Reading Peter Singer While Visiting Fallingwater

Our older son is very interested in Frank Lloyd Wright’s archictecture, so we took the family on a road trip last week to visit two of his landmarks, Fallingwater, outside of Pittsburgh, and the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo. It also happened that the book I was reading at the time was Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do.

Under the rubric of effective altruism, Singer urges people to give to those charities that make the most substantial improvement in the greatest number of lives. The charities that come out at the top of his list are generally involved in health and economic development in the Third World.

Singer has little time for donations in support of the arts, writing “In a world in which everyone had enough to eat, basic health, adequate sanitation, and a place at school for each of their children, there would be no problem about donating to museums and other institutions that offer an opportunity to see original works of art to all who want to see them … Sadly, we don’t live in that world, at least not yet.”

Should we not have gone on this trip, or should we have felt sorry that we did? Should people donate to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which maintains Fallingwater, or to the Martin House Restoration Corporation, which is restoring the Martin House as it was when it was built in 1907? Pushing the argument even farther, should Martin, despite being one of the wealthiest business executives of his time, have built such a palatial house? Should the wealthy Kaufman family, in the middle of the Great Depression, have built such an extravagant second home?

Let’s start at the end of this chain of questions. Both Darwin Martin and the Kaufmans knew that Wright was one of the most innovative architects of the age and that by commissioning him to design their homes, they would be supporting great works of architectural art. Neither was disappointed, and indeed Fallingwater immediately was recognized as a master work. Both Fallingwater and the Martin House ultimately came into the public domain, Fallingwater because the Kaufman’s only child gave it to the Conservancy and the Martin House because Martin was ruined in the Depression and his family had to vacate it. I suggest that changing family fortunes as well as tax policy lead to many great works of art moving from private ownership into the public domain.

Creating art often has economic benefits for the immediate community. By building Fallingwater, the Kaufmans provided jobs for a considerable number of construction workers and artisans during the Great Depression. The Darwin Martin House was left derelict for two decades, a symbol of the decline experienced in its neighborhood. The renovation project has played a key role in stabilizing and rebuilding the neighborhood.

Before rendering his judgment against donating to museums, conservancies, and restoration corporations, Singer did concede that “there is value in creating and enjoying art,” that “people produce art in all cultures and in all kinds of situations, even when they cannot satisfy their basic physical needs,” and that “other people enjoy seeing art.” While the scholarship I produce would not likely be classified as art, I do enjoy seeing art.

I do have a strong interest in modern architecture and share my son’s fascination with Wright’s work, in particular his integration of his houses into their external environment and his use of cantilevering to support horizontal structures. Touring Wright’s houses puts me in a mental state of relaxation and contemplation. Wright’s aesthetic achievements also serve as a source of inspiration for my research and writing. This, then, is my experience of what Singer calls “enjoy[ing] seeing art.” Seeing art is very important to me, and I value and appreciate the efforts of individuals and organizations that make it possible.

Singer does make a strong case for supporting Third World development, and my family does this, primarily by donating to Plan Canada and Medecins sans Frontieres. Indeed, we donate more to these organizations than we spend on museum and art gallery memberships.

Singer does make the important point that selection of the most effective charities should be based on empirical research, especially using randomized controlled trials. But one major gap in his analysis is that he says nothing about the political context in which aid is delivered. Two notable absences in the index of his book are “governance” and “failed state.” My point is that a viable governance infrastructure is needed if Third World societies are to make progress. State failure is a major cause of misery and unless governance improves charitable contributions to NGOs will not improve the long-run wellbeing of the citizens of those states.

The sort of charity Singer prefers is aimed at eradicating a viral disease such as smallpox, an achievement that cannot be undercut by state failure. But there are other instances when state failure results in public health setbacks. For example, The New York Times recently documented the return of malaria to Venezuela.

Singer has made a thought-provoking and compelling argument for donating to charities that have proven themselves effective at alleviating Third World suffering, but his argument has not taken into account the implications of governance failures. Nor has he convinced me that preserving and displaying art is an unworthy cause. And I certainly don’t feel any guilt about visiting Fallingwater and the Darwin Martin House, rather both evoked sublime enjoyment.

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