The Financial Times has a tongue-in-cheek article about “HNWI” (“High Net Worth Individuals”—in other words, the ultra-rich) who use their ample free time to make art. Among them is Alain de Botton, whose banker father gave him a trust fund of £200m—proving that the rich not only want to inflict low wages and economic precarity on the rest of us, but also insufferable pop philosophy books.
Other HNWI heirs will make bad art. A friend once asked the daughter of a famous European family the ultimate middle-class question: “What do you do?” She replied: “I make combustible art.” “Err, what?” asked my friend. “I make sculptures,” she explained, “then I burn them.” “I’d like to see some one day,” he said politely. “You can’t,” she replied patiently. “I burn them.”
But some HNWI art will be good. HNWI artists have time to hone their talent, and won’t dissipate it in hack work like us plebs. When I joined the FT as a graduate trainee in 1994, I was told that somebody called Alain de Botton had been offered the same job the year before. But De Botton — whose banker father left him a trust fund reportedly worth £200m — had decided to write books instead. He insists he never touched his dad’s money. Still, it presumably made artistic life feel secure.
Similarly, American writer Andrew Solomon (whose ultra-HNWI father Howard was a pharmaceutical mogul) could afford to spend 11 years writing his book Far From the Tree. Other contemporary HNWI artists include Brazilian film-maker Walter Salles, from an old banking family, and posh English novelist Edward St Aubyn. His books recount an unhappy childhood on a big estate. That will become a classic theme of HNWI art. This may seem a limitation. But when the educated middle classes dominated artistic production, they, too, left out most of life. George Orwell lamented the scarcity of “proletarian novels”. De Botton notes that even middle-class working life rarely features in literature. Most literary characters, he complains, “fall in love and have sex and . . . never go to the office”. Being a HNWI with time to rectify these matters, De Botton visited many offices to research his book on work. HNWI art has its drawbacks. But it will keep a lot of potentially dangerous people off the streets.