Civilization Hangs From a Thread

Yesterday I enjoyed an exhibition at Tate Britain on the life and art collection of Kenneth Clark. Lord Clark was the leading art historian of his generation, the Director of the British National Gallery, and the  assembler of an exquisite collection of his own.  For me the  exhibition recalled a more personal connection.  His famous  television documentary Civilization had instilled in a teenager from a decidedly non-artistic family an abiding passion for European art, particularly from the Italian Renaissance.

What I learned from the exhibit was that this enlargement of my world was yet another gift from those we now call the one percent. Kenneth Clark was the only the child of the heir to an enormous fortune derived from a new kind of spool for threading. He wrote that his father was a member of the “idle rich” and that while “there were a few people who were richer, there were none who were idler.” But it was precisely this world of leisure and privilege that propelled Clark to greatness. His father had him painted at a very early age by the leading portraitists of the day, an experience he found thrilling. He was immersed daily in his father’s own fine art collection. The Japanese art there became such an obsession that he spent hours trying to imitate it.  Clark’s catholic taste in art reflected his family’s cosmopolitanism. Nothing human was alien to him.

The exhibit captures how the benefits of a free economy grow and change from generation to generation. At the exhibition the spool which began the dynasty properly had its own pride of place in a glass case.  The consumer surplus it generated clothed millions for less than they had ever been clothed before.  But then the spool was transmuted into the ownership of  great art and luxurious leisure. And that style of life in turn created a series that permitted many to gain a greater appreciation and quickening love for the great monuments of western civilization.

Free markets constantly work such alchemy on the world, turning the useful to the beautiful, the mundane to the unique, and even material things into the spiritual. And more often than not it the one percent who are our alchemists as patrons of the arts and as enthusiasts of the sublime.