How do you put a value on great art?
There's a predictable frisson of disapproval every time some thick-fingered billionaire pays a gazillion dollars to put in his or her private collection an artistic treasure that we should all, in Utopian theory, be allowed to experience. Behind the conviction that great art can't be evaluated in purely financial terms are (I think) two assumptions: first that art is somehow beyond valuation; and second, that we all benefit from having such works accessible to us. The latter idea is, of course, the impulse behind the creation of museums.
If we accept the concepts that great art is literally priceless and that our lives are ennobled and illuminated by exposure to it, some uneasy questions arise (for me, anyway) about a very substantial percentage of the world's most treasured artworks.
For most of recorded history, the world was ruled directly by a largely static class of rich and powerful families -- tyrants, kings, queens, princes, popes, emperors, dukes, merchants, Medicis, whatever you want to call them. By and large, they devoted their energies to a small number of tasks: ensuring the family's future, acquiring more power, getting richer, and keeping the poor folk down. Oh, and achieving immortality. For that, they turned to the great artists of their time, the Michelangelos and daVincis and Mozarts and Bachs and Goyas and Faberges and on and on and on. Throughout most of the past twelve hundred years (to pick a number), art was supported by a rich upper class that preserved its stature by grinding down the poor, by extorting from them every pfennig or florin or ducat of tribute that could be squeezed from their labors and stolen from their fields.
Let's get specific. My admiration for the Catholic Church, whether now or in the past, is sharply limited. The Church has encouraged ignorance and prodded the poor to procreate; it demands donations from the destitute. It has build its cathedrals and palaces upon the backs of the poor, using their blood and bones as mortar. And God knows (or should know) that Pope Julius II was a piece of work. But if not for Julius and the money extorted by the Church from the peasantry, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel would be blank. The Chapel was built, and the ceiling painted, with money wrung from the poor -- a system that doomed countless little Luigis and Donatallas to be born in, live in, and die in hopeless poverty.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that even if they'd had greater opportunities. the vast majority of these oppressed children would, like tens of billions of others, have lived, matured, and disappeared without leaving a scratch on the surface of the world. Very few of earth's inhabitants have ever created anything that can properly be called sublime. Most of them live and die unknown and, presumably, disappointed.
But we all get glimpses of the sublime in the works their lives made possible. If all the little Luigis and Gerhardts and Susannahs and Gretels had lived and flourished, we would probably be completely ignorant of the fact, and our lives wouldn't be an iota better. But I know I'm better for "The Tempest" and Rembrandt's self-portraits and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
I know, of course, that human lives and works of art are currencies so dissimilar that it's nonsense to try to determine a rate of exchange. But the fact remains that the great works of past times were paid for by the poor, and I don't think it should be forgotten. And the next time some baron of industry or some Japanese insurance company tries to make off with one of the world's treasures, the protest should at least invoke the human cost of those works, which was extorted exclusively from the poor and powerless. If great art belongs to anyone, it belongs to them.
Tim -- Mondays