There’s a passage in the early writings of Immanuel Kant that, according to one commentator, is the first full symptom of his mature thought – making it, I guess, as terse a summation of Enlightened Liberalism as you’ll ever get: Kant is concerned about the poor starving widow – concerned, that is, that we might rush to feed or keep her warm so long as the full metaphysical meaning of feeding and clothing folks is not elucidated. True virtue, says Immanuel, lies in “general principles,” and general principles, as Kant eventually concedes, must forever remain to be formulated: you’d think he’d planned this from the start.
A couple of petitions have been making the netrounds, demanding that the Guggenheim Museum and New York University not simply bring Enlightenment to the savage sheiks of Abu Dhabi, but live up to the promise of Enlightenment to begin with:
Both petitions demand that the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as NYU, appoint an independent monitor to verify that the underpaid, exploited, immigrant labor building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi be treated according to the norms of decency usually applied to underpaid, exploited immigrant labor in other parts of the Civilized World: any middle-class kid buying an education or visiting a museum should be able to do so with the same clear conscience with which he wears his “Che” t-shirt.
Fair enough – and I’m happy to sign the petitions; all the same, this is setting the bar pretty low: it’s as if the petitioners tacitly agreed that museums and universities do not apply norms of justice and decency according to their mission, but as an unfortunate, unavoidable problem to be resolved on the way to greater, general principles. Feeding the widow is not the purpose of museums and research, discussing the eternal meanings of widows, injustice and inequality is, and if the widow and the discussion (or the widow and the picture) happen to conflict, well, that’s unfortunate, isn’t it, but nothing that can’t be improved in the meantime.
A poet I knew, a professor somewhere, once wrote an article entitled, “Nothing went into the Making of this Poetry that might have gone into the Making of Bread.” It was her way of saying that, whatever else, she’d never actually colluded in depriving anyone of bread by writing poetry. Of course her poetry was pretty much what you’d expect, the kind of thing they crank out for the New Yorker; the stuff that People who Love Poetry love to love, the kind of thing People who Love Art go to museums for. It’s only possible purpose was to evade the fact that people will want, need, bread – you know, that stuff man doesn’t live by, alone. Come to think of it, that’s what most thought produced at NYU, and most art shown at the Guggenheim, is about these days: “Nothing has gone into the production of this graduate that could be of use in the making of bread." "Nothing has gone into the production of this artwork that could be of any use to anyone, ever.”
The Price of Bread.