Roberta Green Ahmanson
You don’t have a “chat” with Roberta Green Ahmanson; you have an encounter—a full-blast, high-octane immersion into her imagination that will take you on an aerial intellectual tour from Constantinople to Florence, with stopovers in Manhattan and Rome. Given the time she’s spent in Italian churches and museums, it’s perhaps especially fitting to describe Ahmanson as a “renaissance woman.” A journalist-cum-art-historian, Ahmanson, along with her husband Howard, has been behind a variety of culture-making endeavours over the past decade, from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture to the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan. Knowing that Ahmanson is both a student of patronage as well as an active patron, Comment editor Jamie Smith took advantage of an opportunity to spend time with her at a recent meeting of The Gathering, an annual conference for Christian philanthropists. Building from a case study of artistic patronage, their conversation explores some wider lessons for what it means to be cultural caretakers, investing in people and institutions for the common good.
JS: I have two tracks of questions I’d like to explore with you about patronage. The first is about their goals. What is it that patrons have tried to do? In Rome, for example, Caesar Augustus’s goals were actually to change a culture, to shape a culture . . .
RA: And the preservation of the state and public order.
JS: So it was a social and political set of goals. What about the church’s patrons, or the church as patron? What do you think its goals were? Is the Western church commissioning art only for liturgical purposes or are there other “public,” social functions as well?
RA: Well, in so far as the church was a public space . . .
JS: I suppose, right? The cathedral was a public space in a way.
RA: They were massive public spaces. And the whole city was claimed for God. There’s a lot about this in David Mayernik’s book, Timeless Cities: An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy.
JS: In a lot of ways, when we enjoy the treasure trove of the church’s art over the ages, we are really dependent upon, and owe a debt to, past patrons. They’re obviously commissioning works of art. But in a way, aren’t they also selecting artists? So, in a way, do we have to kind of trust their judgment?
RA: The church itself was a patron, and wealthy people were patrons, so that popes who came from wealthy families got to be bigger patrons, like Urban VIII who came from the Barberini— lots of money. But it wasn’t just about money; it was also about witness and worship. Their patronage was a visible manifestation of the great doctrinal consensus of the councils of the church. The art “spoke” the teaching in visual language.
JS: So, in a way, he exercises power and authority that is bound up with his taste. That’s what I’m intrigued by— that, in a way, subsequent generations are so dependent upon the judgments that past patrons have made, right?
RA: Yes, that’s true.
JS: I guess what we don’t know is what they didn’t patronize, because it wouldn’t endure. Maybe we’re missing out on some work that was incredibly beautiful simply because patrons’ tastes didn’t resonate with it at the time.
RA: Think of Urban VIII: he liked the Baroque, but Poussin is the same era. There were patrons in France who liked Poussin, but Poussin wasn’t selling paintings in Rome.
RA: Because that was not the taste in Rome. But he was selling paintings in France.
JS: So there are regional judgments.
RA: But both are beautiful.
JS: Yes, right. And thank God that there were those different tastes—so that we now inherit both. But also thank God there was a diversity of patrons; otherwise we’d have no Poussin.
RA: The patron/artist relationship is a fraught one because it can be trying to dictate what people do. But then it’s because there were patrons who liked what Poussin did that we have his work, and it’s because of Urban VIII that we have a whole lot of stuff. He finished Saint Peter’s among other things.
JS: Do you think these patrons had a sense of responsibility to subsequent generations?
RA: I think that some of the papal patrons certainly did. And the people building the early churches were building for eternity and they understood the church to be a foretaste of the New Jerusalem. In those first churches, they took the basilica form, but they also innovated on that form. The exteriors were brick, simple, because you need to set them off from Augustus, from the grandeur of Rome. But the interiors were beautiful and it was a theological point being made—in that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully Man, so the outside is fully Man and the inside is fully God.
They had to look different from the Roman building because Christians needed to set themselves apart from society in the message that they were giving: we are not the Roman temple. This is a church. It’s not a temple. So they didn’t design them to look like Roman temples, not at all.
JS: They were marking what George Weigel [in Letters to a Young Catholic] calls “the Christian difference” in their architecture.
RA: Absolutely, absolutely.
JS: And the exterior says something about humility and humanity.
RA: Yes, and the interior’s . . .
JS: And the interior is heaven.
RA: You got the glory of God and on Sunday you went to the New Jerusalem and you worshipped and you were singing with the angels and exalting the beauty and the glory and grandeur of God. But you were also learning how to take the New Jerusalem principles, the New Jerusalem life, and begin to make it real in the world around you when you got up on Monday morning. It’s a wonderful vision.
And then Charlemagne built the church in Aachen, which is a literal three-dimensional icon of the New Jerusalem, right down to the measurements, everything.
JS: It sort of reminds me of Rich Mouw’s point in his book, When the Kings Come Marching In, that when the kingdom comes, all that is in accord with what God desires for the world gets sort of taken up into the New Jerusalem on “the ships of Tarshish” as it were [Isaiah 60:9]. They weren’t building something that was going to burn up.
RA: No, it would be as a lasting icon. As those buildings are.
RA: Then you get the pilgrim churches that come later, the Romanesque-era pilgrim churches and the . . . just the wonderful pilgrim churches in France (and France was the heart of the church in that era).
JS: These are, what, churches on pilgrimage routes or . . . ?
RA: Well, a lot of them are and or they were pilgrimage destinations. So behind the altar was the relic of the saint—whoever it was—and then the church was structured for the pilgrims and it also was a model of the journey of life. Consider, for example, the church that arose around the relics of Saint Saturninus, who was martyred in Toulous in 250 under Decius. First there’s a smaller church on the site of his martyrdom and then down a few blocks, they built this huge pilgrim church and next to it is the almshouse and next to that was the hospital and across the piazza was the school because, hey, we’re working on the New Jerusalem here!
JS: Right, this is the centre of the city.
RA: And the city itself was a sacred space. You did the pilgrimage between the churches and you’re claiming the whole city for God. They were clear about this stuff. So the investment of patrons in the building of these pilgrim churches was also an investment in the common good, in claiming “all things” for Christ.
JS: Let’s shift gears just a little bit. I’m interested in thinking about patronage beyond art, although art is so clearly a case study. You could then start to think about all kinds of cultural endeavours for which there has been patronage or there are patrons. But I wonder, do you think it’s fair to say that, in a way, patronage is needed where the rules of the market are suspended?
Here’s what I mean; let me try this out: Patronage supports the creation of cultural goods that couldn’t be commercially successful. Is that a mistaken idea? Because otherwise, why would you need patrons? Couldn’t you just sort of entrust things to the processes of the marketplace? So, whatever the cultural good is that you’re producing, couldn’t it be something that in a way is made possible because you insert yourself into different economies of exchange?
So, for example, the kind of art that James Patterson writes in his novels (he seems to crank one out every other week!)—those sorts of cultural products don’t need a patron because they are so commercially successful. But the artists we’ve been talking about, doing the kind of art they’re doing, needed patrons because they couldn’t play on the market.
I don’t know. I’m thinking out loud and I’m wondering what you think of such a thesis.
RA: It’s a tough one. Because there’s the Dutch example [in art history]. I mean they were wealthy people who bought the art, but that’s late in the game.
JS: So in that sense it’s a “market?”
RA: There was already an art market in the Roman world and there was an art market in the Greek world . . . sort of statues for your atrium and such.
JS: Okay, so we’ve got these Roman patricians or Dutch burghers who were showing that they’ve arrived by having these paintings—why don’t we call them “customers” now instead of patrons?
Maybe this is a boring line of questions but I kind of . . .
RA: No, no, it’s not. Up until you get to ways of reproducing art, art was a luxury item (for lack of a better word) because it was expensive. Caravaggio didn’t paint those paintings in twenty minutes, and so you couldn’t paint fast enough to make a living. So he lived with wealthy families like the Colonnas and the Colonnas protected him after he killed a guy and fled Rome. He went to Naples and stayed with the Colonnas for a while and that’s when he painted the first of the later and final years’ paintings.
They had studios and they had patrons. If you had a good artist living with you, well, that was like a feather in your cap, and the Barberini picked well. They liked Bernini.
But anyway, I think we need to recognize that good can come even from mixed motives. Some did it for the glory of God. Some people did it to show how good their taste was, how wealthy they were. Augustus did it to transform a culture.
JS: So how does one become that kind of a person? In other words, now you’ve got me thinking: patrons who are building for eternity need to have wisdom, insight, judgment, critical capacities, and a long-term vision. And for Christians, that long-term vision ultimately has to have eternity in view. Do you and Howard sort of “school” yourself? How does one learn to be a patron?
RA: You first need to develop an expanded sense of what it means to do God’s work in the world. Dietrich Von Hildebrand has something to say about that. Some people think you should only give your money to feed the hungry or heal the sick or whatever. He doesn’t say that we shouldn’t do that, he just says that you’re missing part of the story—that that’s not the whole deal.
If you don’t understand that beauty is important too, then you’re giving to those other good things—well, he calls it cynical and hard and dry and he uses Cana as the example. I mean, what’s the first miracle Jesus does?
Does he heal the sick, make the blind see, cast out demons, feed the hungry, get water for the thirsty? No, no, what does he do? He’s making more wine for a party where they probably already had plenty. So there goes the “luxury” critique!
Instead, Von Hildebrand calls it the superabundance of God. The point at Cana, the point in this extravagance, is joy. Jesus was showing everyone why we heal the sick and feed the hungry—so that they and we can enter into joy.
You can find something similar in John Calvin. Some place he asks, how do you know God’s wonderful, or something like that? The answer, he says, is: “Well, it’s because God made pears…” We had apples; we don’t need pears. It’s just extra. It’s an add on. God gives you more. You’ve got apples. But you also get pears. [laughter] You get oranges. You get all this stuff, you know. You don’t need all those. But God gives them anyway.
JS: Thank God, God is not frugal.
RA: Right. God could have gotten away with a lot fewer fruits, you know what I mean? And that’s what Von Hildebrand calls the principle of superabundance. God is extravagant.
JS: It seems to me that this fits the way you and Howard are involved in different culture-making endeavours. In some ways, it’s rooted in an incessant curiosity that probably continues to actually shape your imagination so that it would then also inform the kind of decisions you make as patrons. Is that fair to say?
RA: Yes, but I hope it’s also the hunger and thirst after God. I know I’m not going to live long enough to learn all the things I want to learn, and the Christian life is a constant growing, learning thing. That’s what it is. It is a pilgrimage. So I hope our patronage is “on the way,” is caught up in the pilgrimage we’re on.
JS: We usually think of patrons and patronage as the province of people “of means,” so to speak, and that’s been true historically. But is there any wider lesson about patronage—about the unique exercise of cultural responsibility we call “patronage” that all of us could learn from?
RA: My husband says that each one of us, everybody on the planet, is called to be a philanthropist and that even the poorest of the poor can help somebody. Even if you don’t have a lot of money, you can give something. We are all called to be philanthropists because we are all recipients of God’s love.
JS: But cultural patronage is a unique kind of philanthropy where the patron is, in a way, envisioning a future and is seeking to empower others to be able to bring about institutions that embody that future.
RA: Have you ever heard of Dorothy and Herman Vogel? A remarkable couple. They were not extremely wealthy, both civil servants in New York in the late twentieth century. But they collected all the best artists of the twentieth century. They got to know them. They bought prints, and then some original pieces from their friends.
RA: They both worked and they spent all their money on art and the apartment was just literally plastered with it. Now it’s one of the best collections of modern art in the country. I think it’s a good example of how almost anyone with a commitment to certain priorities can be a cultural “patron.” Most people who are above poverty can go to a concert. You can go to an art museum. You can join a committee. You can take other people. You can do all kinds of things.
You can do something to improve your church, to think about how the place looks and what that says. Von Hildebrand’s very clear that our church buildings make a statement and it’s important that we not neglect that.
JS: And you can have that same longterm vision in doing so and think of it not just as a way to entertaining myself but as a way of investing in the production of cultural goods that have enduring life. In that case, I guess I do need to be discerning, don’t I?
RA: Yes, and you’re constantly being educated, you know, by looking. When I was at Calvin College in January, and I met with a class to talk about contemporary art, one young woman, I guess she was a science major of some kind, asked: “Well, what if art is something you don’t really get and you have no clue, what do you do?”
And I said, well, you’ve got to look a lot. You’ve got to look a lot. You just look. You go and you look and you think and then you read and you look and your taste and perception will change and grow. It’s like anything; you’ve got to look a lot.
JS: And there’s a certain submission in that process, one where you say, “Obviously, there’s something here I don’t understand.” So there’s a certain humility that you have to bring to the experience.
RA: Well, even myself. I mean, I don’t know how great my taste is, you know. [laughter] But . . . but I think it’s pretty good. It’s certainly grown.
JS: Well, you exude the perpetual student though. But that’s also what you’re saying; that actually is what makes you be able to hone your discernment.
RA: Yeah. I hope I will still have that curiosity on my deathbed. I want to die reading something. [Laughter]
JS: I can’t imagine you not!
RA: Well, Augustine wrote right up to ten days before he died and then he said, I’m going in this room and leave me alone except to bring me water and whatever food . . . because I just want to spend the rest of this time with God. He didn’t know it was ten days but he knew it was getting close and must have had a sense. Meanwhile the Vandals are breaking down the city. Let’s not underestimate the power of spending time with God when the vandals overrun us. After all, we’re still reading his City of God.
JS: A good book to be reading when you die!