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John Skillen: The Four Parties to Art

During several centuries in Italy from roughly 1250-1550—the period of the Italian Renaissance that serves as an inevitable reference point for the Studio for Art, Faith & History, given its location—the conditions of the production and use of art included reliable relationships among four parties or constituencies. These were the artists who made the artworks, of course, but also the communities who made the art work to give shape and purpose to the activities that marked their identity, the patrons who commissioned and funded it, and the scholars called in to advise the artist on the themes and concepts for which the artist gave sophisticated visual form. The Studio sees value in reconsidering for our own time these pre-modern conditions.

During recent centuries the relationship among these four parties eroded as the autonomy of the artist became the paramount value. The community of users became the detached viewers of an art for art’s sake, and the intelligentsia commented and critiqued afterwards, but had no direct role to play in the process and production of art. The role of patrons changed from having a hand in the making of art to being collectors of finished artworks.

In pre-modernity, art in every form and medium was the product of clear accountability among these four parties. To be sure, the lines of communication were seldom conflict-free, nor free of self-serving motivations. Nevertheless these conditions ensured the social relevance of the artwork and the answerability of artists to their publics. And artists were respected as those with the skill to give tangible visible form—a “local habitation and a name,” in Shakespeare’s phrase—to the deep values and beliefs of the sponsoring community.

The cultural vitality of the Italian Renaissance cannot be explained only by the presence of individual artistic geniuses, but rather by the widespread consensus shared among the ruling families and town councils, artisans and merchants, clergy in churches and those living in monastic communities, guilds and confraternities about the purposefulness of art, about aesthetic criteria and civic ideals and religious belief.

It is my hunch that if people of Christian faith are to foster a vibrant culture of the arts in the church and from the church to our society, we ought not focus attention primarily on the artists themselves--on improving their training, affirming their value and raising their self-esteem--even as we leave them to their own devices in deciding what to paint or sculpt and how to keep food on the table and pay the rent. Nor is it enough to increase museum going, or to sustain a bullish market in art collecting, hoping that a few artists of Christian faith will make the big time. Nor is it sufficient to educate and habituate the laity to be appreciative but passive audiences of already-completed works of art displaced from any real-life setting where the artwork is put to work. Rather, we must restore and cultivate active and respectful relationships among these four parties to the work of art. We need to revive an in situ view that puts art in its place by letting the art work in a place.

Thus a motivation at work in all the Studio’s efforts is to help train a new generation of artists willing and able to work humbly yet astutely with patrons and commissioning communities; to foster a new generation of patrons who appreciate the value of art both in the church and from the church for society; to cultivate a new discourse-community of interpretation through which the arts can be understood, evaluated, and contextualized through historically-informed conversation; and to encourage communities in the use of art for their own edification and enrichment, for helping them do the work of the people, able to discriminate art that is answerable to their guiding beliefs from that which is merely trendy or safely old-fashioned.

Let’s take a snapshot of these four parties, past and present.


Artists generally operate in our own time as loners. The rise to cultural dominance of Romanticism solidified the working assumption among artists and public alike that artworks are generally the result of purely private choices made by an independent artist working alone in his or her studio (or en plein air) on a work dreamed up ex nihilo, with no knowledge of where the painting or sculpture might end up, who would see it, who might buy it and for what reasons, and with no input from anyone considered to have expertise in the subject matter (when one can speak of subject matter).

A downside of this maximizing of the artist’s freedom and autonomy is that plenty of artists would admit (at least among friends or on the therapist’s couch) that they are lonely, that their lack of financial stability is a constant anxiety (since very few gain star status and million dollar sales), that the game of working one’s way up the gallery-prestige ladder can feel more like a bondage than a liberating freedom, that few ordinary regular folk know how to talk about the artist’s work—standing awkwardly at a gallery opening, afraid to say something gauche, conversation generally declining to superficial comments about “liking” some formal aspect of the work, with more “good lucks” than sales.

And because another common assumption is that art ought to “shock” its viewers, to crack them out of habits or complacencies, the artist and the audience are implicitly set up as antagonists. Viewers “in the know” enjoy feeling complicit in the artist’s subversion of conventions. And because artwork so little operates in a context of being put to work or “used” (to use a still-suspect word) by a group of people—to focus a community’s worship, to memorialize a community’s heroes, to inspire a community’s civic responsibility, for example—there is little motivation or occasion for the artist to talk to such an audience of users.

Conscientious artists will of course exhibit an inner drive to attain the maximum possible expertise in their media. But for artists whose subject matter is highly personalized and largely self-referential, there appears little need to attain scientific and historical knowledge about the Thing that their artwork explores, or to be in conversation with those who do. The conditions of art-making in modern times have created environments that maximize the artist’s self-focus.

These conditions are relatively recent. During several centuries of what we call the Renaissance, art was produced not only for mainly public settings but in largely non-private conditions. The artist’s studio was a bottega where a mix of business and schooling took place, training apprentices, assigning duties to assistants, meeting with the advisory committee assigned to the project by the commissioner, fussing over the patron’s satisfaction. Artists had no time for navel-gazing, for waiting around for inspiration, or for choosing their own hours. When the temperature and humidity was right, the crew had to trowel up just the right amount of plaster for the day’s frescoing. The artist often worked on the same project with other artists of recognized stature (Masaccio with Masolino in the Brancacci Chapel; Signorelli and Sodoma on the fresco cycle of the life of St. Benedict in Monte Oliveto monastery; Signorelli completing work begun by Fra Angelico in the San Brizio Chapel; Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Signorelli, and others on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, and so forth).

We may have reached a time when artists themselves as well as the works they make would benefit by bringing the process of artmaking back into a more public sphere and community setting and workshop environment. The mantra of modernism to “find your own voice”—as most of my adult artist friends say was the advice of their art school teachers—is giving way to a generation more willing to learn first to take on others’ voices; to subordinate the individual’s proclaimed uniqueness to a collaborative enterprise in which several people have a hand; to learn one’s peculiar and particular gifts in the context of a community of making which can draw out and endorse individual gifts without spinning everyone out into their own orbits.

Hence the Studio has a particular interest in projects that bring artists into a closer relationship with patrons, with those interpreters whose ideas can enrich the complexity of the artwork, with the people for whom the artworks might play a role in their real lives, and with students, too.

I see signs among younger artists that they are interested in being reinserted into a tradition, rather than being expected perpetually to deconstruct history. They welcome being drawn into conversation with other and older artists across space and time, and are willing to view their role as more collaborative. To serve this new generation, perhaps we need to recover the artist’s workshop as a place of teaching and mentoring, rather than assuming as inevitable the modern convention of teaching art in educational institutions separated from real-world-making, and cut off from the artist’s private studio where the real work is made. But to say such a thing cuts across the grain of deep habits.

As an experiment in the bottega approach, Gordon College’s arts-oriented semester program organizes the studio art courses, whenever possible, around a central project over which the skilled professional instructor stands as maestro, and therefore herself as a participant. The young artists join the maestro in subordinating their own personal inclinations and in submitting their individual contributions to the harmony and integrity of the whole work. This means that students sometimes cannot take their work home with them to the States. But they receive a different sort of satisfaction in knowing that their collectively-made ceramic-relief plaques of the 14 Stations of the Cross, made under the tutelage of sculptor Shelly Bradbury, are installed in the contemplative garden of monastery San Lodovico, where they are used during the Good Friday Way of the Cross liturgy to guide the gathered congregation’s devotions.

Bruce Herman’s large-scale triptychs entitled Magnificat (for another example) began as a class in Orvieto, were developed in an open-to-the-public workshop, and were the outcome of the artist’s willing collaboration at every step of the way with patrons, with academic interpreters, with the help of young apprentices.


We often speak of patronage of the arts nowadays in reference to the wealthy donors who keep opera companies, theaters and art museums afloat.  Private patronage of the arts receives high profile notice when billionaires such as François Pinault and Louis Vuitton(French luxury goods magnates) build or buy museums that open their own vast collections of modern art to the public, taking up the role of the wealthy industrialists of a century ago—from the Rockefellers and Fricks to Guggenheim and Getty—whose private collections were endowed as museums open to the public.

Some but not many private patrons fund the creation of new work.  And various endowed agencies exist from whom an artist may hope to be awarded a fellowship or a stipend. (The American Academy in Rome’s prestigious Rome Prize, for example, provides full support for a year at its splendid villa overlooking the eternal city.) Such arts grants exist in the United States at the federal level from the National Endowment for the Arts down to state and local levels—an area quickly cut during economic downturns.  Occasionally there are competitions for major public works of art, some of which are high-profile, such as Maya Lin’s winning design for the now-much-beloved Vietnam Veterans Memorial along the Mall in Washington, D.C. 

A regular teacher in Gordon College’s semester program in Orvieto, Shelly Bradbury, was awarded (in partnership with Ron Magers) a literally high profile commission; namely, to create not a replica but a newly-conceived replacement monument for the Old Man of the Mountain, the stone formation iconic for the state of New Hampshire’s identity that broke away from the cliff face in 2003. But these forms of patronage touch the lives of very few of the artists who are trying to make careers out of their sense of vocation.

If the term refers simply to the procedures by which people pay artists, then patronage occurs. But mainly through a system of commercial galleries that take on the artist’s work either as a one-time show or in a long-term relationship whereby the gallery creates a distinct niche for the artist, in return for its own 30-50% take from sales.

One might observe that a patronage whereby collectors look to galleries and museum exhibitions, or to high-end staged art shows like Art Basel, for clues as to who’s hot and who’s not tends to value the artwork as an investment commodity based on the artist’s attainment of notoriety. The painting on the purchaser’s wall exists as an economic status symbol quite divorced from any truth-revealing power to change our lives that the artwork might have. It isn’t allowed to make claims on how the owner lives his life. (Admittedly, the great patrons of the Renaissance were hardly immune to showing off economic status and exercising political clout through art, but even this very critique was in the public domain, exploited by purifiers such as Savonarola.)

Even if we can say that modern forms of patronage exist, the norm is not for the patron to play an active role in deciding what and how and why and for where the artist makes something. Patronage patterns nowadays are careful not to intrude on the artist’s personal freedom and autonomy. This exile of, or self-abdication of, the patron as an active player in the production of art is also a relatively recent phenomenon.

In the Renaissance, essentially all art was commissioned. A wealthy person, or a town council, a guild in charge of decorating a public building, or the committee charged with maintaining and decorating the cathedral, the abbot of a monastery, a family decorating a private chapel in a church—some such entity contracted with an artist not to make whatever he felt like, but to make a particular object for a particular location, of a particular size, with highly specified subject matter and materials, to be used to assist a particular action, to be completed by a particular date, for an agreed-upon price.

This may strike modern ears as an offensive constriction of the artist’s proper freedom and independence. But the sheer quantity of high-level art produced during this period by artists who sometimes complained about late payments but never that their creative freedom had been inhibited, suggests that patronage no more limits creative excellence than modern artistic license can be shown to increase it.

The Italian Renaissance represents a good long moment of cultural history when institutions both civic and ecclesiastical really believed in and defended the capacity of good art to instruct, remind, and inspire the people who gathered within their walls; where town council chambers were frescoed; where families put clauses in their wills for the decoration of chapels; where even town- and confraternity-run orphanages and hospitals, and public fountains or baptistery fonts were commissioned to now-famous artists and architects.

Wealthy people were expected to be patrons of the arts, and patrons were expected to be the spokespersons for and guardians of the interests of the communities the artwork was to serve. As corollary, they were expected to have knowledge of those interests. It’s certainly no coincidence that sophisticated visual allusions to civic disorder and the Catharist heresy occur in a chapel in the Orvieto Duomo where martyred defenders of orthodox incarnational faith are buried, or that all the episodes in St. Peter’s life concerning money and clothes turn up in a fresco cycle commissioned by a wealthy cloth-making merchant family in Florence. Patrons were involved in planning such complex works of art (even if the very artworks they commissioned can be seen as turning a critical gaze on how the patrons lived).

We have need of such patrons in our own time: people with astute business sense able to combine a demand for high craftsmanship with feasibility and cost-control. (One reason why Ghiberti got the big commission over Brunelleschi for the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistry was that his skill in using fewer castings translated into less bronze and hence lower cost.) We need patrons respectful both of the power of art to inspire and instruct people and of the skills of the hired artist; patrons who don’t micromanage everything but leave the programme to the advisorial experts. We need patrons both happy to write the check and genuinely interested in and knowledgeable about the subject matter and purpose and setting. We need patrons, in other words, who will have personal incentive for being actively engaged throughout the process of making the artwork, and whose interest will continue beyond the final payment.

Patrons can help promote better artwork, but good art in turn can create patrons.

In a dialogue published in IMAGE Journal (Issue #62) Walter Hansen, a professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, credits his interest in supporting financially the work of artist Bruce Herman to the powerful influence of Herman’s paintings in his own life. As Hansen remarks about Herman’s Magnificat altarpieces,

Since you made me feel so at home in your creative space, I was happy to participate in funding this major cycle of paintings on the Virgin Mary and to be further involved in their development by talking with you about your work as it progressed. Although I’ve enjoyed being a patron of artists by purchasing paintings, I had never before become a patron in the sense of engaging directly in the creative process. Your conversational approach pushed me out of my area of academic expertise, biblical criticism. ...

[Hansen adds] An unexpected consequence of your requests for me to participate was that you catapulted me into a whole new level of involvement in the world of art. … By your inviting me into your process, we’ve both experienced the power of art to generate community. We’ve been drawn into the sacra conversazione. As we talk about your portrayals of the person and role of Mary, we experience a growing communion—with each other, with Mary, with Mary’s God, and with generations past and present who gather around her to worship her Son.

Herman responds:

Your patronage nourished this project significantly—and not just by meeting the financial need, as important as that was. … I think John Skillen is right, that the work of art (that is, the work that art is meant to accomplish) is only fully realized when an entire community comes into being that supports and guides and enables the artist to do it. This is true even of a completely secular art community. What has been missing in contemporary religious painting is patronage. We’ve got lots of critics, and certainly some artists who are capable of tackling these subjects. But we have had few patrons willing to address the whole process and get involved.


The label is somewhat clumsy, but by “interpreters” I mean those people engaged in explaining and contextualizing and evaluating works of art, the intelligentsia of critics and reviewers, curators and historians whose judgments inevitably mediate the perceptions through which audiences receive and respond to the artwork.

How much power the critics actually have is subject to debate. We enjoy, with the wisdom of hindsight, noting those artists once ignored by the intelligentsia of their own day who became future critics’ stars. Nevertheless, one can hardly deny that critics and reviewers exercise considerable influence in determining which artists get a chance for commercial success. There is always the role of the mediator to a public. “I’ll let the artwork speak for itself” we often hear the artist say at the opening of the show. But people don’t show up to where the artwork is “speaking” except by someone’s word of its worth. Hence we have the journalism of review and criticism: Art in America, Art Forum, American Theater, review sections in the New York Times, review essays in the New Yorker, reviews on National Public Radio, and so forth. Plenty of artists fear a deadly word from the critic even as they open the paper in hope that their show has found notice. A list of such reviews is a section in every artist’s resumé.

My chief observation here is to note that in modern patterns of interpretation, the scholars and critics don’t even show up until after the fact of the artwork. In earlier centuries the sequence was reversed.

In the Renaissance, the scholarly community—the people with expertise in the subject matter—did their work before and during the production of the artwork, often as the committee appointed by the commissioners to make sure that the artist understood and gave adequate visual form to the underlying framework of ideas, or of the actions that the artwork was created to serve.

In Orvieto, for instance, Luca Signorelli’s contract for frescoing the chapel in the south transept of the cathedral with scenes of the End Times and the Last Judgment expressly obliged him to consult with the “masters of the sacred page”—almost certainly the Dominican theologians at the monastery in town (where Thomas Aquinas had occupied his chair two centuries before). The astonishing complexity yet consistency in the “teaching” implied by Signorelli’s “visual theology” is the product precisely of such collaboration between artist and advisors, and his frescoes have become a touchstone for understanding the eschatology of the age. Such collaboration is the only way to account for how someone like Raphael—poorly educated in the humanities—could design murals that explored the history and concepts and personages of the history of philosophy and literature and theology with the highest imaginable sophistication (even if determining who his advisors were remains a matter of earnest scholarly research).

It may be timely to recover the relationship. Artists can benefit from a humble openness to what they might learn from people with deep knowledge about the subjects of their artistic exploration. The interaction can go both ways. The intelligentsia of an age (like ours) that privileges cerebral and empirical scientific approaches to knowledge would do well to respect the artist’s peculiar skill in finding adequate visual, musical, dramatic, poetic form for the knowing.


It’s tricky to find the best label for those people for whom artworks are made: the people who will be looking at them. My very use of “looking” is part of the problem, with its implicit identification of the audience as viewer.

We are habituated to say “Viewers” or “Audiences”, because people have been trained to see themselves in a passive role standing quietly gazing at artworks in galleries and museums, hands behind back, fearful of getting so close to the work of art as to set off the alarm, or sitting quietly in concert halls and theaters. The very vocabulary of “use”—of speaking of art as having a useful purpose in the lives of those who engage with it—continues to be suspect even now at the tail end of a period that has emphasized the value of art in itself, without instrumental value, art to be enjoyed for the art’s sake alone. Generally speaking, the audience comes along afterwards, responding to an artwork to whose making the viewer was distinctly un-invited.

So habituated are we to the gallery-based conventions of experiencing art that we are little conscious of how the de-contextualized museum environment is designed precisely to block any reaction other than the purely aesthetic. When the viewer enters a room in the museum full of altarpieces, for example, she is expected to repress any urge she might have (if a believer) to pray or to meditate on the blood shed on the cross for her salvation—any sort of devotional behavior, or liturgical behavior if visiting the gallery with a bunch of church friends. To gather round the painting and recite the Magnificat is as prohibited as chattering on the cellphone. The whispered conversation that I overhear is more often about how the artist has dealt with the folds in Mary’s drapery. We are expected to leave our beliefs at the coat-check along with the backpack.

The viewer or audience has not always been expected to remain so passive. Indeed, until the last couple of centuries, museums didn’t exist. Paintings were never displayed on place-neutral gallery-gray walls. Art was always in situ, in a particular place, made for that place, experienced in relation to the architecture and in relation to other artworks in the setting, and above all in relation to real corporate and corporal actions for which the space itself was designed. Monks and nuns ate their suppers in front of Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples, frescoed in perspective on the endwall so as to unify actual with fictive space. The town council of nine in Siena debated and decided policy under the frescoed gaze of images exploring the sources and effects of good and bad government, a constant reminder to the councilmen of their duty to the public welfare. People received the Eucharist before altarpieces that clarified precise aspects of the Real Presence of Christ to be embodied in the lives of the faithful as in his mother and in the saints of the past.

The inspirational and didactic intent does not at all mean that the users of the artwork were insensitive to its beauty, or without high expectations that the artwork had better be beautiful, or without strong criteria of judgment about what elements constituted that beauty. Rather, the aspect of beauty, the aesthetic element, was evaluated for how well it did its job in helping the participants’ response match the purpose of the action that the artwork served. In short, beauty was seen as functional, not as something freed from functionality.

The time may be ripe for reinserting artworks into the various liturgies or works of the community, artworks thus valued on more levels than the aesthetic alone. One can appreciate the intention of the art-for-art’s-sake movement to preserve art from the merely utilitarian. But the result has been a truncating of the range of responses that art is expected, or permitted, to activate.

A corollary is that if the altarpiece in the chapel, the sculpture in the St. Francis garden, or the fresco in the school or the meeting hall is to focus and concentrate the minds and hearts of those worshipping or learning or debating or praying, then the artist ought to be expected to understand what the community thinks it does when it worships, when it learns, when it exercises civic responsibility for the welfare of the community.

My concluding observation is that the conditions of the production and use of art then and now can be valuably taught and discussed in the classroom, debated in the blogosphere, explored in conferences. But only through actual collaboration on real projects can artists, patrons, scholars and communities learn how to appreciate, listen to, and argue with one another—all with the end of making the final “product” more sophisticated and effective, not less so, not dumbed down to simplistic illustrations of ideas.

The Studio for Art, Faith & History hopes to do its small part in fostering artworks that do their work in the bosom of real communities.