In Praise of Commercial Culture
by Dr. Edward Younkins
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce.
Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, argues in his compelling book, In Praise of Commercial Culture, that the market economy is a crucial but underappreciated foundation for fostering a multiplicity of co-existing artistic perspectives, underpinning both high and low culture, supplying a continuous stream of innovative and appeasing creations, encouraging consumers and producers of art to refine their tastes, and rendering respect to the past by apprehending, replicating, and disseminating it. Cowen explains that culture, as well as other forms of human activity, benefits immensely from decentralization, innovation, feedback, and other mechanisms inherent in capitalism. The author convincingly argues that capitalism is art's best friend. Markets supply opportunities, promote diversity, free artists from aristocratic patronage, and provide artists with more, better, and less expensive materials. In this work, Cowen thoroughly analyzes how market forces heighten the production and consumption of literature, music, and the visual arts.
Cowen begins his analysis by distinguishing between "cultural pessimists" and "cultural optimists," a division that transcends traditional right and left political classifications. The author himself is clearly one of the outnumbered "cultural optimists." Cowen's philosophy of "cultural optimism" stands in opposition to the numerous types of "cultural pessimism" found among conservatives, neo-conservatives, Frankfort Schoolers, some proponents of political correctness, as well as historical figures such as Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, Swift, Nietzsche, and T.S. Eliot. Pessimists tend to believe that the market economy corrupts culture, take a negative view of market change and modernity, and contend that their own time represents a period of decline.
Neoconservatives lament the moral and aesthetic lenience pervading popular culture, which they view as both cause and effect of declining standards of ethical behavior. Pessimists on the left exhibit hatred of the free market and argue that market exchange damages the quality of cultural production and that the commodification of culture stifles our critical faculties, limits free and meaningful participation, degrades artworks, and protects the capitalist system against internal challenges. The political correctness movement frequently associates market culture with the suppression of minorities and women.
Cowen explains that many pessimists identify great culture with what they know and have learned to love. For example, critics study and are experts on the past and the elderly look back favorably on their youth. A cultural pessimist is apt to be self-centered, regarding his own particular amassment of cultural human capital to be the only proper accumulation. In addition, Cowen recognizes fear of the future as another source of cultural pessimism.
The author correctly argues that capitalism produces many kinds of art, rather than art that appeals to one particular set of tastes. Cultural pessimists view this proliferation of cultural tastes as a major contemporary problem. Whereas right-wing pessimists want art that will instill conservative values, those on the left value culture that unveils power relations and encourages the perception that radical, systemic change is called for. They agree that culture must be managed to encourage a particular worldview.
Cowen illustrates how high and low culture have complemented one another throughout history. Successful high culture usually comes out of a healthy and prosperous popular culture.
The author marshals overwhelming evidence for his argument that the free market is the best ally the arts could have. In three lengthy chapters, "The Market for the Written Word," "The Wealthy City as a Center for Western Art," and "From Bach to the Beatles," Cowen presents historical and contemporary illustrations of how artists and their audience and customer have benefitted from commercial transactions. In his analyses, the author pays cautious attention to the particular characteristics of the various media.
Cowen defends the values of an unsubsidized free market for artists. However, he is too soft on those who promote government funding of the arts. Instead of calling for the demise of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), he simply observes that most of the government successes in supporting the arts have come outside the NEA when the state acts as merely another customer, patron, or employer, rather than as a bureaucracy with a public mandate. The NEA supplies money for works that are viewed as sufficiently "artistic" by the officials in control of the money. Recognizing that state funding and state control of private activities go hand in hand, Cowen should have called for the outright abolition of the NEA. The best expressions of art are produced by those who have the freedom to develop their talents as they see fit. Cowen's accessible book complements Virginia Postrel's 1998 work, The Future and Its Enemies. Both authors praise cultural dynamism and teach that we should appreciate the creative powers and achievements of people free from political and bureaucratic restrictions.