Philosophy and Philanthropy

Wednesday, January 14th

By Rachael, Harvard ’16

rachael smith imgMy third day as a participant in the Dumbarton Oaks Wintersession course on culture and power was full of lovely surprises. Our visit to the Kreeger Museum was a real treat, featuring a room filled with colorful Monet seascapes; dark, brooding early Picassos; and, my favorite, Mondrian’s Dying Sunflower. Before this visit, I had only ever associated Mondrian with the color-block style for which he is famous. Our visit to the Kreeger was an outstanding success. The museum introduced me to one of my new favorite paintings, and at the same time broadened my conception of this well-known artist.

My favorite part of the day, however, was our lively morning discussion with Professor Jan Ziolkowski. Our discussion centered on a comparison between the cultural philanthropists of the Gilded Age and today’s so-called “venture philanthropists,” whose approach to philanthropy is modeled on the economic strategies of venture capitalists. In particular, we considered the idea that by primarily focusing on questions of economics, one collapses other important aspects of philanthropy, such as morality and aesthetics. We noted that today’s donors have a tendency invest in a philanthropic project that will show immediate “practical results.” Such donors are more inclined to invest in projects with readily quantifiable results (such as number of lives saved by administering X vaccine), as this will assure them of the efficacy of their investment. However the “results,” that is, the value, of investing in a project in the arts, such as founding a library, is perhaps not so easily quantified. Does this make an investment in the arts any less worthy? “No!” screamed the hearts of the humanities students filling the room!

This discussion really got me thinking about the problems that the humanities face in the twenty-first century. It seems to me the issue is a double-edged sword. If we live in a world where people take value to be strictly economic value, then we begin to lose the possibility of appreciating a purely aesthetic object. We thought of families taking selfies in front of monuments before they’ve even looked at them, and teenagers recording a concert with their iPhones to post on Facebook rather than enjoying the experience itself. For such a teen, the concertgoing experience is no longer one of aesthetics, but one that is translated into social capital. All of us in the roundtable discussion feared that the non-commodified aesthetic experience is growing scarce.

All of this talk reminded me of the ideas put forth by Martin Heidegger in A Question Concerning Technology. In this essay, Heidegger argues that as the world becomes increasingly mechanized by technology, humans in turn will increasingly conceive of the world as mechanizable. According to Heidegger, eventually the only thing that that matters to the technological society is maximizing efficiency, reliability, and economy. In such a society, man loses the things that most make him man, such as his ability to appreciate aesthetics. From our discussion today, I can’t help but worry that we are facing the situation of which Heidegger warned: in the commodification of the aesthetic experience humans are losing their humanity. It is a thought that truly frightens me, one that I try to put away one sunflower painting at a time.

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