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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

In Praise of Commercial Culture

Tyler Cowen

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Title: In Praise of Commercial Culture
Author: Tyler Cowen
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1998
Length: 210 pages
Availability: In Praise of Commercial Culture - US
In Praise of Commercial Culture - UK
In Praise of Commercial Culture - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting if not wholly convincing explanation of how art and the production of art benefit from a market economy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Art in America C 4/1999 David L. Krantz
Fortune . 26/4/1999 David R. Henderson
London Rev. of Books . 4/6/1998 David Runciman
Reason A 10/1998 Nick Gillespie
Rev. of Political Economy C 10/1999 John M. Legge
Salon A- 12/6/1998 Ray Sawhill
Slate B+ 12/12/1998 Jacob Weisberg
TLS . 10/7/1998 Andrew Stark

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, and an ideological divide. A number also emphasize that Cowen's examples are simplistic (and occasionally misleading).

  From the Reviews:
  • "Where are those artists who are respected by their peers, or who have contributed to modifying cultural views, without thereby becoming prosperous? Through such omissions (comprising a substantial number of professional artists in any given moment) Cowen strongly biases his case in favor of capitalism's virtues. Taking these missing persons into account would result in a less benign, but far more representative, picture of artists' generally tense relationship to market forces and the often corrosive influences that commercialism has upon artistic creation and consumption. Moreover, Cowen never acknowledges that there is a moral dimension to the arts, an imperative to go beyond the demands of the immediate (as expressed in the marketplace) and to project what is possible." - David L. Krantz, Art in America

  • "Cowen's book is a seminal effort toward understanding that cultural matters, like other forms of human activity, benefit greatly from the decentralization, innovation, and feedback mechanisms endemic to market orders." - Nick Gillespie, Reason

  • "Cowen has provided a libertarian view of culture, which will be useful to anyone wishing to find out what libertarians think, or ought to think, about such matters. His book may also find use among libertarians who wish to make casuistical attacks on less ideologically committed conservatives. That may be the sum of its significance." - John M. Legge, Review of Political Economy

  • "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." - Ray Sawhill, Salon

  • "This analysis is provocative and interesting enough to take seriously, even though I think it's off base. Cowen approaches culture the way that you might expect an economist of libertarian leanings to approach it -- as entrepreneurial activity. According to his rational-choice view of art, Michelangelo, Mozart, and Shakespeare were all trying to maximize their income and returns to ego by means of self-expression." - Jacob Weisberg, Slate

  • "The book is a treasure trove of insights about artistic genres, styles and trends, dexterously illuminated through economic analysis. (...) Yet the book hovers over, without ever quite touching on, the reason why many critics feel ambivalent about the relationship between capitalism and culture." - Andrew Stark, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his book, In Praise of Commercial Culture, Tyler Cowen insists that the capitalist system is, in fact, good for the arts (countering an apparently widely held prejudice that holds either that capitalism is bad for art or that art should stand above such base things as economics). Cowen offers many examples of how the arts can and have flourished in market economies, making for an interesting if not wholly convincing argument.
       In this ultra-capitalist age it is easy to see everything as a commodity, with every exchange of ideas, labour, goods and wares determined by the market for these. Art has, in fact become a big business (though, arguably, it has been a big business for centuries by now), with "entertainment" (especially film and popular music) a significant sector of the American economy, and the export of entertainment products a major source of American earnings abroad.
       "Art" is in many respects similar to other commodities, and can thus usefully be analyzed according to market-economic theories (as Richard E. Caves does in his book on Creative Industries (see our review)). Cowen looks at some of the consequences of art being a commodity (and some elements that differentiate it from your run-of-the-mill goods and wares), trying to show how, if one looks at the big picture, capitalism has served art fairly well.
       Cowen gives a wealth of examples -- indeed the book appears to be largely an enormous (and often entertaining) set of examples that, by their sheer mass, are meant to convince that capitalism is indeed good for culture. A great amount of space is devoted to showing that capitalism drives innovation and increases the general well-being of society, both of which profoundly benefit the creation (and consumption) of art. Technological innovation simplifies the production of art, mass-production makes art more accessible to a larger audience at a lower cost (art for everybody !), while opportunities in a market economy allow more people to pursue their artistic ambitions.
       A significant part of Cowen's argument is that outright wealth alone does not make for an environment conducive to cultural production. Capitalism is the key ! Cowen maintains that art (and artists and art consumers) reap the specific benefits of the capitalist system as well, with art-as-commodity driven by the market forces and everyone benefitting from this state of affairs.
       Cowen convincingly traces various art-markets -- the spread of popular music, books, theatre, painting. In each case the capitalist system -- a market economy -- does seem to affect the production and consumption of art, often benefitting both artists and consumers. It is certainly true that more people have more access to a greater variety of literary works than ever before (though we at the complete review still can't find all the books we're looking for -- and frustrated users of this site complain of the number of books under review that are basically unobtainable). And, while it works well for literary goods, mass production does have its limitations. When Cowen writes: "More people saw Wagner's Ring cycle on public television than had seen it live in all Ring productions since the premiere in 1876", we find him pushing his argument too hard. Seeing the Ring on television is like seeing a postcard of the Mona Lisa. It is better than not seeing it at all, but the qualitative aesthetic difference is of such an order of magnitude that Cowen is essentially comparing apples and oranges. A book is a book is a book (more or less), but an opera is not a CD recording and is definitely not a TV broadcast. There's not much left of the "aura" of the artwork in the age of technical reproducibility (as Walter Benjamin famously discussed), but an original Picasso will be appreciated differently than a picture of the work in a catalogue -- even if that picture can be seen by a far greater number of people.
       Artists can thrive in a capitalist system, and many do. Unfortunately Cowen spends little space considering counterarguments or alternatives. He speaks about old-style patronage -- by the church and by politically powerful figures -- and (correctly) points out its limitations. Cowen is, however, not willing to look at the advantages and accomplishments of these patronage-systems objectively either, twisting them to fit his thesis, and he barely considers other examples of art thriving in systems that are decidedly not capitalist. Artists may have not fared well, humanly speaking, in the Soviet Union, but authors and painters there produced many remarkable works despite there being many market (and political) disincentives for producing art. The Russian example is particularly noteworthy because of the loudly voiced lament that so much has gone downhill since the fall of communism -- particularly in the literary field, where the market is now inundated by translations of foreign schlock (i.e. popular) fiction. Similarly, the Russian market can no longer sustain the many classically trained musicians that used to play in government subsidized orchestras at government subsidized concerts -- but at least there is lots of sensationalistic television programming available now. This seems to be an example of a fairly efficient market -- in a situation admittedly exacerbated by the sudden jump from communism to capitalism. Nevertheless, is this really what is best for arts, artists, and consumers in Russia ?
       The Soviet-bloc seems to offer numerous examples of art thriving despite almost impossible economic conditions. Polish poetry (two Nobel laureates, and several other contenders), East German fiction in the 1970s, Czech music, theatre, film, and literature in the 1960s and 70s, ... and the list could go on. A market economy may be conducive to the creation and enjoyment of art but artists are often strange folk, and their incentives to create are often not market driven.
       Clearly it is necessary to make money in order to survive and then produce one's art. Cowen suggests a market economy allows one to do this most readily, and he shows how artists from Bach to Mozart to modern writers earned money to pursue their art. A capitalist system gives them more alternatives of making a buck and thus subsidize their artistry (and arguably also allows more people to consider pursuing art on the side). A different side of the coin is the Soviet-style system where accredited producers of literature worked within officially sanctioned Writers Unions' while other would-be authors had little hope of being published but often still wrote (and often produced more lasting work of greater quality)
       Annoyingly (though perhaps understandably) art often prospers under adversity -- material, political, social. Possibilities can be limited in non-capitalist systems: innovation is slower in coming, the latest gadgets are unaffordable, consumers are limited in the art they can afford to peruse, artists are limited in the time and money they can devote to their art. Nevertheless, such systems have (occasionally) seen great flowering in both the production and enjoyment of art, with (occasionally) a greater diversity than can be found in capitalist systems.
       Cowen also devotes too little space to the market-intervening role of the state, even in his paragon, the United States. Governments exert a huge influence on the arts through direct subsidies, as market participants (government purchases of art), and through indirect subsidies. Direct subsidies are relatively low in the United States, but still significant (especially on the local level). In the United States it is, however, indirect subsidies that grossly distort the market: "non-profit organizations" are the main culprits. These bizarre and uncapitalistic institutions enjoy tax-exemption (an indirect subsidy that, in America, is enormous), and donations to them are deductible from income tax, warping the market for art beyond recognition. Without state support of this sort it is unlikely that the majority of large cultural repositories and institutions -- museums, opera houses, libraries, and many theatres -- could survive in this "market economy" -- surely a devastating indictment of the idea of capitalism being what's best for culture.
       Cowen seems to suggest that capitalist wealth allows a society to devote resources to the preservation of its cultural heritage, without acknowledging that this preservation is generally accomplished by government fiat, a policy that arbitrarily distorts the market and in fact moves it far away from the market-economy ideal. How to reconcile this with his thesis that the market-economy is what is best for culture ?
       Cowen argues that capitalism brings with it diversity, opportunity, and innovation, all of which are good for art. Nevertheless, the argument does not entirely convince, the nexus capitalism-art never truly being established. The success of popular culture, and specifically American popular culture (though he also gives numerous historic examples) seems proof enough for him. The reasons for these successes do, however, seem more complex than he suggests.

       In fact, Cowen's book ultimately seems less concerned with proving that capitalism is what's best for art (he largely seems to accept this as a given). Instead, it is an attack on the idea of "cultural pessimism". Cultural pessimists, Cowen writes:

... take a strongly negative view of modernity and of market exchange. The modern age is often compared unfavorably to some earlier time, such as the classical period, the Enlightenment, the nineteenth century, or even the early twentieth century.
       Cowen devotes a large chunk of his book to this subject, even calling his last chapter: "Why Cultural Pessimism ?" It is an interesting issue, and Cowen is correct when he points out that access to the arts, and the opportunity to create art has probably never been more widespread. He is probably also correct that this allows for diversity and innovation in the arts, and that diversity and innovation are generally good things. However, variety is not the be all and end all of art. Having more to choose from does not mean that the choices are better.
       The modern age is one that affords artists and art-consumers enormous opportunities. More art is being produced than ever before, though it is unclear whether art-production has actually increased in step with population growth. Qualitative assessments are notoriously hard to make, and the best art of these times might be comparable to the best art of other times (only time will tell). In large part such an assessment depends on what one wants art to be: cultural pessimists are obviously not seeing the production of much of what they believe art should be. Cowen seems to see the enormous variety of art as in and of itself laudable, irrespective of quality (believing also that competition leads to innovation which leads to cool new art which is probably the stuff that will be "good").
       Cowen believes that the mere availability of an enormous variety of art -- obscure classical music on CDs, countless books -- is a sign of a vibrant culture, completely ignoring the significance society in general and consumers in particular attribute to these art works. Art can be resonant and significant without being easily accessible, and conversely what is readily accessible and popular is often of limited lasting value (much of pop music, for example). It is a fundamental question that he does not address: if a society does not value art -- or rather values it only as another commercial good -- does that not make it less than what "art" should and could be ? This is certainly one of the cultural pessimist chief complaints, and there is something to this.
       Cultural pessimists can be easy targets, especially since they seem to have gotten it wrong so often before (as Cowen gleefully notes). At the same time their pessimism helps support the preservation of our cultural legacy (which is vulnerable from the constant onslaught of the new (which might otherwise too easily prevail in a market-economy that it is tailor-made for)). (Cowen acknowledges this to some extent, but also adds that "pessimism falls as a tax on consumers by leading them to neglect contemporary culture.") Cultural pessimism is also a prod for the artists of today, a standard to live up to and a notion to be disproven.

       These two halves of the book do not fit entirely comfortably together. Cowen gives many interesting examples of capitalism advancing the arts and of cultural pessimism ... seeing the current state of affairs unfavorably. The case for commercial culture is not convincing: Cowen argues the obvious (capitalism leads to a wealthier society, which facilitates the production and consumption of art) and seems to believe that examples of arts-success in capitalist systems amount to proof -- without looking closely at the many possible counterexamples one might consider. American "success" in the arts is taken as proof positive of his thesis; counterexamples -- such as the unlikely success of the arts under Soviet-style systems -- are basically ignored.
       Cowen's take on cultural pessimism is interesting, but also seems fairly irrelevant. A sense of wary optimism is probably warranted, a sense of pessimism is probably inevitable (as Cowen himself says: conservative elements, including parents, the elderly, and keepers of culture, will tend to oppose innovation). This uneasy balance is not the worst of worlds -- pure innovation and change merely for the sake of change (or merely because change is possible) can be mighty dangerous as well.
       Cowen's book is an interesting if often frustrating book. The examples are certainly of interest, and there is a lot worth mulling over, but one must be careful not to take the book entirely at face value. Cowen is selective in his examples and jumps to conclusions that do not seem adequately substantiated. It is, however, a fairly enjoyable read, and worthwhile for offering a perspective that deserves more attention.

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In Praise of Commercial Culture: Reviews: Tyler Cowen: Other books by Tyler Cowen under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tyler Cowen is Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

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