Rather than Buying Art, Relieve Suffering: Peter Singer Tries Aesthetics?

Included in Peter Singer’s book Ethics in the Real World is a short essay entitled The Ethical Cost of High-Price Art. The aim of the essay is to argue that the tens of millions of dollars spent on (especially) modern art is an unethical use of money, given that the purchase is not an investment on the part of the buyer. Preventing the poverty-induced suffering and death of hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions of people certainly produces better consequences than purchasing these works of art. I think most reasonable people would accept this claim prima facie, and if not, some careful analysis would easily prove that the two expenditures are not even close in their ability to maximize good consequences. Charitable spending to help vulnerable, disadvantaged, suffering peoples produces better consequences by a huge margin.

Before I get into the strangeness accompanying an otherwise reasonable essay, I will mention the artists and monetary figures Singer is referring to. The Christie’s auction in question sold $745 million worth of modern and contemporary art. The highest prices included artists Barnett Newman, Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol. Each of these sold for more than $60 million.

How, then, will Singer proceed in defending the claim that these huge sums of money are better spent aiding mass suffering than on paintings, a claim that, under any serious theory of ethics is likely to be indisputable?

If you guessed “provide some art criticism,” then you are correct. Singer’s justification strategy (apparently) involves criticizing works of art for not being good enough to be worth the suffering of millions. True enough, there are obviously more important things than producing artworks, but Singer goes a step further. He claims these works of art are not good for what they are, a claim that does very little to support his obvious conclusion.

The remainder of this article will be devoted to correcting Singer’s unnecessary, unwarranted, uncareful, and undereducated art criticisms that provide little more than a cheap shot at artworks he finds personally unimpressive.

The first claim Singer makes about the pieces sold is “They are not beautiful.” The most immediate response to Singer is that many people believe evaluation of beauty is at least somewhat subjective. Yet even if it is conceded that beauty in art is in some way objective, this acceptance often accompanies an acceptance that the experts of the artworld are better at evaluating artworks. These experts are the very people that catapulted artists like Newman, Bacon, Rothko, and Warhol into the spotlight.

If it is difficult to understand how some of these paintings could be beautiful, I invite the reader not to (at least always) consider beauty like the pleasure received from the sweetness of a bullseye candy. Some mathematicians, computer scientists, and logicians consider proofs beautiful. This is achieved through their form, yet not simply perceived shapes. Simple and complex concepts can be beautiful despite the appearance of their representations on a canvass.

Another kind of beauty may come as a result of historical relationships and communication. One who studies the history of scientific theories may find the juxtaposition of different theories and revolutions in concepts beautiful. The progression of eliminating epicycles, for example, in geocentric and heliocentric solar system-models could be quite beautiful (in abstract and mathematical explanation alone). This sort of evolution of relationships is abundant in the artworld, as artists elaborate constantly on the concepts of others. Like science, art has a sort of aboutness that allows an interesting, beautiful relationship between concepts and their representations.

One example of this occurrence is the artistic dialogue between Picasso and Matisse, whose shows were designed specifically to show the dialogue between the two artists’ styles. I suspect the pieces Singer mentioned played great roles in developing the artworld meta-aesthetic in this way. Though perhaps not visible on the canvass, the existence and appearance of these images still invokes beauty associated with those relationships for those in the know.

One final point on the beauty of these artworks: it is not even clear that beauty is a necessary virtue an artwork must have to be a good work of art. Due to the ability of art to be about something, many artists find it useful to use ugly and grotesque imagery to convey ugly and grotesque themes. One listen of Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki illustrates this concept quite well. Ugliness can therefore often be as artistically valid as beauty for evaluation.

My next concern is with Singers claim: “…nor do they display great artistic skill.” Already from the previous passages one notices this claim is suspect. The aforementioned artists showed great skill in their artworks. Not only do I suspect the artworks took a great deal more skill with the brush than Singer gives credit, it is also clear that they show perhaps the most artistic skill of them all: creativity. They posses the creativity required to make such interesting changes to the artworld such that, even if the pieces may be visually strange and underwhelming (though I would not agree with such a premise), they still had a marvelous impact.

If “artistic skill” should be understood as “ability to make art beautiful,” then I believe they succeed (though as mentioned earlier, it is not clear that beauty is necessary). If, however, skill can be understood in a more general ability to do something that requires a great degree of practice and talent, it is still not clear that it would create a good artwork. Finding every blade of grass on a football field and trimming it by hand would require great skill, yet it is not that admirable. As someone interested in maximizing utility, I’m sure Singer understands this kind of skill as unnecessary.

The final strange justification offered by Singer is that the artworks are not unique to the oeuvre of the artists. I’m not at all sure why this is an important point. Works of art produced by historically important artists are still in very limited supply. Of course, given their limited supply and aforementioned uniqueness to the artworld, an additional level of uniqueness seems unnecessary.

If not to bolster his argument, what was the point of providing this criticism of these pieces? In the essay, Singer mentions the purchase of Duccio’s Madonna by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He implies that there are better things the donors who made the purchase possible could have done with their money. I agree, but he has many nice things to say about the Duccio. “Beautifully executed” and “major figure” are terms used to describe his work. He also mentions that the period was highly transitional period important to the history of Western art.

“None of that applies to Newman or Warhol,” remarks Singer. I have already dispelled the arguments that lead to this conclusion, but I notice that three of the four artists mentioned are American modernists, and Bacon’s work fits right in, though he is Irish. My suspicion is that Singer simply has a cultural bias toward beauty as defined by Europe in the late thirteenth century.

But however much I take issue with Singer’s flippant dismissal of modern art, I ultimately agree with his conclusions. I do find it strange that he would use the premises I evaluated as talking points. At the end of the article, he recommends that we should be purchasing artworks from indigenous peoples in vulnerable situations and crippling poverty. This seems like an excellent way to continue supporting the arts and encouraging appreciation and expression, while still helping disadvantaged, suffering peoples.


Curtis J Howd


Comments by Golemon:

While the strategy of criticizing the beauty of the art is a very strange way to argue that one should spend the money spent on art elsewhere, that any art should sell for $60,000,000 seems inappropriate while families starve for the want of $1.

Shelly Kagan casts the situation in terms of a world-map that ranges in color: white areas are places of total bliss, black areas are places of total suffering and death, and grey areas are places in which there isn’t bliss, but there isn’t suffering either. Although ballets, operas, and Bacon art pieces bring white to small areas, Kagan asks us to consider their cost:

“Even if promoting the good should remove various elements of color, leaving the world grey, it is crucially important to recall that the reduction in overall good resulting from adopting a subjective standpoint reduces the overall color of the world even more: a small splash of color is only purchased at the cost of plunging far greater areas into dark black” (Kagan, Limits of Morality).

That said, let us not belittle the amount of light that art does bring us. This is a good way to immediately and permanently lose all credibility with those who are inclined to this or that art form. Better if we ask, as Kagan does, “How many would agree that it is better that they should starve rather than endangering ballet?”


Luke Golemon


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