On donating – Artworks by peterfuchs
September 22, 2008, 1:37 pm
Filed under: Art as Gift Research blog | Tags:
The donor Francesco Sassetti with his son on the main mural of the Sassetti Chapel, Florance

The donor Francesco Sassetti with his son on the main mural of the Sassetti Chapel, Florance by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The “gift” is an item or action which is offered with not asking compensation in return.
An “artwork” is an artificial object – as the objects created by the nature are can not considered to to be artworks, according to Hegel, unless they implement an element of mind (human), which in fact means that human intervention is needed, at least on a conceptual level to annotate these items as artworks:

(…) For it is possible even for finite nature, in its particular scenes and phenomena, to make its appearance in the realm of art, if only some allusion to an element of mind endows it with affinity to thought and feeling. (Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, Part III, from )

Therefore “artwork gifts” are highly precious objects which needs a high level of human artifice skill to produce (skill and talent) and are donated as gifts. I am writing about discrete artworks now, and excluding the notion of artworks which deliberately made for a purpose,  for example advertisements of any kind.

Let’s see three different kind of donations on the framework of art(works) and donating.

  1. Donating art as a personal gift: Like any other commodity, the work of a craftsman is transferred from one owner to another. Either be the creator (artist) to the receiver, or by a third party to the receiver with adequate compensation to the craftsman. An ornate wedding ring, or a portrait might be a good example.  Please consider that these objects has a purpose, they remind the receiver to whom they got the “gift” from.
  2. Donating art to the public: The same exchange as above, but without a single receiver as such, for example a legal body (state) decides to commission a craftsman to decorate a public area.  The commissioner ask nothing in return from the receiver, and in most cases the creator of the artwork is compensated. Any 19th century public monument of public space (public gardens, parks etc.) might do.
  3. Donating art as a form of representation: It is possible to do the above (ie: donating to the public as a gift), but in the same time involve a form of exchange. The commissioner-giver, gets something in return what is special to a highly detailed and precious object can offer: attention. As an artwork is a discrete  object, a singular work of craftsmanship which holds an unique message, as it is a focus of all attention in the art world. For example a significant mural, which holds a large degree of craftsmanship and innovative power, commissioned by a wealthy giver, who can afford to do so. In this case the gift receives a new layer of understanding: it is free, but helps the personal interest of those who made it possible to exist.

What makes this third kind of exchange really interesting is its uniqueness to art. Why would anyone create or commision any object without compensation and make it public? Unless he/she is not obliged to represent him/herself in any other way. And here becomes the question really interesting:

What makes a wealthy dutch family to appear with the holy image of Christ, not as family with the estate in the background? What makes an influential Italian banker to not make a portrait, rather be represented on one of the most progressive and fascinating mural of the times? In some extent the question implements the answer. By commissioning the artwork from Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the most progressive artist of its time, the former CEO of the Medici Bank Francesco Sassetti archived much more then he ever could with any advertisement, he donated a chapel, the world famous Sassetti Chapel to the city of Florance and archived immortality by this artwork – that’s something a simple portrait form the same master, or by a lesser and much less expensive painter – could never achieve (even trough there are portraits which had the similar status, but this does not mean that those images were not related to similar exchanges, take Piero Della Francesca and his portraits and work in Urbino as an example).

Christ Blessing, Surrounded by a Donor and His Family (Triptych of a Protestant Family), ca. 1575–80

Christ Blessing, Surrounded by a Donor and His Family (Triptych of a Protestant Family), ca. 1575–80

In the case of the Sassetti Chapel, we might assume, that elaborate rules of social representation and engagement were in the background of such donation, but in the case of  Ludger tom Ring the Younger’s work, the Christ Blessing, Surrounded by a Donor and His Family (Triptych of a Protestant Family), ca. 1575–80 we might assume that the protestant attitude towards self-representation was the fuel of such way of illustration. This image is a strange mixture of representations: as it is either can be interpreted as a sacral image with an assorted family portrait, or a family portrait with an assorted sacral image. If we consider the year of the making of this artwork, a transition period of both religious history and art history we might find out that the portrait might served both functions – not too sacral for being abolished from a protestant point of view, and not too worldly for a catholic system of thinking about representation. By the way, the later makes it a gift: as it is an altarpiece to a public church, which church might be lingering in between identities I think.

Imagine the same nowadays, a fine work by a contemporary artist with the donor on it: a wealthy banker or CEO in a performance, or sitting in an installation. Could this be possible?


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