A large portion of modern society has it’s roots in the Renaissance. It was the age in human history where, among other things, appreciation of reason and classical teaching was uplifted, the bold ideas and ideals of humanism took root, and of course what was perhaps the peak of the patronage culture. Unfortunately while many aspects of that age affected modern culture the element that made much of it possible has mysteriously vanished. For hundreds of years the concept of patronage that had previously been invaluable to science and art alike was nowhere to be found in society.
However, fueled by a wave of new factors we are once again beginning to see the return of the patron culture. A few of these factors I intend to explore in this article. What makes this return so curious is just how much is different about it while still retaining both the essence of patronage and the same end goals. Permit me to explain. In the original time of patronage, the goal of being a patron had a twofold benefit to the patron: It would benefit the city or country they lived in, and it would boost the prowess/social standing of the individual. During the era this was most common the average person wouldn’t dream of going and getting a piece of art commissioned or a public works project completed. Such matters were outside of their control from a monetary and social standpoint which meant that it fell upon the merchant class and above to actual patronize art and science. It gave them a way to benefit the community as well as add to their family or city’s prestige. It is understandable then why the concept of patronage fell out of popular use during the latter Reformation and stayed so.
What is so fascinating about patronage now is the fact that it is democratized. Instead of simply a higher class footing the bill for projects of art and science, we have seen with the rise of the internet a new type of patron: the everyday person. What used to require one or two nobles to fund can and indeed is being done now with the help of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people all supporting whatever venture they deem worthy of supporting for a public good. Fan of an indie movie creator on a popular video platform? Subscribe to their donation platform for what would get you a cup of coffee. Enjoying a thriller podcast original series? Same thing. From TV shows to movies to software to art to scientific research many people are beginning to turn their attention and funds to supporting those creators personally; becoming their patrons.
It is this new version of patronage that is allowing for many experiences and projects previously impossible without a centralized backing of some sort. For example consider how many full scale TV shows are being created, produced, and distributed online with nothing more than the blessing of a few thousand people patronizing that creator. Two such examples are In Space with Markiplier and Helluva Boss. Both examples had patrons of the thousands and viewership well into the millions which have redefined what people thought was possible for indie creators. Both have studio level quality but were retained entirely by their respective creators. I would say any confidence people had that the current paradigm of TV and cinema was untouchable has been thoroughly shaken.
The video industry is just one of many feeling the impact of democratized funding. In fact I would have trouble naming an industry that has yet to feel the pressure from patron culture. Part of the reason we are seeing such a strong return to this is the result of yet another idea that was rejected by the Industrialist Era: the Open Source movement. The internet has allowed for the novel idea of creations in art, science, and more being free to use. One such project people patronize is the Open Insulin project, which has the stated goal of researching and creating a version of Insulin that will be free to create, distribute, and improve on, taking away the monopoly several patent holding drug companies retain to this day. What has become a dominant theme with the internet is the fact that information is and will hopefully forever be free to access. The open source moment embraces this and shares its ethos which is arguably why it has slowly been gaining dominance and popularity in recent years. This translates over to patron culture beautifully because at it’s heart patronizing has always been about making something everyone can enjoy, even if they didn’t pay for it initially. The artist creates a work on behalf of the patrons and after that the work itself becomes freely available for people to consume. It is a rare win-win scenario for all those involved.
As a final reason for the rise of the patron culture, people are now beginning to realize that they don’t have to just pay to watch a movie and hope they like it. Instead they can support someone who cares about project not profit and get to see exactly what they want for the money spent. They can be a part of the creation of whatever project, or even help as is the case with many open source projects. No longer do people have to simply hope a movie or show is good as they go to watch it because they know that there was either demand for it (a project nobody wants to see wouldn’t be funded) or they themselves had a hand in helping get it to the screen.
Ultimately I do think it is a good thing that patronage has begun its own little renaissance. While I have written before about the end of creativity based jobs (and will probably do so again in the future) ultimately there is something about patronage that sets it into a distinct category of its own: Humanity. Corporations have everything to lose and much to gain by implementing methods that churn out more endless content to the masses as a product. Since AI will make this cheaper than people eventually I suspect many if not all movie companies will simply become AI licensing firms and vocal/deep fake IP banks. They are in a sense already inhuman, while patron based art is and will continue to be a celebration of one person or groups’ creativity. People don’t support artists and all other manor of projects because they expect content to be produced like a factory. People support them for the person and the dream they have. They support them because they know there is a connection between that person and whatever they are creating that means infinitely more than anything a company can soullessly grind out. They support them for their individuality. That connection, that individuality, that humanity is something no algorithm can replicate.