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

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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