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

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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...

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