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!
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • 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.