“In Praise of Commercial Culture” by Tyler Cowen

tyler

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.

© 1998 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

 

Raymond Carver

carver

By Ray Sawhill

Writing in the 1960s was generally a matter of exuberance, insolence, drugs, and experimentation. Raymond Carver, who began publishing his terse short stories in the 1970s, helped bring fiction back to small facts, won with difficulty and painfully expressed. As he became better known, readers grew familiar with “Carver people” — aimless and bewildered blue-collar souls between marriages and between jobs — and “Carver’s world” — all stray ends, polluted streams, and rooms rented from widows. He was celebrated as the leader of a school of “minimalist” fiction, and was often described as America’s Chekhov, delivering not the corniness of mere stories but the real stuff itself: what comes between stories. For a few years, talk was abroad of a Carver-led short-story renaissance. By the time he died — at the age of 50, in 1988 — he was probably the most influential literary writer in the country.

Though he didn’t hide from the press, Carver became as mythical a figure as Salinger or Pynchon. He had worked at dead-end jobs, he was an alcoholic, and he smoked too much, too; lung cancer was what finally killed him. In photos, he didn’t look like a writer, he looked like a laborer — so, for some, he became a saint of authenticity, telling us the straight dope about stunted, one-day-at-a-time lives. The fact that he kept to short forms (essays, poems, stories) enhanced the myth: such brutal honesty about such hard truths could hardly be asked to fill out looser forms. He was so securely canonized that by 1993, when the filmmaker Robert Altman was publicizing “Short Cuts,” his adaptation of a number of Carver stories, he did so in the company of Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, and spoke often about his feelings of inadequacy in the face of his material.

Some of the stories do have an ugly power. If you’re in the mood for a downer, “The Calm” and “So Much Water So Close to Home” should hit the spot. And Carver’s touch with humor — particularly of a sad-one-moment, pugnacious-the-next, headed-nowhere-fast kind — is usually skillful. But most of his writing is mannered. The repetitions signifying a stumbling exasperation (“Will you please be quiet, please?”), the sentences that start on a high note only to give way beneath you, the foot-dragging rhythms, those not-an-epiphany epiphanies … It gets to seem mighty gimmicky mighty fast.

And since he repeatedly said that he wanted to be thought of as a realist, not a minimalist, maybe we should ask: who are these “Carver people” who do nothing but brood, drink, and watch their lives fall apart? For his fans, of course, Carver nailed the essence of loser America. But if you strip people from any class of their pride and energy, it’s inevitable you’ll be left with little but despair. It’s hard not to find his work monotonous and bathetic: all that booze, all those cigarettes and lonely failures to connect, that tenderly-highlighted inarticulateness. Carver flattens out his characters and their lives, then invites us to admire how humane and truthful he’s being. Story after story wants to do little, finally, but wipe you out and make you feel desolate — to give you a good, long look at the raw nothingness of it all.

How then to explain his reputation? It may be that, for writing students, Carver’s (easily mimicked) approach suggested a quick way to achieve the appearance of heavy truth. A little misery here, a broken family there, an awkward attempt at god knows what before all dissolves into entropy once again — voila, Insta-Depth. And for readers? My guess is that, for some of them, “literature” is a kind of faith always in danger of succumbing to evil forces (mammon, vulgarity, indifference). For such readers, Carver’s stories-which, if you buy into them, have an aura of misery reluctantly illuminated by shafts of radiance — can be occasions for worship and prayer, religious services for those still hoping for redemption by art.

The Carver myth of course wasn’t Carver’s fault. He did indeed grow up working-class, and he did know tobacco and alcohol all too intimately. But by his own account he was a bookish, sensitive guy who had wanted to be a fiction writer from his teens. He studied writing at a number of colleges, did a stint at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and spent much of his life as a teacher of creative writing. He worked closely (as the journalist Dan Max has shown) with the editor Gordon Lish on shaping his early stories for maximum lit-world impact, and won many big-deal prizes and grants. We might do better, in other words, to remember him as a writer, not an oppressed hod carrier, and as one who did remarkably well for himself.

The easiest way to sample Carver is to pick up “Where I’m Calling From,” an anthology of the stories he considered his best. If you want to explore further, try the individual collections. His early stories, gathered in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (1976) and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981) have a menacing, off-balance feel. The later ones, collected mainly in “Cathedral” (1984), are more relaxed but, perhaps, less compelling. Skip the poems, which are embarassing, and the essays, which are worse.

If your tastes run to the minimal, you’ll also want to sample Anne Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, and Bobbie Anne Mason. If you prefer painful themes churning beneath mundane surfaces, then Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Russell Banks may please. If you’re drawn instead to writers who aren’t so officially sanctioned, you might try Charles Bukowski and Charles Willeford, gifted lower-depths wallowers who wrote with comic-book gusto yet could also summon up currents of bitterness and melancholy. For sweet and funny visions of stray-ends America free of authorial gloom, you aren’t likely to go wrong with the work of Tom Perrotta, William Price Fox, Sarah Gilbert, or James Wilcox.

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literature.