As the reader is likely aware, at the moment there is an unwashed melange of middle-class would-be hippies, professional agitpropstars, and various screaming harpies a-feather, spreading their collective effluvia around Lower Manhattan in a protest against the loosely defined concept of “Wall Street”. The theory, so far as one can discern one from the many, seemingly contradictory goals of these persons, goes something like the following. The United States has lost its way by promoting capitalism (which is bad), by protecting financial institutions (also bad), and by not imposing enough taxes on those who run such institutions (ditto). The hope of these quasi-anarchists, who would make real Wall Street anarchists like Luigi Galleani laugh hysterically, is that they can replace the pursuit of money with something else – what, it is not exactly clear – and thereby create some sort of cultural Renaissance in the Western world.
This country of late seems to have developed something of a blind spot, among certain of its citizens, with respect to how very much our cultural achievements are dependent upon capitalism, at least in the areas of what traditionally has been viewed as high culture – admittedly a term not much favored these days in certain quarters. Having no interest myself in spending time in the smelly places of the world, I cannot claim in any way to be some sort of experienced, global anthropologist, who can look at both the frescoes of Giotto and at a tribal rock painting, and view them as being of equal artistic merit. Of course I read, I donate, and I may even watch a documentary on such places and their cultural outputs, but I leave the mission lands and their respective cultures to the missionaries.
What I can claim, as someone who has lived his entire life within an urbanized Western culture, studied it, and thereby educated himself about it, is that I recognize the higher achievements of my own culture when I see them. And it is a plain fact that in most cases, these high achievements of Western culture would not have been possible without a significant amount of money given by private individuals who practiced Capitalism, to either pay for or to preserve them. Unfortunately, this is a fact that appears to be lost on a certain group of my contemporaries.
I direct the reader to a solid, well-written travel essay by The Torygraph’s Harry Mount on the wonders of Florence. The cradle of the Renaissance and one of the most beautiful and culturally important cities in the world, Florence has more great buildings and works of art than perhaps any other city of comparable size. And the reason for this explosion of culture, as Mr. Mount explains, is Capitalism.
“There’s a pretty unromantic reason why the Renaissance sprouted up in Florence,” writes Mr. Mount in his article, for “it’s the place where modern banking was born. We like to think of art as a spiritual, sensitive calling, far removed from the ruthless desire for filthy lucre. But Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci needed money as much as the rest of us.”
The great Florentine banking families, such as the Medici, began as the nouveau-riche, the robber barons, the internet millionaires, or the hedge-fund capitalists of their day. They made so much money by perfecting the mechanisms by which one could engage in commercial transactions both at home and internationally, with at least some guarantee that the whole thing would not go pear-shaped, that they had to do something with their profits. And the people of Florence, as well as visitors to the city, continue to marvel at what they paid for. One can criticize their motives for doing so, and yet one can hardly argue with the results.
And they were not alone. Look at the achievements of Flanders, where merchants and bankers gave huge sums toward the beautification of their cities with beautiful churches and civic assembly halls; the splendors of Britain, made possible by those whose finances often came from shrewd investments in agriculture, manufacturing, and international trade; or even this country, where people like Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, capitalists all, established cultural and educational institutions for our young Republic, from Carnegie Hall to the Art Institute of Chicago, and filled them with the wonders of human invention.
Or consider Paris before World War II, as I did last evening with a young lady of my acquaintance. People like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, and the like, who were working during a period which produced an extraordinary variety of music, art, literature, and design, all came to be regarded as cultural icons not only because they had talent, but because people with financial means recognized those talents, and decided to encourage and promote them. Jimmy Durante may have sung, “You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you,” but in the world of high culture of that era, you really were nobody until somebody like Peggy Guggenheim – capitalist heiress, natch – loved you.
What the whinging collective does not appreciate is the fact that in order for us to have great culture, there must be great sums of money to pay for it. Historically, governments have often done a terrible job when they intervene in such matters, unless there is private money working behind the scenes to shape the project. Virtually the entire country of Georgia provides us with endless examples of what horrors are brought about when a socialist government calls the shots on creating art and architecture – as indeed is true here at home, in the case of Boston City Hall. Thus, even the publicly-owned, highly successful National Gallery here in Washington would not have happened but for the patronage, in the form of money and collections obtained for it by – you guessed it – capitalists like Andrew Mellon, Samuel Kress, and Chester Dale.
This is not to say that the creation of great works of art, literature, and so on, is only possible under the auspices of Capitalism. However it cannot be denied that Capitalism is of lasting importance to the cultural life of the Western world not only historically, but also today. It allows the individual who cares about high culture to make choices, rather than having a one-size-fits-all quasi-culture imposed upon him by the state. And as I have never been a one-size-fits-all sort of person, I for one certainly prefer the largely beneficent influence of Capitalism to help direct the path of how Western culture develops.