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Book Review: In Praise of Commercial Capital

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In Praise of Commercial Culture
by Tyler Cowen (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998); 278 pages; $29.95.

One of the most persistent views in many intellectual circles is that capitalism and the market economy are antagonistic to refined culture and artistic appreciation. On the one hand, the general public, it is claimed, is too uneducated and narrow-minded to understand either the artistic expression or its ever-changing radical transformations of the good, beautiful, and creatively original. The general public, in other words, is too conservative and tradition-bound in its values, thoughts, and attitudes.

On the other hand, the market is controlled by the private owners of the means of production, it is said, resulting in those owners’ being guided by one purpose and goal: profit-maximizing. According to these critics of the market economy, the pursuit of profit is inconsistent with financial support and encouragement of the arts because what “pays” is often not what is good, beautiful, and creative. Besides, businessmen rarely have refined and cultured tastes; their vision extends no further than the quarterly bottom line of the balance sheet.

Thus, unless the state supports, encourages, and subsidizes art in all its various forms, culture — and the more enlightened civilization it creates — is doomed to decay into backwardness.

The refutation of this critique of capitalist society is the theme of Tyler Cowen’s recent work, In Praise of Commercial Culture. A professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, Cowen combines basic economic insights with a wide reading of the history of the arts in Western society to demonstrate that every one of the premises of this critique is false and based on a misreading of how the arts have grown and flourished over the last 500 years, especially during the past two centuries of the “capitalist epoch.”

The first topic Cowen focuses on is the market for literary works. The quantity of published works has exploded, and never as much as in our century. Books and magazines of every imaginable sort, serving the inclinations and needs of practically every conceivable interest, flood the market. Yes, there are cheap romances, westerns, and mystery novels, but the market is large and diverse enough to offer “serious” works of literature as well as works of nonfiction. It is precisely because profits can be made by serving these varying interests, even when they represent small minorities of the reading public, that the consumers of the modern market society have available to them the widest array of publications from which to select. This was, of course, not always the case. Religious and political powers in the past tried to limit what was printed and the quantities that were published. But the growth of diverse and dispersed sources of wealth, as market-oriented production expanded, meant that religious and political authorities were weakened in their ability to control and censor that to which the increasingly literate public had access. The technologies that have fostered less expensive and mass-produced forms of literature have been able to be applied only because of the profit motive and the relatively free-market environment during the last 200 years. This has acted as the institutional setting within which businessmen have had the opportunity to search for ways to satisfy the growing demand for diverse things to read.

The growth of commercial cities and the wealth that increasingly became concentrated there also fostered the development and the market avenues for the visual arts. The technologies that catered to the wants of the consuming public for goods and services in general also provided the new methods for painting, sculptures, and architecture. Many artists who were employed in the manufacture of various commodities developed ways to apply these new methods of production to their more creative endeavors.

The emergence of merchant and middle classes, who possessed a rising level of income, provided alternative outlets for the visual artist, as a growing number of people wished to fill their homes with portraits, paintings, and sculptured figures, and desired architectural designs for their residences or their places of work. This meant that the visual artist was no longer dependent only on the patronage of the church or of regional political authorities. A growing market meant a wider range of potential purchases of the visual arts, with many differing tastes and preferences.

Music has experienced the same benefits from the development of market economies, Cowen argues. Music too had traditionally been dependent upon religious and political patrons who would control the forms and themes in music. The rise of commercial society also meant the commercialization of music. But this was all to the good for the musician. Composers could still have patrons, but now they also could appeal to the general public as an audience for their music. Indeed, both Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for “the masses,” with their concerts representing the popular music of the day.

Furthermore, the advancement in 20th-century technology has enabled the musician to make the world his audience with records, tapes, compact disks, radio, and music videos. The music market serves every variety of taste, from classical to the latest fad.

Capitalism, in other words, set free every type of artist. He was now liberated from the political correctness of the age in which he lived.

Why, then, the pessimism about culture and the arts? Among artists, Cowen suggests, there is often an overblown sense of self-importance and originality that often results in frustration with “the world” when it doesn’t immediately appreciate their “contribution.” Also, there are forces of psychological conservatism among many people that result in a sense that anything that comes after their own formative years and cultural tastes represents something degenerate and debased. Their era, or ones before them, captured some “golden age” of cultural refinement that now is being lost because the younger generation seems to have no love or appreciation for what the older generation created or valued as the good and refined.

Instead, Cowen asks us to cherish the achievements of the arts in the past but also to be open-minded enough to accept the new and the modern and to realize that some of what the modern arts produce will be “the classics” of the future. “The market produces great art,” he concludes. “Let not the differences in our personal tastes or political views dim the chorus of this [artistic] ecstasy.”

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).