Bill Gates: GIving Toward Art is Morally Reprehensible

How valuable is art? I’m not asking how much a particular painting is worth, or how many people will buy a chart-topping song. I’m asking how important art is in general to the human experience.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me that many people see art and creativity as more or less superfluous to our lives. That is, it may be a nice luxury, but it needs to be consigned to a very low rung on the ladder of priorities. It’s this kind of thinking that proposes, for example, to diminish the presence of art in education, usually to direct more resources toward math and science instead. Similarly, Microsoft founder Bill Gates seems to be arguing that charitable giving for art is morally reprehensible. From a recent article in The Financial Times:

Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, he 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.”

 This prompts a handful of thoughts:

1. Gates’ desire to employ his efforts and fortune to help solve some of the world’s most intractable and destructive problems is certainly commendable. But as others have pointed out, appealing to Peter Singer might be a bit problematic with regard to moral questions. That’s not to say that Singer is unfailingly wrong or has never produced a compelling argument. But he is, after all, an advocate of infanticide and euthanasia (though tellingly, not a rigorously consistent one).

2. Certainly, there are circumstances where certain fundamental human needs should take precedence. You don’t try to meet a starving child’s need by taking her to an art museum. 

3. Upon refection, however, we might be surprised to find out just how fundamental art is to human life. Consider that virtually every human culture in recorded history has created art. It is no different in today’s world: no matter where you go in the world today, you will find a significant appreciation for art. If you take a moment merely to look around you wherever you are, there is an overwhelming chance you will encounter some kind of creative expression. Think also of art’s persistent presence in the lives of those undergoing difficult and even life-threatening experiences. Both bed-ridden patients and soldiers at war often take real joy and comfort from books, music, and the like.

4. With its insistence that God very intentionally created human beings in his own astonishingly creative image, The Bible only underscores the fact that art and creativity is a basic facet of human life. It’s instructive, too, to recognize that God saw fit to express a large portion of his authoritative word in poetry, song, and story. Which is the better bet: (a) he did that arbitrarily, or (b) he knows these things resonate with those he is working to redeem? I’ll take the latter.

I’ll close with a portion of Terry Teachout’s own response to Gates in the Wall St. Journal:

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?

Indeed, many philanthropic organizations see no need to choose. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, for example, supports the performing arts and medical research.

…Of course it’s admirable to help prevent blindness—but it’s also admirable to help ensure that we have beautiful things to see.

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