Menus Subscribe Search

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

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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