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This morning I’m considering some important thoughts in the Wall Street Journal by Terry Teachout, in response to Bill Gates, who “questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. ‘The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,’ [Gates] says.”

Teachout responds, in part, with: “I especially like what Somerset Maugham said in his novel ‘Cakes and Ale’: ‘Beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger.’ So it is, and sooner or later most of us will long for it as we do for food. What could be more honorable than for a rich person to help satisfy that hunger in the same way that he might underwrite the operation of a food bank?”

What do you think? Is it significant/problematic that some philanthropists see this as a true dichotomy, and side with medical research every time to the exclusion of the arts? (To many of us, the answer should be a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” but some people with great influence simply don’t see it that way.)

Friends in the arts (and others): Do you feel that we’re beyond having to justify why the arts deserve resources, or explaining the value of the arts in the context of human flourishing? Or are you up for the fight? If so, how? What do you say, and what resources do you use, when thinking through these questions with, for example, students who are encountering them for the first time?

I’ll offer up a few items that I teach every year that I think powerfully demonstrate the real-world value of the arts and humanities:

1) Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1994), an epic masterpiece which shows, among many other things, the impact on identity when personal stories (writings, pictures, artwork) are systematically and violently erased and replaced by an institutionally sanctioned narrative (Mao’s Little Red Book, images of Mao Zedong), thereby causing us to reconsider the relationships between art and beauty and truth and their roles in our lives.

2) The 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa, based on Lynn H. Nicholas’ book. The film confronts the Nazi plundering of the great art of Europe, and the extreme efforts taken to preserve and protect the artistic heritage of European nations against the backdrop of war. The film offers so many poignant moments, not the least of which are the tears of joy shed by the Florentine people when, after the Allied victory, a truck containing Florence’s stolen masterpieces returns to the city to bring home some of its art. Clearly the works meant something deeply important to the people, something inextricably related to who they were as individuals and as a community, a city, and a nation. “Art is what makes us human,” one woman says. That’s a statement that deserves a clear-eyed look from anyone, regardless of views on philanthropic giving.

3) Azar Nafisi’s 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, which shows perhaps better than any contemporary work I can think of the real-world value of art to bring meaning to the lives of those suffering under an oppressive regime. I read it and teach it as a companion to The Thousand and One Nights, the frame story of which gives us one of the great heroes in all of art: Scheherazade, who demonstrates the power of story more completely than perhaps any character in literature.

4) This brief but wonderful Open Letter to SUNY Albany, in which a biochemist takes a university president to task for his short-sighted utilitarian view of the arts and humanities. The letter brings up many significant ideas about what it means for humans to flourish, capturing succinctly the well-known contributions of the arts and humanities to provide the best answers not just for what we are but for how we live, and why.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


8 Replies to “How should we then live?”

  1. It was interesting reading this because I still struggle with the question. Personally, I do donate much more to hunger/medical causes than artistic ones (although I support a few literary organizations I find essential). But I don’t want a world of well-fed and healthy people who are spiritually starved. I can’t think of any resources, and I know this is probably a gross generalization, but aren’t the arts more deeply woven into the lives of people in areas where physical suffering is the worst? Aren’t we in the “developed world” choosing to remove creative expression from our lives?

  2. Thanks, Tania. I actually tend to give more to arts organizations. I think this is because, while I don’t usually see physically sick people, I see a huge number of people in my life who are sick in a number of other ways: emotionally and spiritually and imaginatively. Some of them have plenty of material resources–some have, in fact, “gained the whole world”…but they’ve also “lost their own souls.” And the arts definitively help them get their humanity back, and enter into healthier relationships with the people around them–including helping the poor and sick.

    I turn to Enuma Okoro, who says, “Good art points beyond itself and helps us recognize the human condition and the divine intrusion while calling us to more faithful relationship with the world, relationship that witnesses to the hope and redemption found in the Triune God and offered to us through Christ, the incarnate image that redeems all images grasping for God. In this way art can be a powerful source of truth-telling, sometimes even uncovering the stories we would rather forget.”

    So…I feel a strong sense of personal calling to extol the power of the arts in the lives of people who are in need of different types of healing. Not sure if the arts are more “deeply woven into the lives” of those who suffer physically, though it seems that can be true in some instances. I hope and pray that those who suffer the worst can get both physical/medical aid and art to life up their souls. And I pray that when we donate to the arts in wealthy societies, that we would be training up another generation to live reflective lives–which means, in part, responding to poverty and injustice around the world.

    Thanks again for chipping in here–these issues are so important and I’m thankful for the opportunity to engage them here.

  3. Difficult to deal with this on a broad scale, but if you zero in on the individual, I’d have to say Gates wins.

    If I have thirty dollars to spend on a museum ticket for someone who would otherwise be without, or a month’s worth of food for a family in Kenya?… That’s a pretty easy choice.

    More broadly though, I have this gut feeling that tells me one of these things doesn’t require money while the other does. Art always finds a way. In fact, I’d argue that some of the best art comes from times of limited resources.

    Food in mouth or medical support? Not so much…

  4. Definitely true for the artists–that an empty stomach can be an artist’s best friend…but what about providing encounters with art for those with no resources?

    For example, I am on the Board of Directors for the arts center here in this small town that has fallen on hard times. I’ve seen money raised to provide violin or piano lessons for kids who would never be taking an instrument otherwise, and we know that all the research shows that early music lessons are invaluable in terms of the shaping of the person.

    What if those music lessons are shaping kids to grow up to be the type of reflective people who will help battle injustice and poverty around the world? Raising thoughtful citizens in the next generations would seem to be a key to sustaining any immediate work that gets done. I think this is not too far-fetched.

    1. Yes, but the root of your argument seems to imply that we can’t raise thoughtful, reflective people without the arts. This is, of course, not true. In fact, I could make a stronger case for donating funds to provide high speed internet available to impoverished areas.

  5. Sweet new digs!

    I am having a variety of cranky responses to this, because I am secretly an octogenarian.

    First of all, Bill Gates, you of all people should know that wealth can be created; it’s not like there’s only ever a finite amount of money and if you go to a museum a kid goes blind because of you. No one can measure with any certainty the degree of impact a given action or financial transaction might have on any number of people. It is hardly that simple.

    Secondly, as someone who has worked at three nonprofits, one in the arts and two in aid/relief, one cannot understate the amount of support and renewal needed personally by the thousands (millions?) of people working in relief/aid/medical professions, where death and suffering are daily realities. If we as a public don’t look after the people who pour their lives into that type of work, we are doing a disservice to those they serve as well, and if art is what they need, then by God they shall have it. The effects of an encounter with art don’t end with the first person. Bill Gates doesn’t find life-giving meaning in art? Well, bully for you, Bill, but do the rest of us a favor and don’t speak for us.

    Finally, Mr. Gates, spare me your insufferable moralistic proclamations that if people don’t support your pet causes, they’re selfish bastards who want little blind kids to die. You have your share of misguided charitable ventures that I’m sure you’d rather people forget, so kindly shove it.

    In a somewhat nonsequiturish conclusion: I also support the separation of state and art.

    tl;dr!! Heh.

  6. What comex to mind for me is the scene in “The Shawshank Redemption” in which the imprisoned Tim Robbins locks the door to the warden’s office, puts a record on the turntable, and turns on the speakers in the prison yard. The men stop in their tracks to listen to the pure beauty of the opera’s soprano. They are completely transfixed, stunned by something beyond them, yet every one of them responds the same way. The music speaks directly to their souls and feeds them in a way bread cannot. The writer understood the power of beauty and art to calm and raise up the soul.
    I have witnessed the power of music in the lives of the impoverished. It nourishes in a way simple food cannot. Yes, a person must eat in order to survive physically, but to thrive spiritually and emotionally one must encounter beauty, both of God’s creation and of man’s.

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