“Metaphor is the dreamwork of language and, like all dreamwork, its interpretation reflects as much on the interpreter as on the originator”
Donald Davidson “What Metaphors Mean”
What is a metaphor? Without quoting the wikipedia article, one can say that in language metaphors are used to “replace” an object by another, and by doing so, create a literary or poetic effect in which new meaning is bestowed on the subject of the metaphor. This new meaning can have many uses, but in the case of this article we are focused on the cases where an object’s value is “increased” by the use of a metaphor.
It’s important to clarify this because when one lives in a linguistic universe where the word “like” is used in almost every sentence, it becomes clear that metaphors are a form of commitment to meaning. When we say things such as “She was like, great” we are avoiding to commit to an opinion about a person’s “greatness” (she was just “like” great, i.e “kind of” great). This “weak link” or refusal to own certain definitions is a staple of the contemporary English language and has a lot to say about contemporary engagement with the world, but that would be the topic of a different article. What I want to explore here is how the use of a metaphor, in this case a strong connection between two objects, misleads us by changing reality to the disadvantage of both the subject of the metaphor and the people the metaphor is served to.
A few years ago I stumbled upon an interview that a friend was giving to Advertising Week about his company, Sub Rosa. I was listening, quite impressed by what Michael Ventura described as his company’s response to marketing briefs by the likes of Levi’s and GE. But then this moment happened, and my jaw dropped. Michael’s business is a successful creative problem-solving agency that employs a good amount of designers, art directors, creative directors etc... But what led him to make the parallel between brands and the Medici family? This didn’t feel quite right, in fact, it felt like a way to create a smoke screen around the potentially oppressive feeling creatives might endure when working with large companies. Anybody who has done it knows that the process can be gruesome and most often bestows a sense of void and purposelessness. I have since then heard this metaphor used several times in the creative industry and decided at some point I needed to work on debunking it.
Last year I was sitting in the studio of the highly talented Matthew Schreiber, and a journalist from the now defunct Interview Magazine, with whom we were discussing Matthew’s then-upcoming installation at the Day For Night Festival. The journalist asked what we thought of Neville Wakefield’s recent interview in ArtNet, in which he described the brands that commission artist work as today’s equivalent to the Medici family. Taken aback, I realized I couldn’t formulate a coherent answer to that question, aside from express extreme resistance. The following is an attempt at unpacking that resistance, but also to look for a different model, not one that refers to a century old cliche.
If saying “Brands are today’s Medici” is making use of a metaphor, it is in fact a nested metaphor. “Medici” here unpacks to “patron”, meaning any wealthy individual or organization that employs an artist, scientist, musician or otherwise talented woman or man to advance some goals that would be otherwise out of his/her reach, but also work to the benefit of the patron. During the Renaissance, the Medici were far from the only patrons. Various guilds, the church, monasteries, municipalities, and all types of private or public organizations used patronage to bring to life the projects that required talent, experience and time.
But despite the prevalence of patronage as a practice, the Medici are known to have commissioned the largest amount of work, and from the most prestigious artists. For them art was a way to cement power, and to ensure posterity. The end goal of a successful commissioned piece of work was to create an equivalence between patron and the forces of history, not just by association, but sometimes by directly embedding symbols pertaining to the patron in the work. It is well known that the Medici family rose to power through their savvy use of accounting (which was previously a messy practice to say the least). Their genius was to find the successful interplay of money, power and public influence. In other words, their wealth lead to their political power, which was in turn cemented by their huge investment in the beautification and artistic elevation of their society. Arts, politics and money in their most aesthetically pleasing entanglement.
The relationship between patron and artist was not a quickie. Cosimo de Medici created an arts academy to train artists, the best of which would be bestowed with his generosity. It is said that Lorenzo de Medici spotted Michelangelo when he was 15 and treated him almost as a member of the family since then. Time was certainly perceived differently then, but aside from the time artists were given to develop their works, there was also a sense of eternity and timelessness associated with the works. The Medici, and other patrons certainly thought of the works they were commissioning as posterity oriented, keeping their names at the center of everyone’s mind for times to come. The fact that I’m writing this article without taking the time to describe who the Medici were is a testament to their success.
So given this cursory description of the goals of patronage in the Renaissance, what doesn’t fit the picture in today’s practice?
As previously stated, we have a different sense of time today. Things move faster, that much is obvious. But when we say brands act as “patrons”, what we see in reality are commissions that are mostly based around product cycles. In the worst of cases, an artist or designer’s work will be commissioned for an event and then trashed, in the best of cases it will stay up and center for a few weeks, rarely more. And here I don’t count things such as murals or lobby installations in corporate offices, which are really a way for a corporation to signal its identity rather than put forward its relationship with artists. In other words, corporations will turn to artists to fill their atriums with objects that serve as a patina to their brands and power.
Another thing we don’t see is nurturing. There are some enlightened companies that will host artists for long periods to develop work with their products, but those are few and far between. When brands hire curators to find artists to work with, they are not interested in a promising art student who’s practice they will nurture for 5 to 10 years so (s)he can produce works that will elevate the brand at a future time. The goal is usually to produce something in a short timeline, and exhibit it to a targeted crowd and then get rid of it. Neville Wakefield uses the example of Nike donating Ernesto Neto’s work to Inhotim, which is a beautiful exhibition space most people can’t afford to go to and that also happens to be in Neto’s homeland.
But is it worth doubting the value of the Medici metaphor? Metaphors are usually created because they aren’t exact equivalences. They bring to the subject (the corporation) the “feeling” of the object (the Medici), but don’t say they are equivalent. So why the fuss?
Sure. But there is a quasi-subversive intention in the use of the word “Medici”. As I mentioned, when Michael Ventura uses the metaphor, he is in fact trying to elevate a practice that can be perceived as somewhat short-lived to the more ethereal and valuable level of the so-called “fine arts”. If you are a graphic designer designing a logo for a product that will disappear in six months, but the client is asking you for hundreds of minuscule revisions, you start wondering what the hell you are doing, and we all know that. There is an absurdity in the process, a disconnect all creatives feel when they have to bend their ideas to the sometimes mind-numbing request of an overly anal client. So saying the client is your Lorenzo de Medici is likely to make you feel better - if you aren’t a highly sarcastic human being.
In the ArtNet piece, Neville Wakefield is speaking to a group of advertisers. We know what advertising is…Do we need to glorify it? Probably not. Wakefield reminds us that “There’s a danger of entering an air of impurity because there’s commercial patronage”, but he dismisses it. This “air of impurity” comes from the fact that artists don’t really like to be told what to produce. So the trick is to not tell them, just tell them to do what they usually do, and then dress it as “patronage”, take the check and call it a day. Art galleries do that all the time, if an artist’s piece sells, make more! The collectors want that piece, but can you make it blue? So for the artists this is just part of the real world, call it a brand, a collector, it’s just the biz.
For some artists, however, the problem presents itself with more acuteness, as in when you are reminded of certain brand’s behavior in the social, ecological, or cultural spheres. In this tweet, Kyle McDonald poses a question (which gets the Medici metaphor in one of the comments) that is coming from a place of caution towards the “corporate agenda”, considering the brands as some amorphous entity that has potentially evil intentions. We know brands have done bad things, and we often love to criticize the way corporations are legally protected as people, but we also conveniently forget that brands are also people, and that one project you might do with, say, Facebook could be done with a group of people who are far removed from the core algorithms as we are from the Medici (in time at least).
“Whether out of political conviction or paranoia, elements of the art-world tend to see latent fascist aesthetics in any liason with giant industries; it is permissible to have your fabrication done by a local sheet-metal shop, but not by Hewlett-Packard.” Jack Burnham in Artforum, Oct 1971
We want to see art as autonomous, as the artist functioning outside of the parameters of the society he has the freedom to criticize. We see the artist as a sort of free agent, and that freedom was won by extracting art from the sphere of utility.
“Under the regime of artistic freedom, every artist has a sovereign right to make art exclusively according to private imagination. The sovereign decision to make art in this or that way is generally accepted by Western liberal society as a sufficient reason for assuming an artist’s practice to be legitimate.” Boris Groy — Politics of Installation — E-Flux Journal Volume 3
However we know today that this freedom is somewhat of an illusion, or, at best, a constant tension, being re-evaluated as we see the tentacles of power, money and cultural authority manipulating the evolution of art practices through mechanisms few understand or care about (or just too often classify it under as the mechanics of capitalism and quote the relevant paragraph from “Das Kapital”)
My point here is not to enter into a critique of capitalism and the necessary relationship between creatives/artists and brands/corporations. I make a living thanks to this relationship. I also see it working surprisingly well in a variety of occasions. But one thing I’ve never thought of doing is calling clients “patrons”. In fact the word “client” works quite well (it is also etymologically very close to the word “patron”). We can develop all kinds of relationships with clients : in some they trust you, they give you freedom, they rely on your expertise and are willing to go the extra mile to get you to do your best work. In others they are thick and clueless and hinder your progress out of ignorance of your practice and a sense of insecurity. And all the shades of grey in between.
So what’s the big deal? The power of misconceptions, to put it simply.
Metaphors are not culturally neutral; those that achieve circulation do so because they are consistent with the values of the culture. Furthermore, metaphors reinforce themselves; metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies. Anna Everett, John T. Caldwell — “New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality”
Here the name “Medici” becomes a mask. So let’s create a new metaphor : a masked ball in which we are all disguised (designers as artists, artists as demi-gods, brands as patrons). Unsure of who we are dealing with, we would be engaging in all kinds of fake relationships, perfectly suited for a real masked ball, but not for a the subject of this imaginary metaphor, the real world of financial/creative exchanges.
When you start attributing to a brand who is in the business of selling apparel the status of a historical family who used a large amount of its resources to create intemporal artworks glorifying itself and the artists it hired for eternity, you either give the brand too much credibility (and justify all kinds of sacrifices an artist might be inclined to make to enter that imaginary, privileged, relationship) or you paint them as power hungry brokers who use the arts as a way to cement their legacy into the future. I don’t think either of those pictures sticks in our contemporary landscape. The nature of the relationship is dynamic, an exchange at multiple levels, for long or short term gain, that follows rules that change with the shifting cultural winds.
Maybe it is time for a new metaphor, one that explores the huge complexity of the financial/value exchanges that occur in the system of creative/pecuniary trading, something that would allow designers to not be misled, artists to know what they are dealing with, and clients to engage into meaningful relationships. This metaphor would suppose an environment where energies are changing by the minute, where identities and practices are fluid, and where nothing is at it seems at first glance. I’m going to start thinking of a few.