Cultivating Culture

In Praise of Commercial Culture, by Tyler Cowen, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 278 pages, $27.95

In the second volume of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville--the one Frenchman, living or dead, who somehow seems immune to the contempt Americans hurl at all things Gallic--spun out a number of hypotheses regarding "cultivation of the arts" in aristocracies and democracies. Though proffered more than 150 years ago, Tocqueville's views still frame one side in an ongoing debate about the relationship between the arts and the marketplace. (One might add that in his put-down of America as essentially a throwaway culture, Tocqueville manages to remain quintessentially French even from the grave.)

"In aristocratic ages," proclaimed Tocqueville, "the emphasis is on doing things as well as possible, not as quickly or as cheaply as one can....Where wealth and power are permanently in the hands of a few, it is these people, always the same, who enjoy most of the good things of this world....The heirs to this hereditary superiority naturally like things very well made and lasting....Craftsmen...work for a strictly limited number of customers who are very hard to please. Perfect workmanship gives the best hope of profit." Tocqueville argued that even the peasant in such a society has exacting standards, "sooner do[ing] without the things he wants than get[ting] imperfect ones." (What role the peasant's lack of disposable income might play in the decision to "do without" goes unspecified.)

The situation is "very different" in democracies, wrote Tocqueville, "when men are continually rising and falling in the social scale" because of relatively free markets and attendant economic mobility. Formerly wealthy people have good taste but no money to buy good art; newly rich people have money to burn but no taste. Like the regular workman, the artist, according to Tocqueville, responds by lowering his standards to raise his profit margin. "He seeks ways of working, not just better, but quicker and more cheaply, and if he cannot manage that, he economizes on the intrinsic quality of the thing he is making, without making it wholly unfit for its intended use. When only the rich wore watches, they were almost all excellent. Now few are made that are more than mediocre, but we all have one....Democracy...induces workmen to make shoddy things very quickly and consumers to put up with them. ...Much the same takes place in the case of the fine arts as we have seen happening in the case of the useful arts. Quantity increases; quality goes down." In this way, the marketplace is revealed as the enemy of the museum: It may create lots of stuff, but none of it is very good.

It's interesting to ponder whether Tocqueville would make the same argument today, when people can buy Rolexes for tens of thousands of dollars or pick up equally time-worthy, if arguably less stylish, watches at their local Wal-Marts for under $10; when reproduction techniques have made virtually everyone in the West familiar with the Mona Lisa and inspired endless parodic knockoffs (ranging from Duchamp's moustaching of the image to its use in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series); and when ever-bigger bookstores stock $3.00 paperbacks of Dickens and Hugo next to $30 hardcovers by Jackie Collins and John Grisham. How, one wonders, would Tocqueville respond to an America filled with gas stations that sell gourmet coffee, quality cigars, and classical music CDs?

But of course one hardly needs a dead Frenchman's particular thoughts on the matter. One hears echoes of and variations on Tocqueville's aesthetic guns-and-butter curve all the time: In order to jack up ratings, television necessarily sinks to the lowest common denominator, an aesthetic abyss deeper than the Mariana Trench; the profit-driven search for gargantuan blockbuster movies tramples art-house fare underfoot; publishers, interested only in climbing The New York Times best-seller list, are dropping midlist and unknown authors like so much dead weight; and on and on.

Tyler Cowen's excellent In Praise of Commercial Culture offers a detailed, compelling, and insightful--though necessarily incomplete, for reasons I'll address later--counterargument to such claims. "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?" asks Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. In documenting his resoundingly pro-market answer to such questions, Cowen works through detailed historical and economic analyses of how market forces greatly enhance the production and consumption of literature, the visual arts, and music. He also engages and rebuts anti-market critics on the left and right.

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. Hence, right-wing attempts to cast "classic" art as somehow unsullied by the time and place in which it was created and left-wing embraces of Pierre Bourdieu's unconvincing argument that while market competition may create niche products in the economic sphere, it generates only sameness in the cultural one. 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, as the following passage from Cowen's introduction illustrates: "I...use the `market economy' to refer...generally to a nexus of voluntary exchanges. Beethoven and Michelangelo, who sold their artworks for a profit, were entrepreneurs and capitalists. Rembrandt, who ran a studio and employed other artists, fits the designation as well." While relying on a consistent theory, he never forgets the contingencies of the world he sets out to explain. "I do not argue that capitalism is a monocausal...determinant of artistic success," he writes. "Pure, dumb luck is one of many factors [involved]....Rather than comparing the market for art to a Platonic alternative, I seek to uncover the social mechanisms that encourage and discourage creative artistic achievement and therefore shed light on the production of culture."

Cowen starts with a basic distinction between "cultural pessimists" and "cultural optimists," a classification that transcends traditional right-left political divisions. Pessimists "take a strongly negative view of modernity and of market exchange"; they believe that "the market economy corrupts culture" and that their own time represents a period of decline. Such views have been shared by figures as disparate in time and temper as Plato, Augustine, Swift, Nietzsche, and T.S. Eliot, who penned the cultural pessimist's equivalent of the Apostles' Creed: "We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity."

While pessimists agree that the culture of their period is going from bad to worse, they reach that conclusion for different reasons. Contemporary pessimists on the right include neoconservatives such as Michael Medved, Irving Kristol, and the Robert Bork of Slouching Towards Gomorrah; they bemoan the aesthetic and moral "permissiveness" pervading popular culture, which they see as both a cause and an effect of collapsing standards of decency and behavior (the main reason Bork offers up censorship as the most effective response to a world filled with Baywatch, rap music, and Howard Stern). Leftoid pessimists, writes Cowen, include neo-Marxists such as the British Birmingham School (which champions the "subversive" potential of popular culture), latter-day Frankfurt Schoolers such as Jürgen Habermas (who characterizes pop as so much diverting pap), and media critics such as Neil Postman (author of, among other works, the anti-TV diatribe Amusing Ourselves to Death). There are important differences among them, Cowen correctly notes, but they all share a suspicion or outright contempt for market forces, arguing that the "commodification" of culture limits participation and stifles truly free and meaningful expression.

Cowen enlists himself in the much-thinner ranks of the cultural optimists, who include such characters as Charles Perrault, the 17th-century Frenchman who wrote the Mother Goose stories to show that the "modern" world could create an equivalent to Aesop's fables; Baldassare Castiglione, author of the early Renaissance classic The Book of the Courtier and a defender of cultural progress; and that ur-literary critic, Samuel Johnson, who defended writing for money and the "street literature" of his day. Optimists, Cowen suggests, typically believe that the current time compares well to the past and that the arts "tend to flourish in a modern liberal order."

Ever the optimist, Cowen smartly suggests that even pessimists further cultural process: "A consistent optimistic attitude should place cultural pessimism within a cornucopia of modern achievement. The pessimists who question contemporary trends help the modern world sort good from bad. If no one attacked contemporary culture, our understanding...would remain at a low level. The attacks force us [to] go back and reread, relisten, and reexamine our basic assumptions about art." As with the pessimists, this optimists' club is a transpartisan group, as can be gleaned from Cowen's list of contemporary believers: Camille Paglia (who defends Hollywood as a creative place), Alvin Toffler (who heralds the breakdown of mass media), and sociologist Herbert Gans (who argues that markets have helped increase cultural diversity).

Why Cowen is upbeat about the state of the arts is made clear in the three long chapters that make up the heart of the book: "The Market for the Written Word," "The Wealthy City as a Center for Western Art," and "From Bach to the Beatles: The Developing Market for Music." In each of these sections, Cowen presents case studies in how artists and their audiences have benefited from commercial transactions, driving home the central point that "the market brings crowd-pleasing artists such as Michael Jackson or Steven Spielberg in touch with their audiences, while at the same time securing niches for more obscure visions, such as those of Brian Eno or Peter Greenaway." In short, just as the market delivers, say, a huge variety of fruits and vegetables to the local grocery store--some so bizarre at first that they must come with directions on how to consume them--so too does it deliver all sorts of cultural products.

Hence, in his discussion of books and literature, Cowen stresses how commercial transactions grow the market for such fare, the result being more of everything: more writers, more readers, more books, more types of books. The market for literature, he writes, "first blossomed on a large scale in eighteenth-century England," partly in response to changed material conditions such as lower printing costs, the dissipation of court power, and increased wealth and leisure time due to the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. As "the publisher, bookseller, and the public subscription replaced the patron as the primary means of income for authors," cultural pessimists decried writing for money as one step up from prostitution (though, as Cowen, points out, "the seminal pessimistic tracts of Swift, Pope, and Goldsmith"--Gulliver's Travels, The Dunciad, and Citizen of the World--were all major commercial successes).

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