After we’ve sold off the Michelangelo’s and the Bernini’s and the patrimony of 2,000 years of art given for the glory of God and then distributed all the money, then what? It’s all gone. The great treasures of Christian art will be hanging in the private mansions of billionaires or in sterile museum galleries instead of in churches where they inspire men to lift their hearts and minds to God. And the poor will still be poor because even if we sold it for a few billion dollars it won’t even make a dent in material poverty. Frankly, the Church already spends billions on charity worldwide through the combined activity of all the faithful and will continue to do so. Must we sell the artwork too?
Frankly, it’s crass even to consider it. For some reason, “priceless” has ceased to mean “you can’t put a price on it” and now means “really, really expensive.” No, the art and architecture created by the men and women putting forth all their talent and skill as an act of praise for God really is priceless. You cannot put a price on it because it’s not simply an object of utilitarian economic value.
What a drab world it would be if everything had a price tag: the Mona Lisa; Chartre’s windows; the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes; love; friendship; wives and children. What sad utilitarianism we would subject ourselves to if there were no beauty for beauty’s sake, no art for God’s sake, but only products for economic transactions’ sake.
The poor know well the value of art and beauty for the glory of God. Chartre’s windows were not merely decorative but are a catechism for people who were mainly illiterate, telling the stories of salvation in colored glass for a people looking for hope. When you enter the cathedral, your eyes are drawn up to the soaring heights as a rainbow of light streams around and you feel as though you have entered the throne room of Heaven. If that’s how it can affect someone raised on a steady diet of the wonders of Hollywood special effects, imagine what it could do for someone who’d never seen a building larger than his local lord’s keep. His imagination would soar.
Has anyone ever asked the proverbial poor if we should sell off the treasures of the Vatican for their benefit? Perhaps they’d be horrified at the prospect. After all, held by the Church, the treasures belong to all mankind and they are given proper and due reverence. Sold off, they’d belong to a man to dispose of as he wills.
Priceless artwork is priceless precisely because it cannot and should not be sold. Ever. It’s value goes beyond dollars, which themselves are not the ultimate cure for all that ails humanity. That’s a lesson those of us who live in the consumerism-addled West would do well to learn.