Patronage, the Arts, and Cut-Throat Begging

Oh to have a munificent patron like Cosimo or Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, or Federico da Montfeltro in Urbino, who amassed great libraries for the use of such luminaries as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Cristoforo Landino, and Pietro Bembo, while supporting them in the vita contemplativa, and underwriting the publication of their books. Take me back, take me back.

The question of patronage of another kind was raised at the end of a class on Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, when one of my students expressed her indignation at the steady reduction in Canada of government subsidies for “the arts”. I was tempted to thank her—though I was restrained by politeness—for relaying the good news. I exerted myself instead to relate her comment back to the general subject (the Renaissance) of the course. How was patronage of the arts in the Renaissance similar to, but different from, that of today’s democratic welfare state? Was the former not more private than public? And even if the Medici, Viscontis, Gonzagas, Sforzas, and Scaligers were mighty princes of their realms, didn’t their political power rather pale by comparison to that of the leaders of modern liberal democracies, whose “liberality” is a function of the coercive authority of their tax collectors.   (Not even France’s Sun King could dream of such sweeping jurisdiction as that possessed by modern elected governments at the command of armies of revenue agents empowered to confiscate half of every citizen’s wealth.)

The princely virtue of liberality is discussed in Catiglione’s Il Cortegiano, when the interlocutor Gasparo Pallavicino adduces the grand public works programs of Alexander the Great and Pope Julius II as noble examples. But Ottaviano Fregoso (Castiglione’s mouthpiece) demurs, arguing that the primary excellence and responsibility of the prince is to rule over a free people with justice and wisdom. The ideal prince, he says, should observe “a reasonable inequality in being generous, in rewarding, in distributing [largesse] according to the differences in merits”. Too often, princes “not only are not secret about it, but summon witnesses and almost make a public proclamation of their generosities”, and “there are many who rob in order to give away, and thus are generous with the property of others”. Evidently, Renaissance humanism had not yet evolved to the point of regarding meritless egalitarianism, or being conspicuously “magnificent” with other people’s money, as virtues.


My student represents one of the many voices in a deafening chorus of complaints that is the music of liberalism. Every election cycle, teachers complain of larger class sizes and the cut-backs in education that have purportedly caused them; nurses and health-care workers complain that governments spend less and less on hospitals and so endanger the health of citizens; police unions accuse governments of risking public safety by “slashing” police budgets; transit workers moralize that governments are spending too little on public transit and thereby causing gridlock; public construction unions demand more money to “invest” in our crumbling infrastructure; poverty advocates indict governments of heartlessness in reducing their budgets for public housing, welfare, and the ever-proliferating multitude of social programs; the green energy lobby prophesies the death of planet earth because governments are reducing their subsidies to wind and solar power; hydro workers predict blackouts for the same reason; daycare workers depict an impending apocalypse of infants wandering the streets in diapers because budgets for public daycare have been “gutted”.

Of course, when you look at the numbers, none of this apocalyptic threnody is based in fact. Government budgets for these constituencies (and a burgeoning panoply of others) have increased consistently and ineluctably over the course of every decade since the New Deal.


Politics can now be defined as organized begging. In the democracies of the West, there is at least one, and usually more than one, political party whose entire mandate is to complain about soi-disant “shrinking budgets”. (In countries like Greece, Portugal, and Italy, these currently outnumber the individual citizens who are net producers of wealth.) Political parties now resemble industry consortiums, like the Association of Mattress Manufacturers of America, or the International Order of Pork Producers, except that they represent the competing groups of State supplicants.

In the case of the arts, liberals dare not even make a pretense of the vaunted principle of “fairness” as they define it (i.e., redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor). Peruse the typical audiences of State-supported symphonies, operas, theatres, museums, and so on, and you see overwhelmingly affluent white faces, whose tickets have been subsidized by the taxes paid by the middle class, not to mention the working and immigrant poor, who rarely choose, don’t have time for, or can’t afford, the luxury of “art”.

It ought at least momentarily to embarrass the enthusiasts of the munificent State that every interest group that has become dependent upon it clamours to be first and stay longest at the public trough, indicting itself of unreconstructed greed, which it seeks to satisfy in cut-throat, dog-eat-dog (aka “capitalistic”) competition with every other. Ultimately, our universal parasitism becomes a self-cannibalizing exercise, with everyone battening at the expense of everyone else.

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