and monuments were the CGI effects of their day. Caravaggio, on the other hand, was like an avant-garde theater producer with his stark tableau vivant illuminated by a single light source off-stage."

But accountability to a patron meant their art went beyond personal gratification to help viewers "transcend their daily existence and get a glimpse of something greater in their lives," she contends. And what of filmmakers in an age without patrons? "Even filmmakers have to deal with studios, which in turn are interested in sales," says Lev. Discernment by moviegoers eventually gets their attention, but "unfortunately it seems like we live at the acme of the era of bread and circuses. With enough to eat and endless entertainment, no one has the energy to demand more."

So let's demand more. As Andy Crouch points out in his book Making Culture, "The only way to change culture is to create more of it." Instead of translating to the screen a mediocre Dan Brown novel, authentic patrons can oversee a better story. Take Rome, for example: "Two thousand years ago the clash between the Roman or pagan God and the Christian God began-in this city-and that continues today. That's the story waiting to be told, the movie waiting to be made," says Lev. Mercenary speculators need not apply.
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