Monday, June 8, 2009

Survivor bias at the Van Cliburn

While attending the Van Cliburn Competition last week (another blog entry later!), there was a symposium on the topic of diplomacy and the arts. On stage were two former diplomats, two current cultural attaches – from Russia and from Italy – and James Conlon. One relatively quick mention by Maestro Conlon on the role of patronage in the arts caught my attention. He said that “great art always has a patron” or something to that effect.
The phrase was in the present tense, which made the meaning slightly ambiguous. Did he mean that as a statement of fact, i.e. that in the past up to the present, great art so far has always had a patron? Or did he mean that he mean that as a statement of his belief for the future, that great art will always have a patron? Did he mean that if an artistic endeavor is great, that it will eventually find a patron? Did he mean that patronage needed to be available in order to support what might eventually turn out to be great art? Is there cause and effect? What is the cause – the great art or the existence of patronage? What is the effect?
The provocative statement drew out one of the former ambassadors, who wanted to advocate for private patronage instead of public (government) patronage. (Funnily, his example of Houston Opera’s outreach program supported exactly the opposite point of view!)

Whatever Maestro Conlon actually meant, the phrase sent me off thinking about the effect of survivor bias in great art. This was critical to acknowledge in the area of patronage, and in particular the kind of patronage that we were all a party to in Fort Worth, i.e. the Competition itself.
It may or may not be true that all great art has always found a patron. What is great art in the first place? If there was a definition of “great”, then we could determine if patronage existed and confirm or disprove the rule.
We CAN say that much great art has had patronage behind it. Support from the church, from royalty, from aristocracy, from governments, from corporations, from private donors – all of these categories supply endless examples of the productivity of their support. Ticket sales has never been a good judge of what is great and what is not, in Classical music and in any other kind of art from!

So we can say that much good art has benefited from patronage. But we cannot assume that all great art will, nor that bad art has NOT benefited from patronage. What we enjoy today that is the legacy of the past 300 years of composing for the piano, for example, includes thousands examples of incredible creation. We recognize Mozart as a genius, who was also recognized by various Emperors and Counts as good enough composer and performer that they provided a good part of his sustenance throughout his life which allowed him to produce some undeniable masterpieces. We also recognize that Salieri, who also received much support from many of the same figures, was not such a great artist, and did not produce as much great music.

We have a tendency to think that great art will make its mark, no matter what, and point to history to prove our point. But the it is the victors who write history, and the survivors who define the terms.

In the direct example of the Van Cliburn Competition, it is clear that not all the great talents that have passed through that competition have received medals. Nor that all the medalists could be called great talents. But the support system is there, and the talent is there as well, and often the two have met and created something.

And that is the important aspect of patronage, which for me points to both the importance and necessity of private and public (government) patronage, as well as the necessity of both institutional and personal patronage. We need the enthusiasm of the private and of the individual patron. That is the energy that will fuel great passions. We also need the stability and readiness of public and institutional, long-term patronage. We never know when great talent will appear, and the support needs to be ready. One needs to work hard in order to be ready for luck!