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Tyler Cowen

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In Praise of Commercial Culture (1998) - Tyler Cowen
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Sometimes we distinguish between "high" culture, the items achieving greatest critical acclaim, and "low" culture, the most popular cultural items. Economic incentives support this split between high and low culture. Capitalism supports product diversity and gives many artists the means to work outside of the popular mainstream. The resulting split between high culture and low culture indicates the sophistication of modernity, not its corruption or disintegration. A world where high and low culture were strongly integrated would be a world that devoted little effort to satisfying minority tastes. Genres that rely heavily on equipment and materials, which I describe as capital-intensive, tend to produce popular art. Genres with low capital costs, which I describe as labor-intensive, tend to produce high art. The movie spectacular with expensive special effects is likely to have a happy ending. The low-budget art film, directed and financed by an iconoclastic auteur, may leave the viewer searching. -- Tyler Cowen in In Praise of Commercial Culture

"In Praise of Commercial Culture" is Cowen's attempt to demonstrate that capitalism and economic growth promote, rather than squelch, individual creativity through artistic expression. In it, he provides a detailed history of the origin and development of markets for literature, painting, sculpture, and music. Throughout the book, he focuses on both pecuniary and non-pecuniary incentives that markets create for individuals to challenge prevailing artistic sentiments -- Michael D. Mallinger via Amazon.com

In Praise of Commercial Culture

Outsiders as innovators

Outsiders and marginalized minorities often drive artistic innovation. Much of the dynamic element in American culture, for instance, has been due to blacks, Jews, and gays, as Camille Paglia has noted. Outsiders have less stake in the status quo and are more willing to take chances. They face disadvantages when competing on mainstream turf, but a differentiated product gives them some chance of obtaining a market foothold. Individuals who will not otherwise break into the market are more inclined to take risks, since they have less to lose. Were an all-black orchestra or black conductor to record the umpteenth version of Mozart's Jupiter symphony, the racially prejudiced would have no reason to promote or purchase the product. (Few individuals know the name or the works of the most critically renowned black conductor of our century, Dean Dixon.) The cost of indulging discriminatory taste is low when the market offers the virtuostic von Karajan and Boehm, both former Nazi supporters. But when black performers played "Take the A Train" or "Maybellene," even many racists were impelled to support the outsider with their dollars.

The most influential African-American contributions have not come in the most established cultural forms, such as letters, landscape paintings, and theater. Instead, America's black minority has dominated new cultural areas - jazz, rhythm and blues, breakdancing, and rap [disco and house music]. Minority innovators bring novel insights to cultural productions. Their atypical background provides ideas and aesthetics that the mainstream does not have and, initially, cannot comprehend. Minorities also must rationalize their outsider status.

They deconstruct their detractors, reexamine fundamentals, and explore how things might otherwise be. They tend to bring the upstart, parvenu mentality necessary for innovation. Jazz musician Max Roach pointed out: "Innovation is in our blood. We [blacks] are not people who can sit back and say what happened a hundred years ago was great, because what was happening a hundred years ago was shit: slavery. Black people have to keep moving."

Capitalism has allowed minority groups to achieve market access, despite systematic discrimination and persecution. Black rhythm and blues musicians, when they were turned down by the major record companies, marketed their product through the independents, such as Chess, Sun, Stax and Motown. The radio stations that favored Tin Pan Alley over rhythm and blues found themselves circumvented by the jukebox and the phonograph. These decentralized means of product delivery allowed the consumer to choose what kind of music would be played. The French Impressionist painters, rejected by the government-sponsored academy, financed and ran their own exhibitions.

In the process modern art markets were born. Jews were kept out of many American businesses early in this century, but they developed the movie industry with their own capital, usually earned through commercial retail activity. Women cracked the fiction market in eighteenth century England once a wide public readership replaced the system of patronage. Innovators with a potentially appealing message usually can find profit-seeking distributors who are willing to place money above prejudice or grudges. -- In Praise of Commercial Culture - Tyler Cowen [Amazon US]

More books

  1. What Price Fame? - Tyler Cowen [Amazon US]
    George Mason Univ. economist Cowen presents an unpersuasively optimistic look at the alleged benefits attendant upon the commercialization of fame. The cult of celebrity is ascendant, but is it all bad? Doesn't fame, asks Cowen, goad artists and scientists and politicians to reach higher and take the kinds of risks that ultimately enrich all our lives? And isn't there enough capital in the star machine to fuel diversity as it seeks a profit, encouraging a thousand flowers to bloom, especially when there is not a consensus who is the top petunia? It is a small price to pay, this adoration, for a big payback from the performer, though Cowen neglects to address the high costs of clothing and assorted accoutrements that come with fandom. Cowen certainly makes clear the uncoupling of fame from merit and virtue commercialized fame, by directing fame away from moral merit, frees ideas of virtue from the cult of personality''but he doesn't make a compelling case for why thats such a good idea, despite his contention that commercialization produces a greater quantity and diversity of fame.'' Certainly most contemporary artists, for all their diversity, continue mostly to eke out a living, although technology has increased their potential audience. Cowen tries to spark sympathy for stars, who can lose their creativity along with their privacy, or worse yet ``lose themselves by pursuing the adoration of the masses,'' but thats a plea that doesn't play even in Peoria. Too often, Cowen's writing many of the costs of fame fall on the famous. . . . It is the star who is alienated under capitalism, not necessarily the worker''is inane and downright foolish enough to undercut the provocation of his other comments on the state of fame in today's world. Cowen never mounts a convincing argument that celebrity worship has a trickle-down effect, democratizing paybacks for those who find their muse. -- Copyright 2000, Kirkus Associates

  2. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures - Tyler Cowen[Amazon US]
    A Frenchman rents a Hollywood movie. A Thai schoolgirl mimics Madonna. Saddam Hussein chooses Frank Sinatra's "My Way" as the theme song for his fifty-fourth birthday. It is a commonplace that globalization is subverting local culture. But is it helping as much as it hurts? In this strikingly original treatment of a fiercely debated issue, Tyler Cowen makes a bold new case for a more sympathetic understanding of cross-cultural trade. Creative Destruction brings not stale suppositions but an economist's eye to bear on an age-old question: Are market exchange and aesthetic quality friends or foes? On the whole, argues Cowen in clear and vigorous prose, they are friends. Cultural "destruction" breeds not artistic demise but diversity.

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