High Culture Needs High Finance

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.

(Brought to you by Capitalism)

6 thoughts on “High Culture Needs High Finance

  1. Hello William — as you know, I read your blog with great interest and, often, great sympathy. However, I think with today’s post you are perilously (dare I say villainously) wrong. My office is a few blocks away from Wall Street, and I can tell you that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are not an “unwashed mélange of middle-class would-be hippies, professional agitpropstars, and various screaming harpies a-feather,” but, rather, the tattered shreds of the middle class who are tired of corporations and the wealthiest 1% not paying their fair share. A look at any income table or overview of economic growth over the last 30 years and it’s fairly clear that the middle class is shrinking into nonexistence, and this is a justifiably angry yelp heard before possible (if not probable) extinction.

    I also confess that I find your capitalism-supports-the-arts argument more than a little specious. Capital often supports the artistic establishment, but seldom its avant-garde. With your model, it’s unlikely that Impressionism would’ve happened at all, Romanticism would’ve died stillborn and Salieri would’ve been enshrined rather than Mozart.

    Again – love the blog, but I think you’re way off here.


    • I can’t get away from the absolutely ludicrous idea of the “fair share” repeatedly bandied around like a Badminton shuttlecock. What’s “fair”? Who determines “fair”? Some committee of disinterested, anonymous Americans? Don’t look now, but this nonsense has failed, and failed repeatedly. How’s that for a shuttlecock?


      • Well, right now ‘fair’ is determined by a bunch of plutocrats and their paid-for political enablers; and their definition of fair is that you pay and they play… As this is a largely Christian blog, I cannot help but observe that Christ would probably be there on Wall Street with the protesters, as well.


  2. Well, whether it was the priestly class in one society, the aristocracy on another, the merchant class in a mercantilist system (like aforementioned Florence), city councils and state and federal legislatures in a republic, or a board of loyal party members in a communist regime, face it, you’re going to have the well healed class spending their excess wealth supporting what they consider art. But in a free market republic, you’ll have both a rich group doing this as well as the masses making their decisions. Both will make great and stupid decisions. Churches and governments (both of whom took their tax until separation of church and state made the collection basket a modern invention) have given us work by Christopher Wren and Indigo Jones on one hand, then Le Corbusier and Frank Ghery on the other. The masses have bought into jazz on one hand, then rap on the other. He will correct me if I’m wrong, but all the Author is saying is that in a free market republic, the capitalists will be the go-to people for the support of the arts. And if you think the avant garde springs from nowhere and just makes its own way, as a rule even these so called rebels have to either cater to great marketing to win the masses or get the eye of a gate-keeper to the art world to get his or her nod and not get shunned talented or not.

    Let’s look at the American frontier town. No one was a capitalist pig with a stack of gold in the bank. Most were living hand to mouth, and even the town pillars were a few bad planting seasons or a bad drought away from ruin – no idle rich. Now what great art came from the frontier? No examples of craftsmanship (the perfecting of a tradition – not a slouch, just a different animal), I mean art the way you mean it, the avant garde person creating new from nothing. Or the Greek dark ages c. 1000-500 B.C., followed by the big artistic boom once you grew a class of people who had money to pay someone else to spend their day sitting around making art rather than moving a plow.

    I’m making a note, not a judgement, neither Christian nor non-Christian, neither liberal nor conservative.


  3. Bob:

    And of course, needless to ask, you know for a fact that these—how’d you put it?—bunch of plutocrats have engineered what’s fair. Or you’d never have said it.
    OK, so pray tell, what is their version of fair they’ve pushed on us? How’d you come by this information? What would your version of fair be?


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