If you’ve watched any football or baseball recently, you’ve probably seen this Audi commercial. It’s quite funny, and it’s right up Acton’s alley: it artfully distinguishes between proper and improper stewardship of one’s wealth. In this case, an awkward after dinner exchange shows what happens to the use of wealth when culture is diminished:
We have on the one hand a couple appreciative of the aesthetic triumphs of humanity (the Browns), and on the other, a couple of barbarians (the Joneses). In order to get to know each other, the Browns go over to the Joneses’ house for dinner, where they are struck by the Joneses’ art collection – the latter, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seem to be the world’s greatest collectors of the Dutch master Vermeer.
But it turns out that the Joneses are boors who have no idea of the value of their collection, and can appreciate only the Smiths’ expensive car. Their wealth may have been acquired by the virtues of industry and thrift, but it is wasted if it is not spent on things of value.
On MercatorNet, Sarah Phelps Smith writes what must have been intended as a companion piece to the Audi commercial: a review of the Florentine art exhibit Money and Beauty; Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities running right now in that city. The exhibit is a collection of banking artifacts, coins, and art from the Medicis and other Florentine banking families.
The exhibit is particularly relevant right now because, as Wall Street has done, the Medicis became wealthy by providing indispensible financial services, and along the way they made some rather imprudent decisions (Dr. Smith provides the example of business done with royalty, who could default at will). The Medicis also supported the work of Botticelli, Leonardo, and others Renaissance geniuses, and for that, Western Civilization will always be in their debt.
It’s easy to point out that a months-long drum circle in the middle of New York City isn’t a cultural achievement, no matter how many sleepless nights are inflicted on the neighbors. But what should have instead of those drum circles? Besides making you depressed about federal funding of the arts (with apologies to cowboy poets in all states), Dr. Smith reminds us that you can’t take it with you:
Do we, as a culture, use “disposable income” to foster artists who have put the time and effort into learning their craft so that they can make beautiful objects with a beauty that will last five hundred years? Perhaps the exhibition can leave us with a desire to encourage people with means to commission, support and propagate works of art that will be timelessly beautiful and universal in appeal, so that when history looks at the products of our culture we (or rather those who come after us) will find our legacy worth looking at.
The Audi marketing team breaks the cringe making silence in their commercial with the text “True greatness should never go unrecognized.” They playfully acknowledge that their big sedans are toward the bottom of the important-things-in-life scale, and that someone for whom a Vermeer might as well be a Thomas Kinkade is not living a fully human life. It’s funny — you can’t be in the business of selling high end cars without rejecting cultural relativism.