The Artistic Merit of Art Commissioners / Patrons


Lorenzo de Medici, one of the most famous art patrons and commissioners

Lately, I’ve been wondering about art commissioners, those people who pay artists for a certain work, often giving them directions about what needs to be done. The thing that really makes me curious is why they get so rarely mentioned, why their role is often regarded as exclusively financial, and why no one talks about their artistic input and merit. The only person who gets credit for art is the artist. This is fine in situations in which commissioners just pay without giving any directions or give just general or vague ideas, but in cases where their input and ideas for the artwork are substantial, I think it’s unjust to ignore their artistic input and merit. Even without their artistic input, their role as art supporters is very important as they make it possible for artists to focus on what they really do best, that is making art, without having to worry about financial issues, but in this essay, I will focus exclusively on the artistic input and merit of commissioners.

Let’s start with an example that’s not really about art, but that is very familiar. Let’s say some person, we can call him Jack gets an idea for a software application, but he is not a programmer and doesn’t know how to code. So he hires a software developer and a designer and describes to them in details what job the application has to do, which options it needs to have, and how it should appear. The programmer and the designer work separately, the one develops the code, the other the appearance of the application, eventually they put all the pieces together and create the whole application and give it to Jack. As the application is Jack’s original idea, and he just paid designer and programmer to implement his idea, he will probably, and rightfully so, publish the application under his own name or brand, and he might or might not give credit to the actual programmer and the designer. Almost the same happens in case of ghostwriting. Someone has an idea for a book, often it’s a celebrity who wants a book about their life, they hire a ghostwriter to put it on paper. Again it would be ethical to give credits to the ghostwriter, but in many cases they do not, instead they simply publish the book under their own name. I mentioned these two examples just to highlight how in some situations the person who doesn’t actually make art or a product, but just gives input in ideas and money, can become even more important than the actual artist, whose role can get quite technical and resemble mere tool used for the implementation of the ideas of the commissioner. Of course this is an extreme case, and I am not going to say that artists themselves aren’t important, I mentioned this example just to show how important the role of commissioners can be, and how it depends on the amount of their input.

In more realistic cases, the relationship between the artist and the commissioner is more complex and unpredictable. But ideally, this should be a relationship of two independent individuals based on mutual respect. And the credit given to each of them should be proportional to their input, both in ideas, and in implementation of ideas. The importance of ideas shouldn’t be overlooked, as they can be the most important aspect of the work. The more liberty in creation the artist has, the bigger is his own role. The more input in ideas the patron gives, likewise, his own merit increases. This seems so simple, but the problem is in public perception. People usually see and remember only one name. In most cases this is the artist, but in some cases, which I mentioned previously (software or celebrity autobiographies), it is the patron. My main point is that people should be aware of this complex relationship and realize that a lot of art they hold dear wouldn’t be there without commissioners. Some artists might have extraordinary technical abilities and  creativity, but they need this initial push to get going. Or they may lack ideas of their own. Some of their masterpieces would never come to be if there wasn’t someone to commission it.


Pope Julius II, the commissioner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, series of fresco paintings by Michelangelo

In the past, people were more aware of the commissioners and of this relationship, and the role of artists wasn’t so fundamental like today. It was closer to the role of artisan. Today we think of art as the ultimate form of self expression, something that’s removed from any utilitarian purpose.  Creating art according to well defined directions doesn’t even look like “real art” to some people today. Yet, many of the timeless masterpieces (actually most of them) that we admire today are result of just that: commissions.

I’d like to see your take on it in comments, feel free to express your ideas about the extent of the contribution of commissioners vs. artists, who is more important, and whether the art which isn’t made fully independently can be considered “real art”.


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