on February 10, 2005
I absolutely love this book, because it's so rare for a book written by an economist to be readable, understandable, convincing, and uplifiting (Cowen just might destroy economics' reputation as "the dismal science"). However I assigned this in a class on Art and Politics at the University of Oregon some years ago, and my students hated it. Why? Because Cowen is harshly critical of some of their ideals--that government has a responsibility to support the arts, that such support is crucial for a thriving cultural world, and that free markets are a soulless, dehumanizing, anti-creative force.
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).
on May 28, 1999
What is quite extraordinary about Tyler Cowen's book is not his sohphisticated understanding of economics (one expects that), or even his ability to put across difficult problems clearly, but the breadth of his knowledge about art and music. The book is indispensable to anyone who claims an interest in arts policies.
on November 25, 1998
In this original and scholarly -- though never stuffy -- work, Tyler Cowen reveals not only a deep understanding of economics, but also a breathtaking knowledge of visual art, music (both classical and pop), and literature. His opening chapters show clearly how economics usefully sheds light on cultural issues. Subsequent chapters test his economics in various fields of art. Both Cowen and economics pass these tests impressively.
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.
on June 6, 2001
In deftly describing the organic connection between economic well-being and the production of culture, Cowen essentially affirms the need and the justification for being optimistic about our present state of culture, at least as far as creative output is concerned. He argues against and explains the origin of cultural pessimists and their rhetoric, which the author sees as understandable but not necesssarily correct. That is, not as correct as these pessimists would have you believe. The section on the visual arts is particularly rich with historical vignettes of artists and their way of doing business to get the work out and at the same time try to make some money. This book would be particulary good reading for artists -- in whatever medium -- who are often, too often, trained to see their work and that of others as critics would, rather than as artists and creators, who have bills to pay, not just inspiration to concretize. Cowen does a great job of condensing amusing anecdotes culled from dozens of art history books (most of which, let's face it, can be pretty tedious for the most part). Cowen makes a convincing argument that today, as an artist, one can be as esoteric as s/he likes and still find an audience, BECAUSE the economic structure of commercialism is in place to the extent that it is. In citing examples of artists who managed to become millionaires in their time (Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Monet, etc), the author argues that being successful does not have to mean "selling out". Of course, in the process, he also implicitly argues against the ingrained prejudice people have against the idea of "selling out". Let the market and humanity's better judgement do their job of sorting it all out in the end : Only the excellent survives, and what is excellent in an artwork operates independently of the magnitude of popularity. Thus, the author lays out his reasons for the need to be more embracing of new genres of art by accepting the possibility that new stuff may one day be "classics", just as much of what we call "classics" today acquired their present status although they did not start out that way when they were born. By profession, the author is an economist, who apparently takes a great interest in the arts, and is concerned enough about seeing them flourish in diversity to say: Thanks to the market driven economy we have in an economic structure (for better or worse) that goes by the name of capitalism, more than ever before, artists can be as good as they wanna be doing their "thang", and still have a shot at being handsomely remunerated. Art is about pleasure, Cowen says. The pleasure of perception, sensation, feeling, provocation, inspiration, ideas, regardless of the kind. Even cultural whiners whine, with learned diction, because it gives them pleasure, much pleasure, to complain about how things are nowadays.