In Patrons and Painters, Francis Haskell writes that the “history of Venetian art patronage in the eighteenth century is largely the history of the various forces which moulded (sic) aristocratic tastes at different periods” and that those aristocrats projected their “tastes” through their “choice of artists, subjects and styles.”(1) We are far removed from those Venetian tastes but the influences of wealth, power and social position upon art making remain constant in the 21st Century. As “social relations” between both “clients” and “artists,” art patronage has steadfast continuity today in a variety of ways, including corporate sponsorships, art dealers, art museum directors and board members.
To clarify, “art patronage” is the support of artists and/or artisans by patrons either through the patron’s social position or with financial incentives, most often as commissioned work; often a patron functions as “client” when specific works are desired and requested; dealers function daily as patrons for their clientele.
Art patronage had its historical highlights, most notably during the Medieval period when the Franciscans produced incredible churches seemingly at odds with their professed vows of poverty and living the simple life. Louise Bourdua has speculated that the Franciscan friars’ preference for their “personal conceptions” caused their rejection of the “official” decorations specified by the mother church.(2)
The true era of arts patronage blooms during Renaissance and Baroque Italy and featured patrons both religious (The Pope) and private (The Medici). The Medici family is of course regarded with celestial importance as they provided commissions, favor and influence to the likes of Masaccio, Michelangelo and Da Vinci.
Which brings us to By Request, the D.C. art scene’s controversy du jour. Conceived masterfully by Jeffry Cudlin, By Request critiques current art world fascination with “relational aesthetics” through Cudlin’s social experiment; seven collector/curator types were paired with seven “creatives” to concoct Cudlin’s version of “an ideal show.” As Jeffry said before the exhibit opened:
“A show that is a) the ideal reflection of D.C. b) the ideal in terms of selling - if the artists to do good job (sic) with the pieces then I'll have guaranteed sales because each piece is tailor-made for the collectors…”(3)
And Jeffry had to throw a “wrench” (his word) into this formula for his “ideal show” by requiring that each of the artists had to represent him in their pieces:
“…and c) it's an ideal show to promote myself like crazy with because the stipulation I made for each artist in the show is that I have to be featured in the piece because while I didn't make any of them, I'm brokering the transaction, my presence is there for full disclosure and transparency - in addition to self-promotion.”(4)
This particular “wrench” is what confirms my “art patronage” thesis. As Jeffry said elsewhere, he was not only “orchestrating all the transactions” but he was also demanding that the resultant artwork be about him.(5) This bears a striking similarity to the role of Medieval art patronage and how the inevitable and requisite “subject” of those Franciscan churches was – God. Moreover, in the Medieval period lay patrons also had significant influence upon those Franciscan church decoration programs, just as Cudlin’s “patron-clients” functioned in their “lay” roles for his “church” project.
Does By Request, while truthfully acknowledging our 21st Century latent “ignorance” of what art is, unknowingly express the belief that in today’s “ideal show” the curator is “god?”
There was also a “20 page survey” that Cudlin gave to the “specific figures in the local art community” that posed questions such as “How do you feel about painterly technique?” Artists were asked to “create the pieces based more on what they know about their collector personally or what they know of that person, as opposed to creating to satisfy what the collector wrote on their survey in a self-conscious moment.”(6)
The resultant show virtually resists categorization – is it an example of a democratized, survey of aesthetics, or just smart curatorial practice? In my experience, anything so difficult to put in a niche is generally pushing the envelope and this is certainly what Cudlin has accomplished. In my view, By Request functions as a meditation on art patronage in the 21st Century, while revealing the obvious fact that any attempt at pinning down what art actually “is” may perhaps be painfully doomed to failure.
Without a doubt some of the heaviest D.C. art world players were drafted into service as the “client-patrons” of Jeffry’s scheme. They ranged from 14th Street commercial dealers (Martin Irvine of Irvine Contemporary) to major art collectors (Henry Thaggert and Tony Podesta). The selection of artists varied but was mostly emerging youngsters Victoria F. Gaitan, Trevor Young, Cory Oberndorfer and Jenny Mullins, with a few established names like Jason Horowitz and Kerry Skarbakka.(7)
On opening night, most of the participating artists were on-site and fielded my questions and criticisms good-naturedly. Consensus among them was clearly positive, as most agreed that the concept inspired them and it was a great opportunity, even if they were unwitting “pawns” in Jeffry’s game.(8)
However, because the cutting edge satire of some of Cudlin’s pre-opening pranks very nearly sidetracked By Request’s focus, the show suffers from concept fatigue. In an admirable and understandable attempt to promote his show, Jeffry performed in full drag as local art patron, Philippa P.B. Hughes, and made guerilla-style appearances at area galleries. Thus, there was the very real fear that Jeffry might turn up at the opening in a mini-skirt. Cudlin also conspired with show artist Cory Oberndorfer to “fake” a graffiti artist and “tag” some 14th Street facades with wheat-paste, again to dupe poor Philippa.(9)
The rock-bottom test of this kind of conceptual show would be how it moves the discourse forward. Hopefully, we can now begin to have a discussion about “patronage” versus “self-expression,” or whether or not subjective “judgments of taste” concerning art can be dispelled by surveys. With a bit more prodding and talking and writing, we might even be able to get to the essence of how the “field of cultural production” functions socially and how it impacts what we call “art.”
ADMINSTRATOR’S NOTE: There are so many images of Jeffry Cudlin in drag circulating right now, I decided not to post one. If you have to see one, go here.
1. Haskell, Francis. Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, New Haven, 1980, 247.
2. Bourdua, Louise. The Franciscans and Art Patronage in Late Medieval Italy, Cambridge, 2004.
6. Op. cit. www.brightestyoungthings.com
7. Kerry Skarbakka is also represented by Irvine Contemporary.
8. This viewpoint was expressed to me at the opening by one of the exhibition’s artists, while another characterized Jeffry as a “puppet-master.” Both artists shall remain anonymous.
9. Bless her heart, Hughes took it all in stride and smiled diplomatically through all the hi-jinks.