Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious. In 2004, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art paid a sum said to be in excess of $45 million for a small Madonna and Child painted by the medieval Italian master Duccio. In buying this painting, the museum has added to the abundance of masterpieces that those fortunate enough to be able to visit it can see. But if it only costs $50 to perform a cataract operation in a developing
country, that means there are 900,000 people who can’t see anything at all, let alone a painting, whose sight could have been restored by the amount of money that painting cost. At $450 to repair a fistula, $45 million could have given 100,000 women another chance at a decent life. At $1,000 a life, it could have saved 45,000 lives–a football stadium full of people. How can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that? If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child? And that’s just one child.
It is hard to disagree with Singer's extreme example, especially given our instinctual response to saving the child from a burning building. However, Singer's moral calculus is aligning two entities with intrinsic value: art (culture) and human life.
Would you respond differently if instead of a painting that money was spent on preserving the cultural record of a dwindling Native American tribe? On an archival project to preserve musical heritage (ala John Lomax and the Blues)? Outside of a capitalistic structure that values art at $45 millions dollars, how do you quantify the value of culture?