In its end-of-the-year roundup of “11 Ways to Be a Better Person in 2017,” the New York Times offered this top tip: “Live Like Bill.” The article elaborated:

No one treasured his independence more than the late, great photographer Bill Cunningham. Live by his immortal words. “Once people own you,” he said, “they can tell you what to do. So don’t let ’em.”1

Once people own you…

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot lately. As an artist, who owns me? How does one become owned? Is there an upside to being owned artistically, and am I aware (enough) of the downside?

Of course, there’s been patronage in the arts for centuries. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Renoir, John Singer Sargent, Botticelli, Rafael (to name just the most obvious): all relied on patrons. In most cases, it was an entirely formal affair:

Whatever way a patron was commissioning an artist, there was always a formal contract written and signed, concerning the money and job for the artist. Artists of a lower status usually held this contract without breaking it, knowing that this was probably the only way to make a name for themselves. However, as an artist rose in respect and reputation, they would be more likely to break a contract for more money, a better opportunity, or more acceptable terms. This power struggle led to conflict between artists and their patrons. As Michelangelo wrote, “One cannot live under pressure from patrons, let alone paint.”2

Sigh. And there it is. One cannot live under pressure from patrons, let alone paint.

But wait! They did paint. And it was pretty good, their work, although there are countless stories of dissatisfied patrons. (Apparently Gilbert Stuart, famous portraitist of George Washington, once replied to a client’s complaint regarding his wife’s portrait: “You brought me a potato, and you expect a peach!” Again, sigh. We’ll try to get past the readiness of men to compare women to tubers and fruit.)

I suppose we could spend some time on a lazy Sunday wondering what Michelangelo might have painted if he hadn’t been born the son of a failed banker and thus forced to rely on the florens of the Medicis.

But instead my mind jumps to Virginia Woolf stating, baldly, that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…” In fact, Woolf goes so far as to say that a woman must have five hundred pounds per annum of secured income of her own in order to create art. The money must be unencumbered. She must owe nothing to anyone. Hmmm. She wrote this in 1929. Is it true today?

I am a woman. I write fiction. I do not have any unearned income. I support myself and my family. So…

Who owns me?

There’s a song in the musical Hamilton in which Jefferson, Burr and Madison plot to ferret out Hamilton’s supposed misconduct:

Look in his eyes!
See how he lies.
Follow the scent of his enterprise.

Let’s follow the money and see where it goes,
Because every second the Treasury grows.
If we follow the money and see where it leads,
Get in the weeds, look for the seeds of
Hamilton’s misdeeds.

In the end, I wonder if it’s as simple as following the scent of one’s enterprise. The person who owns is the one who has the money. The person who is owned is the one who conforms, who responds to the demands of others, who acquiesces—to keep the money flowing.

Artists? Who owns you?

And can we all live like Bill, and not let ’em?