Never Mind the Medicis
The mental image of an art patron is usually of a private citizen with some money to spare, who recognizes the genius of an artist and enables them to create without infringing too much on the process.
You might think of the Medicis, with their lavish clothes and high lace collars, cherishing the works of Botticelli and Michelangelo that their coffers were responsible for.
Others may picture Nina Foch’s Milo Roberts from the film An American in Paris.
But the archetype doesn’t always line up with reality. Sometimes, the people who elevate, promote, or commission art are those we’d least expect. For example...
Special Agent Pollock
While historians are still debating whether the Cold War was predominantly a war of ideologies (communism v. capitalism), or if it was, as most wars are, about material interests, it is clear that each side considered the clash a “must-win” scenario. And both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. understood the important role that art could play in promoting their beliefs to the masses.
In 1932, Socialist Realism became the official artistic style of the Soviet Union. Artists were tasked with the “ideological transformation and education of workers in the spirit of socialism." This meant lots of paintings of working class people going about their everyday lives, along with more than a few flattering portraits of Soviet leaders.
From its founding in 1947, the CIA supported art as part of its own extensive Cold War strategy. By promoting a robust body of work created by artists in the Land of The Free, the CIA aimed to highlight the superiority of a system that allows for creative freedom—especially when compared to what was mockingly referred to as the “girl meets tractor” style of Soviet art.
One of the artists championed by the CIA was the famed Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, who, ironically, had ties to communist circles.
The CIA’s patronage paid off, successfully advancing the notion that only the American version of freedom and liberty offered an environment where creativity and intellectual freedom could thrive. It also altered how we look at art, politics, and what it means to challenge the status quo. The CIA created a space within the system for rebellious artists to operate, where they could critique the bourgeoisie, while still promoting anti-communism.
But while left-wing artists were certainly encouraged to be creative, they weren’t exactly free from government scrutiny—18 of 47 artists featured in the State Department sponsored show, Advancing American Art (1946-1947), eventually wound up in the records of the House Of Un-American Activities Committee.
Given the recent inclusion of art programs at schools like MIT, it might seem like the combination of art and science is a modern invention. But NASA, always the first to take a giant leap for mankind, understood the symbiotic relationship between art and science from the start.
The NASA Art Program was launched in 1962— a mere four years after the formation of NASA itself. The initiative started off pretty simply, with commissioned portraits of astronauts, but program founder James Webb had a more ambitious vision of what a collaboration between artists and scientists could offer, which gave rise to a wide variety of projects.
In 1963, eight artists were chosen to depict the final Mercury flight. The artists were paid $800, and got unprecedented access to Cape Canaveral, as well as immense creative freedom. The idea was to translate the scientific importance of what NASA was doing into something that could be understood on a visceral, emotional level. To that end, NASA employed all sorts of artists, from the traditional to avant garde.
Artists also helped to illustrate the future being imagined by NASA scientists, with the lofty goal of making the impossible seem tangible. In the 1970s, the works of Rick Guidice were instrumental in helping people get on board with the idea of one day colonizing space.
While NASA’s art funding has declined in the past four decades—following the end of the Apollo program in 1975—the agency’s dalliance with culture has, thankfully, survived the budget cuts.
Today, the Studio at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) helps scientists in crafting mission pitches. The artists lend project proposals a distinct aesthetic, and develop models that demonstrate the feasibility of the scientists’ ambitious plans. They also take the work that NASA is doing and turn it into beautiful works of art, displayed on the JPL campus. For example, a sculpture that beautifully depicts data coming from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter dominates the lobby in building 180.
BONUS: Not only have artists immortalized the groundbreaking work of NASA scientists, they’ve also honored the sacrifices made by our brave space pioneers. In 2002, NASA commissioned the song “Way Up There,” which served as memorial song for the lives lost on The Challenger nearly two decades earlier. Patti LaBelle’s recording of the song was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2004.
At first glance, nothing seems less like a Medici than a hoodie-clad Tech Bro playing with his fidget spinner. And, indeed, the perceived indifference to culture in the wake of the latest tech boom has been accused of killing the Silicon Valley Ballet, amongst other classical institutions.
Despite their reputation for valuing technology over culture, the Tech Bros are once again disrupting our expectations — this time with a move towards patronage of the arts. But while the wealthy were once content to purchase and collect rare works, today’s investors are moving away from this approach, and toward funding artists directly through websites like Patreon or GoFundMe.
Many Tech Bros view artists as social entrepreneurs, who can benefit from being fostered in a start-up style incubator. Companies like Upstart Co-Lab extol the benefits of growing the “creative economy," calling it a good move for both individual investors and the economy as a whole. Even so, the end goal is less about seeing a return on investment, and more about supporting culture for its own sake.
Of course, there is a limit to anyone’s generosity, and only time will tell whether these angel investors are in it for the long haul. But even if the tech bros do lose interest, someone else will inevitably step up. Because, for as long as there have been starving artists plying their trade, there have also been the Medicis du jour—those folks with both the means to support culture and the desire to see it thrive.