Review: In Praise of Commercial Culture

In his 1998 book In Praise of Commercial Culture, Tyler Cowen, the prolific co-author of Marginal Revolution, makes two arguments. The first, about the effects of capitalism on art, is convincing, but the second, about critiques of art, is not.

Dr. Cowen argues that production and distribution via market mechanisms benefits artists and art consumers. Competition and consumer taste do a good job of selecting the best artists and eliciting innovation and masterworks. Technological advances and increasing wealth open up new possibilities and greater independence for artists. Many great artists of the past, from the Renaissance to the Impressionists, explicitly operated as businessmen in a market. On the whole, market forces have been salutary for art and artists; therefore commentators should not fear commercialism in film, publishing, music, or other art markets.

This is the primary argument of the book and Dr. Cowen supports it well. Recent applications of technology to facilitate “long tail” markets provide yet another illustration of the benefits of capitalism for the arts.

However, Dr. Cowen also spends a lot of space beating up “cultural pessimists,” which I found less convincing. Cultural pessimists seem to come in two flavors: those that say the market corrupts, homogenizes, or otherwise damages the production of art, and those that decry the perceived moral or political effects of certain artworks.

For the purpose of showing “the ability of capitalism to support each kind of art,” Dr. Cowen adopts a “value-neutral” outlook regarding the relative quality of artworks. “The categories commonly labeled high and low art often are complements rather than alternatives that we must choose between. … we cannot establish that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than Charles Dickens.”

Dr. Cowen’s value-neutral approach is appropriate for the goals of this study (not “a treatise on aesthetics”) but it leads to confusion later. Each artwork can be judged simultaneously on two value scales. One is its degree of technical achievement, including all aspects of form, plot, execution, originality, or any other attributes by which any artwork can be judged as such. The second is its content or moral effect. (Composer Karlheinze Stockhausen explains the difference.)

Dr. Cowen conflates both the two value scales and the two types of cultural pessimist. Worse, he does not seem to acknowledge that any artwork can affect people more profoundly than a coffee-table book. All artworks are equal and equally impotent; only consumers’ individual and aggregate taste give rise to more or less demand. Cultural pessimists are motivated by psychological biases, political pandering, the hunger for power, elderly timidity, or religious delusions. As far as this book is concerned, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup prints and actual cans of Campbell’s soup are essentially the same, one a commodity to look at, the other a commodity to eat.

The possibility that nihilistic art might cultivate nihilists, nationalistic art nationalists, or beautiful art beautiful citizens, is not admitted. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote about music:

Music, or poetry, which is what music becomes as reason emerges, always involves a delicate balance between passion and reason, and, even in its highest and most developed forms – religious, warlike, and erotic – that balance is always tipped, if ever so slightly, toward the passionate. Music, as everyone experiences, provides an unquestionable justification and a fulfilling pleasure for the activities it accompanies: the soldier who hears the marching band is enthralled and reassured; the religious man is exalted in his prayer by the sound of the organ in the church; and the lover is carried away and his conscience stilled by the romantic guitar. Armed with music, men can damn rational doubt. (71-72) …

It is interesting to note that the Left, which prides itself on its critical approach to “late capitalism” and is unrelenting and unsparing in its analysis of our other cultural phenomena, has in general given rock music a free ride. Abstracting from the capitalist element in which it flourishes, they regard it as people’s art, coming from beneath the bourgeoisie’s layers of cultural repression. Its antinomianism and its longing for a world without constraint might seem to be the clarion of the proletarian revolution, and Marxists certainly do see that rock music dissolves the beliefs and morals necessary for liberal society and would approve of it for that alone. (77-78) …

Lessing, speaking of Greek sculpture, said “beautiful men made beautiful statues, and the city had beautiful statues in part to thank for beautiful citizens.” This formula encapsulates the fundamental principle of the esthetic education of man. (80)

I quote at length to show that Dr. Cowen fails to engage the true critiques of cultural pessimists like Bloom, whom he compares to Max Nordau, a German cultural critic of the late 19th century.

Like Bloom, Nordau stresses music as a sign of cultural health, although he attacks Wagnerian opera instead of rock and roll. … Despite a gap of nearly one hundred years, Bloom and Nordau agree on the ultimate intellectual sources of cultural mischief. They share a hatred of German romantic philosophy and portray Nietzsche as the philosopher-king of egomania and moral relativism.

The point is not that Allan Bloom was right to condemn rock and roll. Rather, it is that artworks can succeed in terms of market support and technical perfection, yet remain inimical to the very liberal market society that brought them forth. Dr. Cowen’s book is a successful answer to Marxist elitists like Theodore Adorno, who think that capitalist society damages the art world. An economic history of art in the West shows that this is not the case. But Dr. Cowen has not shown that Bloom and other cultural pessimists are wrong who say that the art world can damage capitalist society.

Bloom may or may not have been right about rock; his critique does not necessarily apply outside his time and culture; what is fine for a 50-something university professor in 2007 may not be fine for a 16-year-old in 1967 – to say nothing of a Russian teenager in 1987. As Dr. Cowen points out,

Just as Savonarola was one of the most perceptive viewers of Florentine art, so were the Soviet apparatchiks among the most perceptive analysts of rock. They understood that rock was pro-capitalist, pro-individualist, consumerist, and opposed to socialism and state control. In Czechoslovakia, the government concluded that punk rock was a manipulative tool used by capitalists to convince young people to identify with life under capitalism. The oppressed citizens loved punk music precisely for these reasons. After the anti-communist revolutions began behind the Iron Curtain, many former dissidents pointed out that rock music was a vital means for spreading pro-Western, pro-capitalist ideas. John Lennon, a self-professed collectivist, in fact proved to be a superb propagandist for the Western economic system.

Punk was subversive in the West as well as the East. And just because it is considered conservative art today doesn’t mean that Nordau was wrong to attack Wagnerian opera. Just ask Adolf Hitler.

(Important caveat: I doubt very much that Dr. Cowen himself thinks that all art is equal or that it is impotent. I suspect he disagrees with “social conservatives” such as Allan Bloom and used this book, which is really very good, to attack them without working up a full political and philosophical argument. But the book is fun, has nice short histories of the economics of music, publishing, and painting, and plenty of happy evidence for free-market types like me. Plus I am a loyal reader of Marginal Revolution, so I hope he isn’t too hard on this review.)

ADDITIONAL READING: Other books on related issues include the excellent Nation of Rebels by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, and of course The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom.

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