We live in a time when people get upset about a lot of things. People always got upset (or, outraged) but we share it more often, so maybe we're just more aware of others' grievances and griping. Sometimes the increase in anger may be a good thing; there were many intolerable things that people were made to tolerate for too long. Sometimes we may just be addicted to the outrage itself; some sorts of upset are really silly at best or nefarious at worst.
At the moment, some corners of the world are upset at the appearances of the Queen's Christmas address. The problem is supposed to be the opulence of the setting and the golden piano in the background in a time of inequality and unease in Britain and the world in general and, of course, in a speech in honor of the poor Babe of Bethlehem. On the other side, people are saying that, of course the Queen is wealthy, and that without such display tourism would fall and the point of the monarchy would, in some important senses, be lost.
One such defense the other night got me thinking about the broader implications. The comparison was to the "stripping of the altars" that occurred during the Reformation. My initial response was to say that it mattered that in this case we have a secular rather than religious stripping, and that matters.
That response might have been to quick, though I think something almost like it is correct. There's a common kind of argument made, usually by atheists or agnostics or certain types of utilitarians, that concludes that it is manifestly unjust, for instance, that there are great treasures in the Vatican while there are people who are starving. The claim is that all these goods (the Pietà, Bernini's baldacchino, St. Peter's itself, ...) ought to be sold and the proceeds given to the poor. If taken to its logical conclusion—and uncolored just by anti-religious feeling—this argument should also mean that all museums should be emptied. The Louvre also should sell the Mona Lisa and give that money to the poor.
In that latter case, we tend not to draw that conclusion. I think we're right not to. We don't for two related reasons: 1)We think that there is a common good that is served by keeping great artworks available for the public; and, 2) We think that art has a value beyond just the economic or what the economic value could do to help even the worst off. There's a little bit of "you will always have the poor with you" about it.
But those two reasons apply also in the case of the Vatican's treasures or those of any beautiful church or synagogue or mosque or temple. The beauty is shared among many more people than could ever appreciate it were in private hands and—at least for the believer—there is a transcendent value; it points to something beyond. For what it's worth, I think it can be seen to point to something beyond even for the non- or other-believer, if only the Kantian sublime.
All art, of whatever sort, is extravagant and profligate.
So, what about the Queen and her art and golden pianos and all the rest? It depends entirely on what we think the Queen is. If she is just a person, then there can be little question that her wealth is obscene. If, instead, she is the Crown or the embodiment of the same, something that not only transcends the particular individual but also transcends the citizens over whom she reigns and something whose beauty or wealth or existence or style-of-life can be enjoyed either vicariously or as spectacle by many, then there's nothing out of sorts about her pianos or pictures or palaces.
I'm not saying that the Queen does play this role, nor am I defending her lifestyle—or that of popes or cardinals or presidents or anyone else—but I do think we can oversimplify these cases in ways that ignore the complexities of our relation to institutions and values beyond the utilitarian or, even, beyond the merely moral.