The Shameless Gaze: Artists and Art Patrons

by Andrea Scrima


What is power? The answer is relative, contingent on context. We speak of the power of sexual allure, the power of persuasion, of charisma, but these only rarely translate into sustainable structures of actual dominance. In a capitalist democracy, power is generally economic and political; it’s less frequently defined as intellectual or moral force. As an artist and writer whose works are not, as sometimes happens in other political systems, banned (which would enhance their power in a different intellectual economy), but merely sell poorly, I have relatively little power, and so my words come from the position of a person frequently, in one way or another, subject to the will of others.

Given the vast difference in agency prevailing between artists and patrons, is an intellectual, artistic, ethical discussion on equal terms even possible? Wealth inspires conflicting emotions in people who don’t have it: envy for the ease and security it affords, because so many of the problems that plague us can be solved with money; frustration that the notion of equitable taxation is evidently a utopian impossibility; dismay at the injustices of wealth distribution and the damage the ever-widening economic divide between the haves and have-nots has inflicted on society, the environment, and world peace. But without wealth, it’s said, we would never have had the splendor of kingdoms and courts; the magnificent cathedrals and palaces would never have been built, the arts would never have flourished. The concentration of wealth and the judicious application of its power is what makes civilizations thrive. Indeed, people working in the arts will always find themselves in happy or unhappy alliance with those in a position to fund their endeavors and will forever speculate on the underlying motivations of those who give so “generously.” The relationship that binds the arts to wealth is inherently problematic, a form of co-dependence in which power is negotiated according to ever-shifting terms. Read more »