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.

Reader Discussion

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on July 10, 2014 at 21:19:27 pm

Eh. I see your Kenneth Clark, and raise you a Ronald Reagan and a J.K. Rowling -- people who required public assistance to get by.

So, given a choice between leaving wealth amassed so that it can produce a Kenneth Clark, or redistributing it to produce a Reagan or a Rowling, I rather favor the latter -- in part because I can buy a lot of Reagans and Rowlings for the price of one Clark.

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on July 11, 2014 at 07:48:09 am

Think John Hope Franklin in his work, From Slavery to Freedom, raised a serious issue with reference to the Renaissance and its contributions to civilization, namely, the renaissance man being willing and determined to make it anyway he could - even if that meant enslavement and the slaughter of multitudes of innocents.

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dr. james willingham
on July 11, 2014 at 08:58:08 am

"raise you a Ronald Reagan and a J.K. Rowling — people who required public assistance to get by"

Excuse me Mr. Nobody - Really, if one can even truly discern the logic of that statement, I presume you mean because President Reagan as California governor through his presidency was on the public dole; Rowling being British before she made her Harry Potter empire lived on the English social system. If that's your measure then, I'll take a Reagan or Rowling over say, a dozen Bill Clintons or Barack Obamas who during their entire adult lives (much of their youth as well) have purely subsisted off the public dole - unless you consider making paid public appearances off the back of your presidential "legacy", i.e. Clinton, or life as a "community activist", i.e. Obama, somehow related to private interest and income.

While were at it, one can add Joe - should have been a Dunkin Donuts (you know, with all its owners from India) concessioner instead of spending life in office Biden; Al - give me millions of dollars for carbon credits after life in public office Gore, John - from public office to Heinz fortune back to public office Kerry; and Hillary - but for a few years after law school living off my husband's accomplishments, into public office Clinton to name a few more of the high powered public assisted personages.

Reagan actually had a successful career before politics, and Rowling certainly has made her life on her own in at least the last seventeen years, and only the five years preceding on public assistance.

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on July 11, 2014 at 15:52:21 pm

Nobody. really has the heat gotten to you at last?

And you can buy a lot of Clarks for the price of a Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller - all of whom I might add contributed enormous sums of money in HELPING' others. i.e black colleges exist today in a very real sense because of the contributions of some of these men, oh heck, why go on? Get thee into a shady place!!!!

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Image of gabe
on July 13, 2014 at 10:14:45 am

Andrew Carnegie wrote an essay in 1889, for the North American Review, in which he noted: "It is well, nay, essential for the progress of the race, that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization, rather than that none should be so. Much better this great irregularity than universal squalor. "

I do not detect any real difference between Carnegie's argument and McGinnis'.

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Kevin R. Hardwick

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