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Got Culture?

8:12 AM, Jan 31, 2014 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Dorothy Kosinski is looking forward to the release of The Monuments Men, and not just because it stars George Clooney. The director of the Phillips Collection sees the movie as a way of spreading awareness that culture matters—and is even worth fighting for. The film is based on Robert Edsel's eponymous history of the artists, architects, and historians tasked with saving works of art from the Nazis during and after World War II. And even if critics are less than enthused, the film provides more ammo in the battle over culture's importance. But how important is it?

In a Legatum Institute paper entitled "The Importance of Culture in a Prosperous Society," Kosinski explains the impact of culture on multiple fronts, including the economy, its relation to crime rates, education, even the sustaining of our democracy. She cites philosopher Martha Nussbaum: "When we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self and other in that way, imagining in one another inner faculties of art and emotion, democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built upon respect and concern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects."

It's worth noting Kosinski's paper is not a screed against Congress for refusing to increase arts funding. During a Legatum Institute panel discussion earlier this week at the Phillips Collection, Kosinski and others acknowledged in the grand scheme, congressional funding was so small ($146 million) in comparison to the rest of the federal budget that it wasn't worth debating. (Not to mention that Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud alone sold for $142.4 million at auction.)

Instead, Kosinski rightfully ridiculed the argument of "pensions vs. paintings" in Detroit—as if one had to strictly choose between saving city pensions or saving paintings and sculptures at the Detroit Institute of Arts (a subject also covered in THE WEEKLY STANDARD). It wasn't one versus the other, she explained, just as the debate shouldn't be over arts versus science because one is, in fact, connected to the other in many ways. Meanwhile, panelist Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University, stressed the importance of arts, education, and research institutions all working together.

What is worrying are comments by the likes of Bill Gates, as reported in the Financial Times:

Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, [Gates] 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,” he says. “Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.”

When asked about this later over a dinner discussion, Kosinski said she did not know what to make of it. On the one hand, Gates is a collector of art, himself. On the other hand, he says not to waste your money on art—as if the choice, again, were one versus the other and without interrelation. The Scrapbook had something to say about this. In addition, over at the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout responded:

It almost embarrasses me to restate for Mr. Gates's benefit what most civilized human beings already take to be self-evident, which is that art museums, like symphony orchestras and drama companies and dance troupes, make the world more beautiful, thereby making it a better place in which to live. Moreover, the voluntary contributions of rich people help to ensure the continued existence of these organizations, one of whose reasons for existing is to make it possible for people who aren't rich to enjoy the miracle that is art. If it weren't for museums, you wouldn't get to see any of the paintings of Rembrandt and Monet and Jackson Pollock (and, yes, Francis Bacon). Instead they'd be hanging in homes whose owners might possibly deign to open their doors to the public once a year. Maybe.

During that post-panel dinner, there was also a question over whether the arts could only thrive in a democracy. At first blush, that seemed to make sense, owing to freedom of expression. But as others pointed out, it is also worth noting that some of the greatest works of poetry, prose, and music came from artists under duress in totalitarian states—courageous and moving protests that just wouldn't happen in peaceful, democratic settings. (There was also the matter of arts flourishing under the reign of Elizabeth I, the ancien régime, and so on.)

So how important is culture? Check out the links to this post for the answer. And read/watch The Monuments Men—it may even be worth the risk of one's life.

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