Art & Commerce: Godspeed

A good client is worth his weight in lire
It’s the early 1500s. We’re in the Sistene Chapel watching the master, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, at work.
He’s putting the finishing touches on his depiction of Adam, the first man, receiving enlightenment from God with the mere touch of the divine one’s fingertip, truly a momentous occasion in the human experience. It’s a brilliant representation of man’s struggle to define his existence, depicted perfectly with a few horse-hair brushes and colored pigments. And all commissioned by the pope himself.
If successful, it would make a powerful statement about divinity, the Catholic Church and their role in mankind’s development–sort of an ad for God.
Well, in walks Pope Julius. “Michelangelo, your ceiling is late and overbudget,” he says. One of the pope’s cronies, the archbishop of something or other, walks in as well, takes a look at the painting and says, aghast, “Oh, my God. Those figures are naked. We simply cannot have this. Michelangelo, you must put a loincloth over their intimate areas.” His criticism echoes that of many of his contemporaries at the Vatican and in Rome. It seems the first focus group is born.
In disgust, Michelangelo realizes he is at a crossroads. Bowing to pressure, Pope Julius might ask him to change his sublime figures, or worse, shut down the entire project. What could Michelangelo do?
The fate of Michelangelo’s life work was not in his own hands, but in the pope’s. Yes, the great artist had to stand fast in the face of adversity. Yet it would all be for naught if the pope did not stand with him and fight off the naysayers. In the end, the pope would have to champion revolutionary ideas, not Michelangelo.
Pope Julius stood firm. He realized the importance of the work and allowed the great artist to finish his masterpiece unchanged.
It was, to say the least, a huge hit.
Over the centuries, it’s easy to forget that but for a little stamina on the part of Michelangelo, or a bit of courage on the part of Pope Julius, the world might have been robbed of one of its most awe-inspiring paintings.
Instead, millions of people have been touched profoundly by this great work. Media people, can we talk about CPM here?
Now, I don’t mean to imply that our work is always as important as Michelangelo’s, though I might argue that sometimes it is. But there is a parallel to the situation in which he and his papal patron found themselves and our own.
The truth is, great ideas always provoke fear in someone. Always.
The client is usually the one who has to bear the complaints, the tiny voices of doubt, until often, as a colleague of mine puts it, an idea is nibbled to death by ducks. It takes a special person to resist that.
So let us never forget that Michelangelo was a great artist, but he also had a great client.
Thanks to all the Pope Juliuses out there. We can’t do without you. K
David Baldwin is senior vice president and executive creative director at McKinney & Silver in Raleigh, N.C.