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The Burgundian Court and the Urban milieu as patrons in 15th century Bruges

The Burgundian Court and the Urban milieu as patrons in 15th century Bruges

By W.P. Blockmans

Economic History and the Arts, edited by M. North (Cologne, 1996)

Introduction: The relationship between art and society belongs to the most ferociously debated issues in history. We should not be too surprised about the difficulty of bridging the gap between ars et ratio: we have to attempt to make artistic taste and freedom rationally comprehensible, but we must be on our guard against over-rationalising. After all, emotions and sensibilities have their place in Western society, however rational it may consider itself to be. While it had been commonly accepted that artistic production developed generally during periods of economic well-being, the famous economic historian Robert Lopez inverted this correlation by stating more than forty years ago that ‘hard times’ furthered ‘Investment in culture’. Every detail of nis argument has been scrutinized since then. Economic historians diversifled their concepts of business trends but retained the overall notion of an ‘age of depression’ as applied to the Late Middle Ages in Europe at large. Regional developments previously viewed as contradictory are now often seen as complementary: shifts of activities created depression in one region but growth in another.

The question of the relation between economy and culture is more complex. In a thorough evaluation of the matter, the economic historian Wilfrid Brulez concluded that the whole discussion rested on a ‘faux problème’, i.e. posed the problem in the wrong way. In this paper, I will argue that, indeed, a solid analysis requires more than a crude correlation between general business trends and Investment in culture. In fact, the reduction of the problem of artistic production to one of investment strategy, is simply unacceptable.

Other factors, such as the structure of production and demand have to be considered as well. These imply notions of the form and function of the products, which are related to values and taste. Not only economic, but also social, political and cultural dimensions are required for an adequate theory of the relation between art, economy and society. Leaving aside these aspects cripples any discussion on the factors influencing artistic production. The tendency of some economic historians and sociologists towards such a reductionist approach explains the limited response they received from art historians. However, since the questions raised are absolutely fundamental, we cannot leave the discussion as it now stands. Historians have to refine their questions; art historians have to enter into matters of market and patronage. We in particular have to try to bring the two approaches closer together. I will concentrate on 15th century Bruges, the core of the north-western economie system at that time and undoubtedly also the most proliferous and diversified artistic production centre.

The central question thus is whether the city’s economie function helps to explain its role as the most international market for artistic products north of the Alps. I will try to evaluate the relative share in artistic patronage between the court, the local elites and foreign merchants. This social and institutional dimension was, on the whole, neglected by previous economic historians dealing with the subject, while art historians tended to deal with it only on an individual basis, in relation to one artist, patron or object.

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