Saturday, May 15, 2010

How Many Luigis?

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.

Shakespeare's troupe had noble patronage.  Bach and Mozart may have dined below the salt, but they fed on the bounty of the powerful, who commissioned their work.  Little Trevors and Susannahs, living in squalor, contributed involuntarily to the writing of "Hamlet" and "The Tempest;" and the continued poverty of little Gerhardts and Gretels made possible the St. Matthew's Passion and the "Dissonant" Quartet.  Velazquez's great paintings of Infantas, or princesses, glorified and were paid for by the reign of Philip II, whose immense wealth came from the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South American Amerindians who were slaughtered wholesale and enslaved in the King's gold, silver, and emerald mines.

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.

So . . . how many Luigis would you pay for Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus?"  How many Susannahs for "Hamlet"?  If your answer is, "None," I applaud your humanity but I'm glad you weren't in charge of the world during the Italian Renaissance or the reign of Elizabeth I.

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


  1. I have thought for a long time there should be a surcharge for art purchases above a certain nominal threshold, the money to be dedicated solely for the relief of poverty. Of course, I'm one of those socialists you keep reading about.

  2. I spent a good part of an afternoon in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, staring at "The Rape of Proserpina" a sculpture by Gianlorenzo Bernini. Pluto is dragging Proserpina into the underworld and she is fighting desperately. Pluto's hands are digging into her flesh, and in that lies the magic. Marble is turned to flesh with a chisel.

    The morning had been spent at St. Peter's where it is not possible to look in any direction without seeing something beyond the abilities, seemingly, of any one in more recent generations. There are more than 900 churches in Rome. Most belong to the Catholic Church. Nearly all, no matter where they are located in the city, have a valuable piece of art. Some have a piece of art that, if in a museum, would have a room set aside for its repose and a brace of bodyguards. One such church is Santa Maria della Vittoria which houses the Bernini masterpiece, "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa".

    The condition of the church attests to its age. The Bernini sculpture is, perhaps, his most famous in that there have been a number of interpretations of the figure of Saint Teresa. If this was in a museum anywhere in the world there would be lines similar to those of people waiting to see the Mona Lisa. There is no line to see Saint Teresa. The only thing we had to do when we were there was slip a couple of coins into a box so that the light over the sculpture would turn on and we could see the statue. We could only see the statue for two or three minutes and then we had to feed in more coins.

    There are homeless people sitting on the steps of Santa Maria della Vittoria who are fed by the people of the church. A Jackson Pollack sold in 2006 for $140,000,000.00. The Bernini will never be sold, certainly not to a private collector. It will remain in a church under the protection of the Church, available to anyone who makes the trip to Rome and to those who wait on the steps until dinner time.

    All the art that is owned by the Vatican is unknown. Though it has been worked on for centuries, there isn't a complete catalog of all that the Vatican owns. It has been argued for centuries that if the art alone was sold it could feed the hungry of the world. But if sold, it would likely disappear. There are few museums that could afford even one piece. As long as it belongs to the Church, it belongs to the world.

    Walking through St. Peter's, one can't help but marvel at the extraordinary work produced over a relatively short period of time in history by so many artists of such astounding talent. The great art of the period was commissioned by the church or by powerful churchmen. The most outstanding pieces had religious themes. These artists were painting or sculpting for God. None were saints themselves but they made saints and saintliness visible and moving. Their motivation is no longer the motivation of artists creating today. Jackson Pollack and Picasso are giants of art but one doesn't look at their work as one looks at a Caravaggio. Caravaggio's saints look just like any person on a street in a dangerous part of Rome in 1600. His saints look just like his sinners and that is a good thing for those of us who stand for an hour in front of one of his paintings.


  3. This is a very interesting and complex problem. The elevation of Art as we know it is a relatively new concept. One cannot help but question what mason in the Middle-ages would refuse the income from working on a cathedral; credit be damned. Was Michelangelo plagued with his father and bothers debts, in a position to refuse Julius request...come to think of it he did run away to Florence. It took the Impressionists to establish the concept of the availability of art to the less affluent and now what enormous prices these works command. Yet what creative person today would turn down a sizeable commission that would elevate their status or their pocket. In retrospect I consider myself fortunate that so many wealthy collectors actually have donated their collections to museums so that I and others can enjoy these riches. Selfish people and even more unfortunately the poor will always be with us.

  4. And like the patrons before them, the very wealthy continue to build their homes on the back of the very poor--consciously or not.

    What an interesting treatise on art and poverty. This is a fantastic article.