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In Praise of Commercial Culture Hardcover – May 26, 1998
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From Library Journal
When you admire a poem, painting or piece of music, do you wonder how these "works of art" came about? To answer this question, Cowen (economics, George Mason Univ.) examines the relationship of artists through history to the market forces that helped foster them. Not every artist was supported by a Medici or a Rockefeller, but Cowen argues that capitalism's support of culture can be traced far back. He uses as his example the invention of the printing press, which in a remarkably unsupportable conjecture he maintains "paved the way for classical music" by enabling composers to record their notes mechanically and sell their sheet music. Unfortunately, in this discussion he totally discounts the importance of engraving by hand, and his examination of music centers mostly on composers and practically ignores the musicians. Cowen's book at least gives weight to the ongoing arts debate by citing the worsening plight of artists. But he doesn't relate this point to his general thesis, and his book reads too much like a textbook, with patches of lifeless prose, mountains of statistics, and forests of footnotes. One can almost hear the undergraduates groan. For larger academic libraries.ARichard S. Drezen, Washington Post News Research Ctr., Washington, DC
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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 Chronicle of Higher Education)
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 Times Literary Supplement)
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 Times Higher Education Supplement)
[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 Boston Sunday Globe)
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 Washington City Paper)
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 Financial Times)
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 Reason)
By writing In Praise of Commercial Culture, Tyler Cowen gives his readers a clearly reasoned argument for cultural optimism, and, in the process, gives individuals...confidence to substantively critique Americans' tendency toward grossly underestimating the quality of our artistic output in the latter half of the twentieth century. (Craig Farmer Fodder, The Newsletter of the Hungry Mind Bookstore)
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 Fortune)
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 New Zealand National Business Review)
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In a nutshell, here is Cowen's argument. Free markets increase wealth, which increases purchasing power. As people's wealth increases to the point where their basic needs are satisfied, they begin to seek out aesthetic goods. The larger number of potential customers present in a market society creates "niche markets," thus expanding the variety of artistic styles and expressions that are sought out, hence the more (and more diverse) artists that can achieve success. Even radical non-conformists can find support. In contrast, in a non-market system where government (or some other patron, such as the church or the very limited number of elite) is the primary purchaser of art, artists must conform to the tastes of that limited number of purchasers, creating an incentive to not be too creative.
As examples, he points out that the Dutch Masters worked during the Netherlands' rapid economic growth (indeed, their art is astoundingly "businesslike" in its focus), the official Academy in France opposed new styles, and its annual Salon excluded such now-recognized geniuses as Gauguin, Monet, Renoir and Pissarro, and how independent record labels in the U.S. have been the primary outlet for new musical styles.
He also tackles the more philosophical issue of cultural pessimism. He notes that cultural pessimism is an elitist concept, leading those very people who desire creativity in the arts to disdain creativity that satisfies the aesthetics of non-elites. This elitism also provides intellectual support for censorship.
The only reason I don't give it 5 stars is that my students found it a little repetitive (I don't, but I respect their collective voice).
Cowen's voice is a welcome addition to those of scholars (including that of Virginia Postrel) who praise cultural dynamism and who appreciate the enormous creative powers of a people free of political and bureaucratic burdens.