The Digital Age and Arts Patronage: Part 1

I state the obvious by saying that we are living in a world that is increasingly defined and shaped by the digital. Digital devices allow us the convenience (or burden?) of being available at all times and in all places should we so desire. Through the virtual, I can try my hand at ski jumping, sword fighting, or boxing from the comfort of my living room. And while we know it’s not real, it piques our imagination to the point where we can almost feel the wind in our faces. Because of the virtual world mediated by our digital devices, distance has collapsed and what was once far away has now become near. Even though my family is a continent away, we ‘see’ each other on a regular basis.

The digital is also forming and shaping the arts. Digital and computer-generated art is no longer just for the design studio. It has now found its way into the gallery. An exploration of how the digital is impacting art and faith was the subject of the recent CIVA conference, which I had the pleasure of attending. Over the next two posts, I want to explore the ways in which the digital age impacts the action of arts patronage. In this post, I will suggest how the digital age is impacting art patronage. In the subsequent post, I will consider to what extent the church should adopt these changes in their patronage practice.

One of the ways to understand the digital age’s impact on patronage is in terms of the diminishing of the patron as connoisseur and the rise of the patron as interactive participant. Historical precedence can be found for interactive participation between patron and artist, such as medieval and Renaissance patrons who not only informed the content of a work of art but also participated in the life of the artist by providing education and housing for artists in their care. [1]

This participatory relationship between artist and patron changed when the artist was conceptualised within the modern concept of genius, marked by originality and autonomy. In Art Needs No Justification, Hans Rookmaaker argues that as artists were increasingly understood in this way, patrons correspondingly became connoisseurs, arbiters of taste, gatekeepers of the art world, and ‘collectors of works of art’. [2] Influenced by the digital age, among other things, there is now significant movement away from this concept of genius within the art world, conversely re-introducing interactive participation to patronage.

The digital age’s capacity to democratise both information and experience has played an important role in making it possible and easy for the patron to participate. The internet means that it is no longer possible to restrict art to an ‘inner circle of players’ – the internet allows nearly anyone to take part in the art world, if they so desire. In addition to a significant increase in accessibility, the digital age makes it possible – virtually – to eliminate the ‘distance’ between artist and audience, fan and investor. [3] Digital resources like Twitter and Facebook allow artists to give their fans access to what’s happening behind the scenes. These resources allow fans to feel like they ‘know’ and are ‘connected’ to their favorite artists or art forms.

The digital age has also created ‘space’ that allows artists to invite their patrons to participate in a way that directly impacts the finished product. In exchange for funding, artists give patrons access to their creative process, inviting feedback and creating a collaborative environment that forms what is finally produced. Again, rather than existing as set apart from the viewer, artists intentionally and willingly collapse the distance between themselves and the viewer. An example of this is Kickstarter, a website that allows artists to post their projects and patrons to browse and select what they want to see created. This phenomenon and others like it have become ‘art patronage for the masses.’ [4]

What do you think about these changes? Are they something to be embraced or resisted?

[1] Meyer Schapiro, Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society (New York: George Braziller, 1994), 232.

[2] H. R. Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978), 8-10.

[3]  “Art and Its Markets: A Roundtable Discussion,” Artforum 46, no. April (2008): 295.

[4] Peter Sellman, “Crowdfunding: Arts Patronage for the Masses?,” in Sonicbids (September 22, 2008).

1 Comment

  • Bex Lewis says:

    Sara. A great piece, and very impressed that this came up as No. 5 on Google when searching for ‘digital age’. Nicely written piece. Bex

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