The rich abandon their duty to us all


National Post, 10 April 2019

Great wealth imposes obligations to provide for the common good, including works of art, parks and gardens, libraries and music

Where is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi? That question is back in the news. The painting, thought to be the last da Vinci original held in private hands, was sold at auction in November 2017 for $450 million.

The New York Times reported that the buyer (anonymous at the auction) was Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. He describes himself as “just one of five thousand Saudi princes,” but is a favourite of the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Apparently the purchase made an impression, as in 2018 Bader became Saudi Arabia’s first minister of culture.

I am not sure what the going rate for a commission of high-quality Islamic art is, but surely $450 million might spark, pardon the expression, a renaissance in art in the Arabian peninsula? I expect that Prince Bader’s ministry of culture is not as lavishly funded.

The Louvre — Abu Dhabi version, not Paris — announced that Salvator Mundi would be exhibited there last September, but that was quietly cancelled without explanation.

That Salvator Mundi would be at the Louvre Abu Dhabi was a somewhat surprising thing, given the traditional Islamic prohibition on sacred images, which is why Mohammed’s face is never depicted in Islamic art. The prohibition also covers others considered prophets in the Qur’an, which would include Jesus.

Stricter interpretations of Islam favour iconoclasm, the destruction of sacred images. It is unlikely that even the most profligate Saudi prince would drop half a billion only to set Salvator Mundi alight.

In the event, Salvator Mundi has not yet made it to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. In fact, no one knows where it is, which prompted a series of stories this week. Security requires discretion of course, but surely the point of paying an absurd price for a painting is to display it somewhere.

Or is it? The fate of Salvator Mundi illustrates the failure of our current moneyed class to discharge their cultural obligation to be patrons of the arts. They collect, but do not commission. They curate what previous generations have produced, but are not as ambitious in creating something new. And on occasion our artistic patrimony is treated as the most conspicuous consumption available.

Great wealth imposes obligations to provide for the common good. It often goes by the expression “giving back” today, but it is more than that. There is a moral duty to provide that which only riches make possible. Succour for the indigent, education for the unlettered, health care for the sick — all this is the traditional mission of philanthropy. But so, too, is that which makes life more beautiful: works of architecture and art, parks and gardens, libraries and music. The world of culture.

The ultra-rich today fail rather spectacularly at such projects. If they create gardens and fountains and grand buildings, they are behind gates for private use only. And instead of visiting artists’ studios to sponsor new talents, they head to the auction house to purchase the famous names of the past. And Leonardo has the most famous available name of all.

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