Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


If YOU Can Draw, Then YOU Should Be in School!

• December 22, 2008 • 6:00 PM

The case for making American universities into patrons of the arts.

As a shakespearean scholar, Marjorie Garber has an appreciation for punchy phrases that hold multiple meanings. She has coined one herself for the title of her new book. Patronizing the Arts is, as one would guess, a critical examination of the various ways cultural activity has been funded over the centuries. But it also scrutinizes the patronizing attitude American society tends to have toward the arts — treating them as a pleasant but expendable frill.

The two definitions of the term, she argues, are interrelated: A culture that doesn’t seriously value creative expression can’t be expected to provide consistent financial support for it. What’s needed, she writes, is not only a greater appreciation of the intrinsic value of the arts — which advocates have long yearned for — but also a more sophisticated understanding of how artists operate and a more stable structure for providing them the resources they require. Artists, in other words, need better benefactors, and the logical candidates for this role are America’s universities.

It’s not surprising that Garber, who teaches English at Harvard University, would come to that conclusion. As chair of the visualand environmental studies department and director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, she is a major player on the campus’s cultural scene. But her argument, while sketchy, is undeniably intriguing and increasingly urgent in an economic slowdown that is forcing arts organizations to cut back or shut down.

Garber kicks off her argument by noting American “under- and over-valuing of the arts.” On the one hand, she notes, we worship certain artists as geniuses and turn some musicians and film directors into celebrities. But funding for the arts is often the first thing to be cut when school budgets get tight, and government support is notoriously meager.

She rightly suggests these contradictory attitudes reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the artistic process, one that devalues the importance of craft and experimentation in favor of a romanticized notion of inspiration. (Think of the play and film Amadeus, which portrayed Mozart as an irresponsible adolescent who inexplicably found symphonies rattling around in his brain.) Provocatively, she suggests universities play into this misapprehension by lumping together the arts and humanities.

Book Review

Click here to read more Miller-McCune book reviews.

While conceding that studying the history of the arts or analyzing them critically falls under the umbrella of the humanities, that sort of scholarship, she notes, “is quite different structurally from art-making.” Artists, Garber argues, actually have much more in common with scientists. Both work in specific spaces (studios or laboratories), utilize specialized knowledge, engage in trial and error, describe their work in terms of elegance and beauty and — when they are fortunate — take startling imaginative leaps. Most of our greatest scientists, she notes, are employed at universities; why shouldn’t our master artists be as well?

Garber takes us through a breezy, informal history of arts patronage in both the United States and Europe, from the Medicis (of course) to present-day multinational corporations. She argues that all of our current methods of supporting artists are problematic. The marketplace, she notes, too often tends to favor lowest-common-denominator work. Tax-payer money inevitably comes with strings attached, usually in the form of political interference (as those who remember the controversies surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s and 1990s will attest). Business support is often greatest when the corporation in question is looking to revive its tarnished image; there’s a reason tobacco and oil companies tend to be major arts patrons. Few arts organizations are entirely comfortable taking their money, but fewer are in a position to turn them down.

These issues would still be in play if the nation’s universities became the primary source of funding and support for artists, as Garber concedes. But she argues the doctrine of academic freedom could serve as an effective barrier against censorship, and the academic atmosphere is “hospitable to experimentation.” As a practical matter, most universities already host some level of arts activity, which can be built upon. What’s more, artists are increasingly utilizing, or even inventing, new forms of technology to create their work; universities that are (or aspire to be) high-tech pioneers would be a natural home for such cross-disciplinary work.

Garber’s writing tends to be a bit dry and occasionally academic. But this minor flaw is more than compensated for by her generous quotes from great writers who have addressed the topic of arts patronage, from Charles Dickens to Langston Hughes. A larger problem is a lack of detail in her argument; she lays out a basic blueprint, but no more. (Who would own the work created at a university studio? The artist? The institution? Both?) It will be up to some chancellor who is up to a challenge to turn this worthy concept into something truly workable.

Doing so will require money, of course, but the bigger barrier to its implementation may be the myth of the struggling, starving artist — the lone-wolf genius who could never fit into an academic community. Garber notes with some irritation that this concept has been with us for a long time — she quotes a 19th-century critic who insisted that “art is genius, and genius does not belong to a profession.”

But if you go further back in history, to the era of Rubens, Rembrandt and Raphael, you’ll find that even “genius” artists collaborated with apprentices, making their masterpieces in studios that simultaneously functioned as workshops, schools and laboratories. From what I’ve read, the Pixar animation studio is structured much the same way, but its founders have somehow discovered a way to do genuinely creative work that appeals to a mass audience. For artists who haven’t threaded that needle, the best and most sensible place to set up shop just might be on campus.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.