By Ray Sawhill
You probably know that Impressionism couldn’t have occurred if it hadn’t been for the invention of metal tubes for paints. You may not, on the other hand, have wondered about the technology needed to quarry and transport the blocks of marble that Michelangelo turned into sculptures, or about the kinds of financial organizations a culture needs before it can fund such efforts.
Tyler Cowen, a young economics professor at George Mason University, writes about many such questions in his refreshing new look at markets and art, managing somehow to steer clear of both esthetic and neo-Marxist high-mindedness. In his new book “In Praise of Commercial Culture” (Harvard), he sets forth two arguments. The first is that, although we like to imagine that artists live and produce in defiance of the market, art has had no better friend than capitalism. Imperfect though they may be, markets have opened up opportunities and promoted diversity; they have sprung artists free from aristocratic patronage, and they have provided artists with ever more, and ever cheaper, materials.
The evidence he marshals is overwhelming. One long chapter concerns wealth, cities and art, and reminds us that the cultural breakthroughs that took place in Florence and Venice in the Renaissance, in Amsterdam in the 17th century and in 18th century London were all partnered by commercial flowerings. He’s good too on the entrepreneurial energies artists have displayed over the ages. The typical Renaissance artist wasn’t hiding in a garret, wrestling with demons in an effort to express himself. He had product to move, assistants to mobilize, contracts to draw up and customers to pursue — and he generally worked on commission. Those ur-rebels, the Impressionists, didn’t just kick out against the esthetics of the Academie, they (and their colleagues) worked hard to develop ways to outwit its stranglehold on sales outlets.
At its best, the book is a convincing and informative paean to the resourcefulness of artists and to the market’s ability to allow ever more niches to be discovered and exploited. Cowen’s second argument — a call for cultural optimism — is weaker. He wants to pose a question to the Allan Blooms on the right and to the Frankfurt School fans on the left. Thanks to capitalism, consumers today have more art more easily available to them than anyone else has ever enjoyed in all history. How, then, can anyone justify being a pessimist about the fate of culture? It’s a point that needs more stressing than it generally gets. But the openness of Cowen’s approach is more eloquent than the way he elaborates his argument; he misses out, for instance, on the sheer fun of being a crank. And though he seems solid as an economist, he’s woefully underequipped as a critic, undermining his case with, for example, lengthy college-paper-level claims for the greatness of pop music. Cowen could use a little more crankiness himself; as it is, he sometimes comes across as an ungainly mixture of Pollyanna and whippersnapper.
But his first 120 pages are the most accessible introduction to the history of the economics of Western art that I know of, and deserve a place on that shelf of writing you wish someone had steered you to as a freshman. It’s surprising how enlightening and pleasurable it can be to see art discussed in terms of “incentives” and “funding models.” The art lore alone makes the book a rewarding browse. Did you know that it took the skin of more than 300 sheep to produce one Gutenberg Bible? If the experience of reading Cowen can sometimes be like watching 3-by-5 cards flip dutifully past — the book is largely a collation of other people’s research — he avoids trendiness and jargon, and he does keep pulling his facts together and then sorting them out. Cowen’s common sense wrestles your thoughts and fantasies down to solid earth — which is where, as most artists will admit when they’re being honest, 90 percent of art-making takes place.
- Buy a copy of “In Praise of Commercial Culture.”
- Tyler Cowen co-blogs with Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution.
© 1998 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.