More Than Money
Issue #18
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Art and Money

Table of Contents

“Art and Barbarism:”

Two Views

Editors' Note: J. Paul Getty was the richest man alive in his day, a powerful oil magnate and a famous art collector who donated his private collection, valued at over $200 million, to the nonprofit Getty Museum so his collection would be freely available to the public. Wallace Shawn, who co-wrote and performed in the film My Dinner With Andre, is an actor, playwright, and acerbic social critic of much more modest wealth. Both men have strong, and strikingly different, views about how fine art can challenge or mask our relationship to the barbarous acts of the modern world. While their statements below may seem shocking, extreme, and even offensive to some readers, we believe they raise difficult issues that deserve deep reflection.

Art as a Challenge to Barbarism

Excerpted from J. Paul Getty's autobiography As I See It, New York : Prentice Hall, 1976 The difference between being a barbarian and a full-fledged member of a cultivated society is in the individual's attitude toward fine art. If he or she has a love of art, then he or she is not a barbarian. It's that simple, in my opinion.

Tragically, fifty percent of the people walking down any street can be classed as barbarians according to this criterion. They will cut down any tree, no matter how old or lovely (and healthy), tear down beautiful old buildings, ravage any work of art or architecture. They will, of course, argue that their vandalism and destructions are committed in the name of modernization or progress or find some other handy rationalization. None the less, they are no less barbarians than those of the Dark Ages who dressed in animal skins and wore horned helmets.

Twentieth-century barbarians cannot be transformed into cultured, civilized human beings until they acquire an appreciation and love for art. The transformation cannot take place until they have had the opportunity to be exposed to fine art--to see, begin to understand and finally savor and marvel.

Art as a Mask for Barbarism

Excerpts from Wallace Shawn's novella The Fever. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.

You see, I like Beethoven. I like to hear the bow of the violin cut into the string. I like to follow the phrase of the violin as it goes on and on, like a deep-rooted orgasm squeezed out into a rope of sound. I like to go out at night in a cosmopolitan city and sit in a dark auditorium watching dancers fly into each other's arms.

Yet, suppose that certain people--certain people whose hearts admittedly are filled with love--are being awakened suddenly at night by groups of armed men. Suppose that they are being dragged into a stinking van with a carpet on the floor and stomped by boots till their lips are swollen like oranges, streaming with blood. Yes, I was alive when those things were done, I lived in the town whose streets ran with the blood of good hearted victims, I wore the clothes which were pulled from the bodies of the victims when they were raped and killed.

But I love the violin. I love the music, the dancers, everything I touch, everything I see.

Shouldn't we decorate our lives and our world as if we were having a permanent party? Shouldn't there be bells made of paper hanging from the ceiling, and paper balls, and white and yellow streamers? Shouldn't people dance and hold each other close? Shouldn't we fill the tables with cake and presents?

Yes, but we can't have celebrations in the very same room where groups of people are being tortured, or groups of people are being killed. We have to know, Where are we, and Where are the ones who are being tortured and killed? Not in the same room? No--but surely--isn't there any other room we can use? Yes, but we still could hear the people screaming. Well, then--can't we use the building across the street? Well, maybe--but wouldn't it feel strange to walk by the window during our celebrations and look across at the building we're in now and think about the blood and the death and the testicles being crushed inside it.

Certain things cannot be questioned. The coffee has to be there on the shelf, and no thought may enter your mind if it conflicts with the assumption that you--yes, you--are a decent person.

Two Faces of Patronage: Charlotte Mason and the Harlem Renaissance

In the early decades of this century, African-American artistic expression flowered in what has become known as the Harlem Renaissance. In that one hamlet of New York City, black novelists, poets, essayists, muralists, artists, singers, and jazz musicians gathered and created an enduring artistic legacy. The emergence of this "New Negro" seeking to create art "without fear or shame" was supported by a handful of wealthy white patrons. Among the most influential of these was the elderly widow Charlotte Osgood Mason, whose family's wealth went back so many generations that she considered the Vanderbilts nouveau riche.

Mason was drawn to support African-American art by a deep revulsion against the decadence of "white Western civilization." She hoped to see a new sensibility emerge from the spiritual experience of the peoples that whites had long oppressed. As she once wrote, "I had the mystical vision of a great bridge reaching from Harlem to the heart of Africa, across which the Negro world, that our white United States had done everything to annihilate, [could] recover the treasure their people had in the beginning of African life on the earth."

Fired by this vision, Mason wrote thousands of dollars worth of checks for monthly stipends to support the work of such creative luminaries as poet Langston Hughes, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, muralist and illustrator Aaron Douglas, sculptor Richmond Barthe, and painter Miguel Covarrubias. For many of these young artists, Mason seemed like an angel, sitting in a throne-like chair in her large penthouse apartment on 399 Park Avenue. As Hughes wrote of their first meeting: "In the living room after dinner, high above Park Avenue with the lights of Manhattan shining below us, my hostess asked me about my plans for the future, my hopes, my ambitions, and my dreams. I told her I wanted to write a novel. She told me she would make it possible for me to write that novel."

Mason's relationships with these gifted artists was hardly idyllic, however. She was known for being patronizing and tyrannical. She insisted that the artists she supported call her "Godmother." She also demanded extremely detailed accounting of how they spent their money, including itemizing each item of groceries bought.

Perhaps more troubling, Mason also interfered with the artists' work. Hurston, whose patronage contract did not allow her to publish her writing without Mason's permission, once angrily wrote to Hughes of their "guard-mother who sits in the twelfth heaven and shapes the destinies of the primitives." Hughes came to agree after Mason pressured him to remove several passages in his novel Not Without Laughter . Mason wanted her "children" to write about the "mystery and mysticism and spontaneity" of black folks and not about their poverty, oppression, or political activism for change. "She wanted me to be primitive," Hughes wrote in his autobiography, "but I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem."

Afraid of losing his monthly stipend, Hughes put up with her censorship for awhile. Yet, it ate at him. Riding in the back of Mason's limousine, noticing poor folks on the street, Hughes once reflected, "I could very easily and quickly be there, too, hungry and homeless on a cold floor, any time Park Avenue got tired of supporting me."

Ultimately, Hughes broke with Mason and published a "socialist" poem about the building of a luxury hotel in an impoverished urban neighborhood. In the poem, Hughes wrote:

Have luncheon there this
afternoon, all you jobless.

Why not?

Dine with some of the men and
women who got rich off of your

who clip coupons with clean
white fingers because your
hands dug coal,

drilled stone, sewed garments,
poured steel to let other people
draw dividends and live easy.

Mason was deeply hurt and could not understand why Hughes, her "most precious child," would turn from spiritual primitivism to political engagement. She felt her vision of primitivism as a force of cultural regeneration for the civilized world was sound and that politics was sordid and common.

Mason's story points to the central dilemma of the patronage system. Without patrons, much creative work would never be completed or made available to the world. One historian of the Harlem Renaissance goes so far as to argue that "it is impossible to say that the art produced by black Americans between 1920 and 1932 would have ever made it into print without the support of rich whites." Yet, patronage can subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, reshape the work itself, taking it out of the hands of the artists.

Amy Knot Kirschke, Aaron Douglas' biographer, states the problem well: "Artists today of any race, like the black artists of the Harlem Renaissance, are forced to create works in response to the tastes of those who are able to pay for their work and support them financially... The real issue is whether the patron's influence is so overbearing that it prevents an artist from achieving any real autonomy or creativity in his or her work."

--Steve Chase, managing editor

Poet to Patron

What right has anyone to say
That I must throw out pieces of
My heart for pay?
For bread that helps to make
My heart beat true,
I must sell myself
To you?
A factory shift's better,
A week's meager pay,
Than a perfumed note asking,
What poems today?

--Langston Hughes

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