Art Heaven

Culture and technology.
Dec. 13 1998 3:30 AM

Art Heaven

The economist Tyler Cowen thinks we live in a cultural paradise. Do we?

In Praise of Commercial Culture
By Tyler Cowen
Harvard University Press; 288 pages; $27.95

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One of the most enduring and least questioned assumptions of modern cultural criticism is that American capitalism is bad for art. There are many variations on this prejudice. Perhaps the oldest is the Tocquevillean strain, which contends that American art and literature are bound to be inferior because they depend on the largess of crass nouveaux riches rather than of cultivated aristocrats. There is a Marxist strain, which asserts that artists are alienated from their labor under capitalism, and a Frankfurt School strain, which argues that a market economy produces a banal and degraded popular culture.

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The leading opponent of this whole family of assumptions is Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and the author of a book titled In Praise of Commercial Culture, which was published earlier this year. Capitalism, Cowen contends, is not only not anti-culture, it is the best of all possible systems for culture. He describes his position as "cultural optimism," in answer to what he sees as the long-dominant position of "cultural pessimism." In his book, Cowen make a spirited case that the free market does the best job of supporting large numbers of artists, encouraging them to create high-quality work, and making the best work widely available. The United States, he believes, is a kind of art paradise, offering a "parade of successful and diverse cultural products." This analysis is provocative and interesting enough to take seriously, even though I think it's off base.

Cowen approaches culture the way that you might expect an economist of libertarian leanings to approach it--as entrepreneurial activity. According to his rational-choice view of art, Michelangelo, Mozart, and Shakespeare were all trying to maximize their income and returns to ego by means of self-expression. Cowen, who apparently spends a great deal of time consuming culture, supports his thesis with a pretty impressive range of evidence. With polymathic perversity, he moves from Florentine artisanship to French Salon painting to the early days of R & B as he collects interesting tidbits to support his case that the state smothers artists while the market provides for them.

Cowen sometimes sounds a bit ridiculous; he flaunts his tastes like someone desperate to impress a date. When it comes to music, he is a fan of Kraftwerk, Showboat, Morton Feldman, the Beach Boys, Brahms, "the music of the Pygmies of Central Africa," Benny Goodman, Niggaz With Attitude, early Philip Glass, the Clash, and the works of Giovanni Palestrina performed on original instruments. Cowen's Web site lists his favorite authors, musicians, movies, and artists (Diego Velázquez, Piet Mondrian, Damien Hirst), and offers his reviews of nearly every restaurant in the Washington area. The names he drops sometimes crash and break. Paul Fussell is not in fact an English snob (though he tries to sound like one), Isaac Bashevis Singer is not an exemplar of "the continental novel of ideas," and Daniel Bell is not a neoconservative.

On the whole, however, Cowen marshals his catholic taste effectively. To him, cultural variety is the essence of cultural vitality. And he is persuasive in arguing that capitalism fosters the vast panoply of forms and expressions he enjoys. In 1947, there were 85,000 books in print in the United States. In 1996, the number was 1.3 million. In the same span, 357 publishers have turned into an incredible 49,000, many of which exist to make arty and noncommercial literature available. Elsewhere, Cowen notes that CDs of works by even obscure contemporary classical composers can be found for sale in suburban shopping malls. Contra the cultural pessimists, Cowen believes that great and enduring art is being created all over the place--even if it will only become clear with the passage of time what it is.

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Yet the larger picture of cultural health offered here is seriously flawed. The problem begins with Cowen's praise for the United States as a country in which the arts are privately supported, as opposed to Western European countries, where culture is subsidized and protected. Cowen is right about the National Endowment for the Arts debate--it's foolish to believe the fate of American civilization hinges on the tiny amount the federal government spends on direct arts subsidies. But he fails to appreciate the extent to which the arts in this country are funded with indirect government subsidies, mainly tax deductibility of charitable contributions. Cowen may feel that this is preferable to the European system of direct support because it is less meddlesome. But he can't pretend that it's not a public contribution of several billion dollars a year, which keeps a vast number of otherwise nonviable cultural institutions in business and supplements the market's production of pop culture with more esoteric art of the kind he responds to.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.