Stephen Bayley: House the poor! Build a gallery! Save a hedgehog! Now that's rich

The rich are different. And they can make a difference. Stephen Bayley traces the history of giving generously, and unearths some unlikely links between Dante's Divine Comedy and Pink Floyd

Share

Provided they lend me their houses and take me for rides in their planes, I have no objection to the very rich. On the contrary, I am rather in favour. This will surely be a comfort to wealthy souls tormented by the irreconcilable conflict between limitless worldly pistonnage and the inevitable, cruel vectors of mortality. A Gulfstream can only suspend you for so long between the dust and ashes at the beginning and the end of life's excursion. Accordingly, great good has come out of the guilt and fear that good fortune and great wealth produce.

Provided they lend me their houses and take me for rides in their planes, I have no objection to the very rich. On the contrary, I am rather in favour. This will surely be a comfort to wealthy souls tormented by the irreconcilable conflict between limitless worldly pistonnage and the inevitable, cruel vectors of mortality. A Gulfstream can only suspend you for so long between the dust and ashes at the beginning and the end of life's excursion. Accordingly, great good has come out of the guilt and fear that good fortune and great wealth produce.

Whichever way you look at it, the journey from Dante's Divine Comedy to Pink Floyd is a long one, but last week brought them closer together. When Dante vilified his family, the financier Enrico Scrovegni - by way of expiation - promptly commissioned Giotto to decorate Padua's Arena Chapel and, hey presto, (this was about 1305), there was the Renaissance in painting. Now, while I can enjoyably hum "The Wall" along with the next man, it would be reckless to compare Dave Gilmour's artistic achievements with Giotto's. Still, his easy-going benevolence in giving away a handsome Maida Vale property to a housing charity shows what fun can be had, like Scrovegni, with the distribution of wealth. Gilmour's civic gesture is in specially nice contrast to the wince-making avarice of FTSE chief executive officers with their screw-you feather-bedding and spectacularly hypocritical short-termism.

I have - we all have - always thought how very amusing it would be to have vast wealth ... and give (almost all of it) away. Build a university! Parks! Galleries! Plant trees! A hedgehog recovery project! This is one of the most beguiling daydreams of them all, and the reason I do not - at least not yet - have vast wealth is that I have a tendency to daydream. And here is one of the many differences between the very rich and the rest of us. My experience is that people who have made a lot of money are very focused indeed. In fact, the rich are different from you and me because they tend to think not so much about what they might do with the money; rather they think of the money itself. This is as fundamental a divide in human personality as the left-brain, right-brain schism.

"I don't," I remember Terence Conran saying to me, "want to leave it to the kids or to the Inland Revenue." Thus, starting in 1979, began a remarkable adventure that resulted, through some canny philanthropy and a bit of nipping and tucking, in London's Design Museum. Conran's huge generosity in wanting to popularise design (and his brilliant insight of having me do it for him) was a classic of educated altruism, but it was also not without an element of opportunism, even commercial self-interest. While Conran's authentic enthusiasm for design proselytising (incurable, I caught it) cannot be questioned, the idea of funding a design museum had a subsidiary purpose. This was to create a virtuous circle. The more, the theory went, we educate the public in design, or - at least - our version of it, the more they will want to go and spend in our shops. The more they do this, the more we will make, and the more we will be able to educate them, and so on.

Bill Gates, boss of Microsoft, did something similar. His first major charitable contribution was giving away $60m of software in 1995. Then in 1997 the Gates Foundation wired 6,000 US libraries at a cost of $90m. Only a curmudgeon or a churl would be snitty about this because the democratic benefits are obvious but, on the other hand, there are plenty of curmudgeons and churls to be found. They said that was all very well, but what Gates was really doing was not so different morally from the drug dealer distributing small parcels of crack outside school. Through his charitable foundation, they said, Gates was forming a lifetime's addiction to Microsoft products, which he would then feed. It was, one critic said, as if the Ford Foundation restricted its charitable giving to automobile components, requiring its beneficiaries to buy Ford cars. Perhaps stung by these accusations, the Gates Foundation has turned its interest to vaccination.

As stimuli to philanthropy, guilt and fear are often joined by vanity. Here the Sainsburys come to mind. The family's benefactions have undoubtedly enhanced public life in Britain. We are all better off because Norman Foster's Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia and Robert Venturi's National Gallery extension have been built on the profits from oven chips and industrial verdicchio. But, to present a contrarian view, we would all have been even better off if J Sainsbury plc had spent more money and effort on landscaping its wretched supermarkets and commissioning more dignified buildings from architects of talent and repute. This stratagem, however, would have been a less efficient way of feeding the voracious status-anxiety of uppity grocers.

But maybe I am being a bit cheap, as the poor are inclined to be. Quibble as we might, the sensibilities of Conran, Sainsbury and Saatchi are pointing in the right direction. The truth is that prosperous entrepreneurs in possession of a good fortune and feeling shifty about destiny are not a menace; they are an unexploited national asset. For every Conran, Sainsbury, Saatchi, Clore and Tate there are also brutally philistine magnates sitting on fizzing piles of moolah. What can stimulate these very chubby pussies to be generous? In our daydreams it is tempting to imagine terrifying legislation that might separate them from their dosh. But it is not ugly, punitive law-making we need to excite the moral responsibilities of the rich. What we need instead is more poets of Dante's stature to expose their boorish vice and folly, and shame them into interesting acts of popular munificence.

JP Morgan said of his ocean-going yacht Corsair, "Nobody who has to ask what a yacht costs has any business owning one". I am inclined to think that no one who demands extraordinary rewards from a public company - as Jean-Pierre Garnier, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, did last week - has any business running one. He could have redeemed himself with a promise of future acts of enlightened civic purpose, but that wouldn't be in character for a money-grubbing salaryman. The pharmaceutical company's annual general meeting had its revenge on its grabby chief executive. History irrefutably rewards the generous. There is not going to be a Garnier chapel. Conran, Gates, Sainsbury, Saatchi and Clore have all had the nerve and style to create decent projects of both particular and general benefit. And I happen to know that in each case they have a great deal left. Our new Dante might encourage them to be even more generous still.

Blake said: "Good and Evil are Riches and Poverty". There are good rich men and evil rich men. The good ones always feel inclined to give it away. As history shows...

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Robert Fisk
 

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape