Patrons of the arts

“When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.” That’s the British playwright Oscar Wilde, speaking to us from around 1900. That was during the world’s previous great Gilded Age, and now that we’re deep into a new one, we humanists need to pay attention, even here in non-artistic, non-imagination-centric corners like the History Department. That’s because Wilde raises one of the basic questions we should be asking about ourselves: what’s our relationship to money and the powerful people who have it?

In wisecrack format, Wilde sums up one of the classic answers. Rich people love the arts, and artists (or historians, or philosophers– you get the idea) need money. Usually we can’t get that money selling our wares to ordinary people, since they have other needs to cover first, like housing, clothing, and food. Like it or not, we’re in a luxury business, selling expensive, delightful add-ons that make life better but aren’t needed to keep it going. We have to sell to the same folks who buy the other luxury products.

Of course the selling is more direct in the art world. Rich patrons interact directly with artists, and sometimes they tell the artist what to produce– a portrait of the kids, a design for a new home, a new opera. In academia, there are intermediaries. Donors give their money to institutions, which then dole it out to individual professors and researchers according to the institutions’ own guidelines and standards. But it’s basically the same process, rich people paying for cultural production.

Usually that doesn’t mean bad art or ideas, au contraire. Many of the rich have had good educations, and anyway they don’t have to care what other people think– they can make the adventurous calls, not just the safe ones. The Rockefellers created New York’s Museum of Modern Art back when modern art seemed crazy and dangerous, and that openness to the new has been a standard pattern since the Renaissance. Check out the seventeenth-century painter Caravaggio for an extreme example. He was gay, violent, and young, and he painted sacred scenes in wild new ways– but he received huge support from all sorts of Catholic big-shots.

But it seems that push always eventually comes to shove, and then the dark sides of artistic/intellectual patronage come into view. I’ve written here already about the case of Steven Salaita, whose appointment the University of Illinois overturned after wealthy donors complained about some of his tweets. And you’ve probably heard about the billionaire Koch brothers, sophisticated and generous patrons of the New York City Ballet and other cultural institutions, who’ve also donated tens of millions to various universities– but with strings attached: in return for the money, at least in one case, they’ve demanded that the university teach ideas congenial to them, and they may have demanded a say in the faculty appointment process.

In other words, the rich aren’t just buying aesthetic pleasure– they’re also investing their money, and like all investors they expect a return.

Now there’s a new example to ponder, more disturbing in that it concerns an especially sympathetic figure– the hedge-fund manager George Soros. Unlike most of the other modern billionaires, Soros has genuine intellectual credibility– before he got rich he did a real PhD, in a hard-core humanities discipline, and he’s used his money to support various admirable causes. He’s even helped create a whole new university in his native Hungary, devoted primarily to the humanities and social sciences.

So to a humanities professor like me, Soros is a good guy, exemplifying the best sides of cultural patronage.

But now Soros has joined the war-pushing business that’s so popular these days, calling for tougher European action in the Ukraine: “Europe is facing a challenge from Russia to its very existence,” he tells us; “the argument that has prevailed in both Europe and the United States is that Putin is no Hitler,” but “these are false hopes derived from a false argument with no factual evidence to support it;” all European resources “ought to be put to work in the war effort,” because “in the absence of unified resistance it is unrealistic to expect that Putin will stop pushing beyond Ukraine when the division of Europe and its domination by Russia is in sight.”

Whatever you may think about the Ukraine situation, there’s a lot here to weird you out. There’s the casual talk of going to war, as if launching a serious European war wouldn’t be one of the all-time human disasters. There’s the full-court demonization of our enemies, as monsters with whom it would be folly–“unrealistic”– to negotiate. We’ve had fifteen years of this kind of rhetoric– has it produced anything but disasters?

And then there’s the strange venue that Soros selected for his call to arms: the New York Review of Books. Most of those who encounter this site will know all about the New York Review, but in case you don’t, it’s the publication that pretty much encapsulates humanities department thinking in the US. Every two weeks, it offers extended reviews of academic books, along with one or two pieces of sophisticated political commentary; professors write most of these, but they write with educated-outsider readers in mind.  So people like me read it to learn about the new trends in English or Art History, or about debates on the origins of the American Revolution– it’s a way to get up to at least amateur speed on interesting topics, without doing the heavy reading yourself, a virtual coffee house for academics, where we all meet up.

Which raises the question, why is a call for European leaders to get tough appearing there, rather than in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Le Monde, or the New York Times?

Now, I have no clue what Soros has in mind with the substance of his warfare talk. Maybe he actually believes the comic book, super-villain-on-the-loose worldview he’s pushing, or maybe he has some money-making irons in the Ukraine fire (iron Maidans, as it were…), or maybe some mix of the two– who knows?

But we can do better guessing about that last question, the why-the-New York Review question. Because whatever else is going on, Soros is broadcasting to an audience made up mostly of us humanities professors and various humanities-adjacent types; he apparently wants us along on his foreign policy crusade. It’s the classic good news/bad news story. The good news: our collective opinion seems to matter in legitimating an enterprise of this kind, perhaps more than most of us realize. We’re worth courting. The bad news: when it comes to cultural patronage, the good guys like Soros give as much thought as anyone else to the returns their investments will bring.