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Peter Singer Says: Never Give To The Arts

Back to the NYTimes Sunday Review: the really threatening (to museums) article published this weekend was not my piece, but rather Peter Singer’s Good Charity, Bad Charity.

PeterSingerIn it, Singer argues that philanthropists should never give money to the arts, that there are far more worthy causes, like trachoma, an eye disease caused by an infectious micro-organism that slowly makes people, mostly children in developing countries, lose their eyesight. He poses a question: which is better, giving $100,000 to an art museum that would use the funds to expand, or to an organization fighting trachoma.

You do some research and learn that each $100 you donate could prevent a person’s experiencing 15 years of impaired vision followed by another 15 years of blindness. So for $100,000 you could prevent 1,000 people from losing their sight….

Suppose the new museum wing will cost $50 million, and over the 50 years of its expected usefulness, one million people will enjoy seeing it each year, for a total of 50 million enhanced museum visits. Since you would contribute 1/500th of the cost, you could claim credit for the enhanced aesthetic experiences of 100,000 visitors. How does that compare with saving 1,000 people from 15 years of blindness?

It is never that simple, though Singer argues that it is.

But for one thing, the benefits of visiting art museums are not entirely quantifiable. Many years ago, I covered the environmental movement, and it had the same problem. When economists did cost/benefit analyses of environmental regulations, the cost always outweighed the benefits — because economics had no way to quantify the benefits of, say, clean air or clean water. Since then, economists have developed some measures — still somewhat crude, but better than nothing.

Art museums and all cultural institutions are going to have to learn to articulate better the benefits they provide society. This is not about high/low; elite/mass; old art/new art, etc. Singer and his ilk argue that whenever culture is placed in a contest with disease control, fighting poverty, etc., culture must lose. I don’t believe that. But I, and you all, have a job to do to refute him.



  1. Judith:
    Singer’s piece does indeed present a dangerous argument, but also a flawed one. Singer sets up a false dilemma. It is not necessary to choose “between” when a donor can choose both.

  2. Michael Black says

    Pete Singer is forcing our conjectural philanthropist into an either/ or situation that isn’t true to real life. Almost all people who can afford to donate $100,000 don’t put all their eggs into one basket – they give to multiple charities. For the sake of argument, our philanthropist can donate $50,000 to an organization that fights trachoma, helping 500 people save their sight. And then to ensure that the world they continue to see is not mind-numbingly dull and soulless, the other $50,000 can be directed to enhancing the aesthetic experiences of 50,000 museum visitors.

  3. To add another angle to these already expressed good observations – there have been all kinds of studies on the ‘multiplier effect’ from an investment into the arts…last I heard it was a 1-11 impact for every dollar. Community, Education, Social, and Economic Development should give those of us in the arts lots of counter arguments to such myopic vision … not excluding the added value of enrichment – which can also be measured in a variety of tangible ways.

    The creative fields not only proliferates resources, but most importantly, teach the compassion needed for the impetus to give to other causes.

  4. John Vanco says

    Singer’s argument is absurd. It not only ignores the importance of preserving our cultural inheritance, and diminishes the importance of the aesthetic experience, but it doesn’t even consider all the other things that museums do–programs that go way beyond simply providing the real estate that enables preserving and viewing art. Museums all over the country are engaged in community projects that extend far beyond the traditional gallery experience.

    Although this is not a religious issue (and I am not religious), Singer reminds me of the critics of the woman who anointed Christ:

    3And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. 4And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made? 5For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her. 6And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. 7For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.

    My apologies to the theologians, but I was taught that the meaning of this is that Christ was referring to his imminent demise, and pointing out that there are things that are as important as helping the poor—in this case, the ritual of anointment. It doesn’t mean we don’t help the poor, or that we accept poverty as a necessary evil, merely that there are other important things to do with one’s resources, too.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree – Singer’s argument is absurd. Trouble is, while he is considered to be extreme by some, he also has hefty academic credentials and is viewed as an important thinker. So he must be countered.

  5. Oh boy, not again. Didn’t we just get a similar dose of this simplistic analysis from the former director of the Cornell Museum? Hope Mr. Singer does not enjoy dining out with family. Think of how many people will lose their sight as they dine on filets and sip a lovely Bordeaux.

  6. Important thinker, indeed.
    If the wikipedia article is any indication:
    “(Singer has argued that) mutually satisfying activities” of a sexual nature may sometimes occur between humans and animals….”
    His argument for “Effective altruism,” which is essentially “efficient altruism” must appeal to everyone without the imagination to measure effectiveness in any terms but numbers…and specifically, dollars and cents. Why else argue for the most efficient use of funds?
    Professor Singer’s arguments are simply a manifestation of the age old conflict between Scholasticism / Rationalism and what can only be called the ineffable…or maybe, Romanticism; which is why, in fact, good arguments in favor of the arts are so difficult to articulate.
    What we need is a modern day Goethe or Schiller to kick his rationalist behind.

  7. Saving sight is important, but only if there is something to see. Like art.

  8. Those who contribute to the medical arts are only interested in finding a cure not in the quality of life afterwards. Watching a parent who still lives but in misery is one of the greatest tortures a child can bear.

    While i am all for the medical strides that we can make i am happy to contribute to the quality of life that we are left with. How would it be if all the sculptures in Rome would crumble or Venice would go into the sea. What;s the use of all your faculties then.

    Please keep all the arts, literature, music, and the two and three dimensional arts in my life or leave me by the wayside.

  9. I concur, with many of the above posted messages, that pointed out the many reasons why museums are important that Singers misses or is simply unaware of.

    The main aspect about living in a pluralistic society, is the demands of many are varied. The needs of one are not the exact same needs of another.

    There is something in the tone of Singers statement, I don’t like. To me it smacks of emotional manipulation. Why should we have to choose just one institution? Because someone, with Singer’s gravitas stated what we ‘he’ believes we should do with our money?The reality is for something like blindness (and other diseases) the giving can be infinite as it is problem that will arise with every knew generation and healing can take on many forms.

    There are also aspects of Giving that I think Singer misses too. As most of us are sentimental, more often then not we tend to give to charities that affect us or our loved ones specifically. I also think, in my experience, most people who tend to give, are donors irregardless of their personal income. Again, to reiterate what someone else has said, even more modest donors do not give to just one type of charity they generously give to many charities too like their more wealthier counterparts.

    Lastly, I am someone whose life was fundamentally changed by my early museum experiences. It gave to me the gift of life long learning, a desire to embrace the curiosity of the world around me, respect and awe for the abilities of others and our ancestors. As well as, introduce me to volunteerism and influence my professional career path.

    Without museums, I too would have been blind.

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