‘A battle of generosity’ has broken out after the fire at Notre Dame of Paris on Monday. The whole world watched horrified as the symbol of France and the Catholic Church burned, the devastation narrated live in the style of a disaster movie. Self-appointed champions are now rushing to take lead roles: that of the main donor, or the politician from afar who knew better what should have been done. Everyman characters are also being cast, as thousands of twitter users search for a father and daughter photographed in front of the cathedral just before the fire broke out. But the spotlight has been taken by the billionaires bidding against each other to support the cause.
Our social status is constructed through our capacity for generosity: to give presents, to support, or to donate. In an interview for Revue Projet, Alain Caillé describes how the performative order of generosity – who is entitled to give, and who is obliged to accept – is heavily formalized, and not only in philanthropy. The act of giving, while vital and helpful, can also create a power structure, with the beneficiary indebted to the benefactor, who may then expect appreciation or loyalty.
The Notre Dame is many things: the birthplace of the concept of the université as we know it; an imposing piece of cultural heritage; a reminder of the Catholic Church’s millennial monopoly on the afterlife and, consequently, of lay power throughout the history of Europe. In a sense, it is the perfect spot for donors to invest their wealth and compete for social legitimacy. Their capacity to be generous, the result of a historic concentration of wealth, should also be a subject of the discourse.
There is no questioning whether the Old Lady needs to be saved. It obviously does. However, it is worth remembering the huge potential for the abuse of generosity that the race to donate brings with it. Will we see gothic-style statues of luxury product tycoons? How will politicians utilize the catastrophe in the upcoming European elections? Will it evoke a shared sense of culture? Either way, we should try to put questions of public access to cultural heritage on the agenda as well.