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Does a market economy encourage or discourage music, literature, and the visual arts? Do economic forces of supply and demand help or harm the pursuit of creativity? This book seeks to redress the current intellectual and popular balance and to encourage a more favorable attitude toward the commercialization of culture that we associate with modernity. Economist Tyler Cowen argues that the capitalist market economy is a vital but underappreciated institutional framework for supporting a plurality of co-existing artistic visions, providing a steady stream of new and satisfying creations, supporting both high and low culture, helping consumers and artists refine their tastes, and paying homage to the past by capturing, reproducing, and disseminating it. Contemporary culture, Cowen argues, is flourishing in its various manifestations, including the visual arts, literature, music, architecture, and the cinema.
Successful high culture usually comes out of a healthy and prosperous popular culture. Shakespeare and Mozart were highly popular in their own time. Beethoven's later, less accessible music was made possible in part by his early popularity. Today, consumer demand ensures that archival blues recordings, a wide array of past and current symphonies, and this week's Top 40 hit sit side by side in the music megastore. High and low culture indeed complement each other.
Cowen's philosophy of cultural optimism stands in opposition to the many varieties of cultural pessimism found among conservatives, neo-conservatives, the Frankfurt School, and some versions of the political correctness and multiculturalist movements, as well as historical figures, including Rousseau and Plato. He shows that even when contemporary culture is thriving, it appears degenerate, as evidenced by the widespread acceptance of pessimism. He ends by considering the reasons why cultural pessimism has such a powerful hold on intellectuals and opinion-makers.
Capitalism is better than an other 'ism' at delivering the goods—food, cars, shoes, and the other materials of everyday life. But few people associate capitalism with culture. In fact, many see the two as antithetical. Tyler Cowen, an art-loving economist, disagrees. Far from hurting culture, Cowen argues that capitalism nurtures it. Precisely because capitalism delivers the goods, Cowen writes, people have the means to buy books, paintings, and other forms of art. Improvements in production and marketing, for example, as well as increased wealth, have made books available to the masses. In 1760 a common laborer has to work two days to earn enough money to buy a cheap schoolbook; today the cost of a paperback is slightly more than the hourly minimum wage.
— David R. Henderson
In Praise of Commercial Culture is a profoundly important book: In a historical moment when even socialists grant the efficiency and efficacy of markets in delivering a dizzying array of goods and services to people (and an increasing number of conservatives lament the same), there is still a great deal of resistance to applying a similar analysis to the production and consumption of culture...Cowen's book is a seminal effort toward understanding that cultural matters, like other forms of human activity, benefit greatly from the decentralization, innovation, and feedback mechanisms endemic to market orders. In Praise of Commercial Culture is rich in nuance yet highly accessible to the general reader...By contextualizing pessimism within a larger dynamic of cultural growth and by showing the beneficial effects of markets on art, In Praise of Commercial Culture remaps the debate in a way that should greatly inform all future arguments.
— Nick Gillespie
Unlike critics...who laud the free market but have suspicions about the pop culture it spawns, or critics...who love pop culture's vibrancy but disdain capitalist markets, Mr. Cowen thinks that American-style commerce and culture come awfully close to representing the best of all possible worlds...Key to his argument is the notion that cultural markets are not zero-sum. Even if the markets are serving up pabulum to the masses, that doesn't prevent Mario Vargas Llosa or Salman Rushdie from reaching an audience. The relevant question isn't how many more books Tom Clancy sells than Rushdie, Mr. Cowen insists, but whether serious novelists can reach the audiences that are hungry for them. In other words, the efficient distribution of books at every level of taste is the sign of the healthiest kind of market...Mr. Cowen also takes issue with the 'winner-take-all' theory of cultural markets...[which] suggests that cultural markets favor lowest-common-denominator blockbusters...and that more artistic works get shunted aside as studios and publishers seek the next giant payday. Mr. Cowen's response is that trite best sellers may generate more cultural noise than smaller works, but that if you cut through the noise, smaller works are still thriving.
— Christopher Shea
[A] provocative and valuable book.
— Alan W. Bock
Penetrating...Cowen calmly and carefully argues that a market economy—in other words, modern capitalism, attentive above all to supply and demand—is the single best guarantor of vigorous culture...What makes In Praise of Commercial Culture such a pleasure to read is partly Cowen's humility—he writes softly—and partly the care and acuity with which he draws out his argument...Cowen's real intelligence—the depth of thought that makes this such an interesting book—shows itself when he [notes]: 'Governments often support creativity most effectively by providing a large number of jobs where individuals are not expected to work very hard'...[This is a] fascinating book.
— Bruce Serafin
[Tyler Cowen] argues that market forces stimulate the production of culture, high and low, and that far from homogenizing taste, they tend to produce art that is more specialized and diverse than it would be otherwise. In three especially lively chapters, Cowen traces the markets for the written word (where the printing press has been around for centuries), music (where recording technology became available only relatively recently), and painting (where reproductive technology counts for much less)...The picture of the art markets that emerges from In Praise of Commercial Culture is a reassuring one...It is less possible than ever before to create the monopoly on commercial culture that is the objective of totalitarian states. Within wide bands of fad and fashion, people are going to decide for themselves what they like.
— David Warsh
I have been doused by cold water, and by an economist at that. In Praise of Commercial Culture proclaims that a thriving capitalist society sustains the arts better than any other form of social organisation...As with the debate in the US over the National Endowment for the Arts, the row over Britain's Arts Council never goes away. The belief is that high culture would fade away if state subsidies were withdrawn. We are unwilling to place our cultural bets on the finer impulses of the super-rich. We prefer, irrationally to leave it to officials to decide who is worthy. Creative capitalism does it better.
— Joe Rogaly
This book is such a delight that it's hard to believe it was written by an economist. It exudes such common sense (another unbelievability where economists are concerned) that, even when it fails to persuade entirely, the lapses invite dialogue, not dismissal...[This book] is neither an Ayn Randian paean to 'The Artist as Businessman' nor a dry economic analysis in which 'cultural production' becomes one more abstract input to the GDP. Mr. Cowen combines economic perspective with the skills of a cultural historian and the aesthetic sensibilities of a writer who cherishes his own cultural experiences.
— Philip Gold
In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen...is a treasure trove of insights about artistic genres, styles and trends, dexterously illuminated through economic analysis. Cowen's main argument is that capitalism—by fostering alternate modes of financial support and multiple market niches, vast wealth and technological innovation—is the best ally the arts could have.
— Andrew Stark
Jesse Helms and Karen Finley: Take note of Tyler Cowen. The George Mason University economist is an avid arts warrior, but one who rises above the reactionary postures that have come to define the debate over arts funding...[His] new book In Praise of Commercial Culture, argues that free markets, unbridled by government, produce the best environments for creative expression...'Ninety percent of what is released is usually junk,' he observes, 'but junk is just a symptom of the riches we enjoy.'
— Louis Jacobson
In a wide-ranging, brilliant, and thought-provoking book, Tyler Cowen has come to the cultural defense of capitalism. He argues that the record of free markets in supporting culture can stand comparison with that of any other system, from feudalism to communism...Cowen is amazingly learned, both in scholarship about the arts and in the arts themselves. He moves effortlessly from painting to music to literature. He also navigates skillfully between high and low culture, whether he is comparing the great piano virtuoso Franz Liszt to a contemporary stage performer like Prince, or showing how the second part of Don Quixote follows the same logic as do movie sequels like The Empire Strikes Back or Terminator 2...This is a very important and original book.
— Paul Cantor
A masterful performance...Cowen has provided a marvelously exuberant counterblast to the wide-spread view that in our philistine, materialist world the arts are going to hell in a handbasket. They are not. They are alive and well, and thriving as never before. Cowen goes a long way towards explaining why. For anyone with any interest in the history, funding and encouragement of the arts, In Praise of Commercial Culture is not to be missed.
— Winston Fletcher
[Cowen] argues persuasively that literature, Western art, and music 'from Bach to the Beatles' flourish best when businesses are profitable and opportunities for innovative artists to find customers are multiplied...As with the debate in the US over the National Endowment for the Arts, the row over Britain's Arts Council never goes away. The belief is that high culture would fade away if state subsidies were withdrawn. We are unwilling to place our cultural bets on the finer impulses of the super-rich. We prefer, irrationally, to leave it to officials to decide who is worthy. Creative capitalism does it better.
— Joe Rogaly
The view that art should sup with commerce only with the help of a very long spoon is the extension of a popular view of artistic endeavor—that the best artists, musicians and writers are outsiders, pushed by poverty, ill-health or an oppressive state to create...Mr. Cowen won't have a bar of such pessimism. He argues that the best artists have mostly been in the thick of life...writing, painting or composing to the dictates of the market. Commercialisation, in fact, is just what art needs and Adam Smith was right: prose and poetry flow naturally from the growth of prosperity...Moreover, wealth and financial security give artists scope to reject societal values; a large market lowers the cost of creative pursuits and makes market niches easier to find; increasing wealth means better and longer life expectancy, which helps artists realise their potential.
— Graham Adams
You probably know that Impressionism couldn't have occurred if it hadn't been for the invention of metal tubes for paints. You may not, on the other hand, have wondered about the technology needed to quarry and transport the blocks of marble that Michelangelo turned into sculptures, or about the kinds of financial organizations a culture needs before it can fund such efforts.
Tyler Cowen, a young economics professor at George Mason University, writes about many such questions in his refreshing new look at markets and art, managing somehow to steer clear of both esthetic and neo-Marxist high-mindedness. He sets forth two arguments. The first is that, although we like to imagine that artists live and produce in defiance of the market, art has had no better friend than capitalism. Imperfect though they may be, markets have opened up opportunities and promoted diversity; they have sprung artists free from aristocratic patronage, and they have provided artists with ever more, and ever cheaper, materials.
The evidence he marshals is overwhelming. One long chapter concerns wealth, cities and art, and reminds us that the cultural breakthroughs that took place in Florence and Venice in the Renaissance, in Amsterdam in the 17th century and in 18th century London were all partnered by commercial flowerings. He's good too on the entrepreneurial energies artists have displayed over the ages. The typical Renaissance artist wasn't hiding in a garret, wrestling with demons in an effort to express himself. He had product to move, assistants to mobilize, contracts to draw up and customers to pursue -- and he generally worked on commission. Those ur-rebels, the Impressionists, didn't just kick out against the esthetics of the Academie, they (and their colleagues) worked hard to develop ways to outwit its stranglehold on sales outlets.
At its best, the book is a convincing and informative paean to the resourcefulness of artists and to the market's ability to allow ever more niches to be discovered and exploited. Cowen's second argument -- a call for cultural optimism -- is weaker. He wants to pose a question to the Allan Blooms on the right and to the Frankfurt School fans on the left. Thanks to capitalism, consumers today have more art more easily available to them than anyone else has ever enjoyed in all history. How, then, can anyone justify being a pessimist about the fate of culture? It's a point that needs more stressing than it generally gets. But the openness of Cowen's approach is more eloquent than the way he elaborates his argument; he misses out, for instance, on the sheer fun of being a crank. And though he seems solid as an economist, he's woefully underequipped as a critic, undermining his case with, for example, lengthy college-paper-level claims for the greatness of pop music. Cowen could use a little more crankiness himself; as it is, he sometimes comes across as an ungainly mixture of Pollyanna and whippersnapper.
But his first 120 pages are the most accessible introduction to the history of the economics of Western art that I know of, and deserve a place on that shelf of writing you wish someone had steered you to as a freshman. It's surprising how enlightening and pleasurable it can be to see art discussed in terms of "incentives" and "funding models." The art lore alone makes the book a rewarding browse. Did you know that it took the skin of more than 300 sheep to produce one Gutenberg Bible? If the experience of reading Cowen can sometimes be like watching 3-by-5 cards flip dutifully past -- the book is largely a collation of other people's research -- he avoids trendiness and jargon, and he does keep pulling his facts together and then sorting them out. Cowen's common sense wrestles your thoughts and fantasies down to solid earth -- which is where, as most artists will admit when they're being honest, 90 percent of art-making takes place. -- Salon
Posted October 28, 2008
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