Dear You, what is art for?
Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. with seven other Harvard students on a 10-day Wintersession at Dumbarton Oaks revolving around this topic:
Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America.
In those 10 days, I’ve seen art like this:
But also this:
Lastly, my favorite:
While wandering around all these private collections-turned-museums, I wondered: why do so many rich people collect art? Does collecting art offer the hope of immortality?
If I were a millionaire and bought artworks according to my own taste, and then proceeded to open my artworks to the public, am I doing philanthropy? Is this then effective altruism?
As a student in the humanities, I recognize that this is an increasingly data-driven world. A dispassionate assessment of value is involved in most things. Similarly, in the field of philanthropy, the value of the practical (a medical cure) is much easier to measure than that of the cultural (museums). Few people would deny the value of art museums or art itself. But, the act of opening a museum, or donating works to an existing one, is one that deals in the intangible currency of beauty, inspiration, creativity, memory, and joy. The outcomes are often measured in stories. That scruffy boy-artist who was once inspired by a green dinosaur sculpture that breezy afternoon, hands chilly and heart thumping. A girl in pigtails who gazed into the face of a Buddhist sutra on a silk tapestry and found ignited a lifelong ardor for the study of religion. On opposite totem poles balance narratives and metrics. It seems trivial to stand in a gallery and ponder the question of beauty, the virtues of Renoir, or inspect the unspeakable allure of an artwork to our eye when temperatures are rising, geopolitical depression beckons, democracy is arguably under assault, and all sorts of polarizing tensions are erupting at the surface.
Knowing all that, the question is then: is being motivated by “passion” instead of “reason” in philanthropy immoral in a world where there is need? Or, turning the gaze inward, is being motivated by passion instead of reason in choosing my studies and life’s work an ineffective use of resources?
I don’t know.
This wintersession was an incredible course. I loved going to a museum each day and discussing with professors the gospel of wealth (an interesting—and short—read: Wealth by Andrew Carnegie), the culture of giving, the economy of prestige (naming rights of buildings are a key instrument in philanthropy, as the greatest longevity is embedded not in capital but in culture), the disturbing inequality of our times, and—
The grey areas of philanthropy. By all measurements, we are living in an era of growing inequality and the consolidating power of big money. A statistic that scared me is this: the richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population. But rich people don’t just own the wealth, feel la-di-da, and spend it on private jets and Chanel bags. Intentions aside, they are shaping our lives in unimaginable ways using philanthropy. Call me ignorant, but this is the first time I really wrapped my mind around the fact that philanthropy is not an inherently good thing—it needs to be used well. Unlike the government, most philanthropic foundations (from Gates to Carnegie) have no checks and balances. They own wealth enough to rival national economies as well as social resources (tax exemption), but their agendas are set by a few individuals. What kind of impact do such megafoundations generate? For instance, Bill Gates is fixing education in the U.S. with his Common Core State Standards initiative; that means, putting it generally, one man can decide what millions of kids are going to study.
How adequate are the institutions of philanthropy to the needs of the day? How can we shape this system?
I vacillated between wonder and the alienating sense that all these questions I was contemplating in the first place were inaccessible and removed from most people’s realities. I’m sitting here in my dorm room back in Cambridge choosing classes, two days before Shopping Week begins for the spring semester, and I’m trying to make sense of all these intellectual endeavors. So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.
For those of you also coming back to campus, here’s to a semester with classes that tear apart your assumptions and equip you to rebuild them, self-discovery, friendship, and happy adventures!
Lots of love,
(From top to bottom, the artworks can be attributed to Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Marc Chagall.)