How Many Lives Is a Da Vinci Masterpiece Worth?

'Monuments Men' Illustrates an Everyday Talmudic Balancing Act

Saved: The real ‘Monument Men’ deliver Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady With an Ermine’ to safety.
National Archives
Saved: The real ‘Monument Men’ deliver Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady With an Ermine’ to safety.

By Elissa Strauss

Published February 26, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

George Clooney’s new film, “The Monuments Men,” is based on the real-life story of a team of scholars and artists who threw on some fatigues and dashed off to Europe during World War II to save imperiled art. Their mission is very explicitly framed as a heroic struggle to save Western Culture (with that capital “c”), “our way of life,” from the Germans and later the Russians. This was a battle as worthy as others fought during the war, a point driven home by a shot that juxtaposes a charred Picasso with a barrelful of gold-capped human teeth.

If that visual makes you a little queasy, then you will no doubt recoil from the fact that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration backed this culture-saving effort while failing to put equal resources into saving Jews.

The film, while not particularly successful as a piece of art itself, raises larger questions about the value of art and whether, and how, it can be measured against human life. Can we ever justify giving money to supporting arts and culture when we could be saving lives?

I imagine that most of us, should we have been sitting in the Oval Office during the war, believe that we would have sidelined the Picasso in favor of the humans to whom those gold-capped teeth belonged. But if we follow the thinking of the philosopher Peter Singer, the vast majority of us choose art and culture over life each day. I know I do.

Singer’s famous thought experiment on giving goes like this: You are on your way to work, and you notice a child drowning. Would you jump into the pond to help save him? Even if you ruined a nice pair of shoes? The answer is fairly obvious for anyone who is not a sociopath. But taken to the next level of abstraction, things get blurrier for most people. Any extra money spent on things like an unnecessary pair of shoes is akin to allowing a child to drown. For Singer, the $20 you might spend on a novel and your annual contribution to the local art museum are in the same category: money toward beauty and pleasure that could have been donated to an organization like Oxfam, which would have used it to save a child’s life.

In an op-ed in The New York Times published last August, Singer states, in no uncertain terms, that one should not give money to the arts. He draws up a hypothetical between giving money to an art museum with plans to build a new wing and giving money to an organization that prevents trachoma, a treatable infectious disease that causes blindness. Basically, if you support the new wing, you are responsible for people going blind.

That we could all sacrifice some of our luxuries to give money to those in need is a given. Americans currently rank 13th in charitable giving in the world, and with income inequality rising on a national and global scale, those of us closer to the top certainly could live with less in order to give more. So, fine, no more Tuesday night sushi, or iPhone upgrades. There’s at least $50 a month for trachoma. But does this also mean that we should refrain from supporting arts and culture, whether as consumers or as patrons? And what about the money we spend on religious objects?

Singer’s philosophy has a stark simplicity that makes it very appealing. There’s something attractive about the idea of relying on a rigid hierarchy of values to guide how we should behave in society and in the larger global community. Even if we don’t immediately sell our cars and donate the money to dying children, it is still difficult not to fiercely nod along to the idea that we really need to save that drowning child.

Though if we do follow Singer’s line of thinking, it leaves us with a vision of the world where art and culture, religious and otherwise, are subjugated by the imperative to save human lives. Sounds kind of bleak, right?

Part of the issue here is that Singer’s theory ignores culture’s capacity to create empathy and sensitivity. Unlike cell phones and sushi, culture can teach us about the subjectivity of our existence, and provide us with the tools we need to delve into the memories and myths — cultural and individual — with which we surround ourselves. These are the very things that inspire generosity, that allow us to recognize the humanity in others as we learn to see it within ourselves. That we often arrive at these realizations through the experience of pleasure and beauty does not discount their impact.

The problem with culture and the good it produces is that it is harder to quantify than, say, curing 1,000 cases of trachoma.

Still, Thomas Wartenberg, a philosophy professor at Mount Holyoke, says one could use the Singer line of thinking and come up with an opposite result. Singer is a utilitarian philosopher, which means he believes that ethical judgments are based on “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham put it.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.