Monday, February 16, 2004

Shakespeare as Businessman

I've argued before that government sponsorship of the arts is not just problematic because it must necessarily promote certain aesthetic and moral views over others, but is also largely unnecessary, as much of what we think of today as high art was actually created very much with commerce in mind.

In particular, I mentioned William Shakespeare in this regard, so it was with some pleasure that I came across, via Tyler Cowen, the above 2blowhards post on the business aspects of the theatre in the Elizabethan era. William S. was a wordsmith without peer, but he was also a canny businessman, well-rewarded in his lifetime by an audience appreciative of his craft. The notion that "real" artists are never appreciated in their time is a myth borne of 19th century romanticism, and was palpably false even as it was being born. Artists like Franz List and Paganani were eminently well rewarded in their day by an adoring public, as was the capricious Richard Wagner* after "Rienzi", and even Beethoven, who we like to think of as the proverbial "underappreciated" artist, enjoyed a glittering career as a virtuoso, until it was prematurely cut short by impending deafness. When we turn to consider the odd genius like Franz Schubert who actually did match the penniless artiste cliché, we see that no government grants were required to stir his imagination; if all of these men could contribute as much to Western civilization as they did without the benefit of an NEA, why do the "artistes" of our day insist that they simply cannot do without such support? It seems to me that an "art" that cannot find an audience to support it is no art at all - if a member of the avante garde as cutting edge as Stravinsky was before the Great War could earn his own bread, so should the beautiful souls of our own time.

*Yes, I know Wagner leeched off the purse of King Ludwig (i.e, the Bavarian public) to build his Bayreuth theatre, but that seems to me an argument against publicly funded art rather than for it - just think of the hysterical little corporal who made the place a site of pilgrimage!