Last weekend, at the Divisionals for my kid’s swim team, it was Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker. This week, at the All-Stars, where the Kid swam fly and medley, I re-read (finally finished this morning), Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture (2000). It traces the relationship between art and commerce, and here is a sample of the reviews (yes indeed, I’ve cherry-picked, as I like the book, true, very true.) (And this post goes on for a really long time after the page break – if you plan to read it, better grab a bagel and a beer and sunscreen):
In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen…is a treasure trove of insights about artistic genres, styles and trends, dexterously illuminated through economic analysis. Cowen’s main argument is that capitalism–by fostering alternate modes of financial support and multiple market niches, vast wealth and technological innovation–is the best ally the arts could have.
–Andrew Stark (Times Literary Supplement )
A masterful performance…Cowen has provided a marvelously exuberant counterblast to the wide-spread view that in our philistine, materialist world the arts are going to hell in a handbasket. They are not. They are alive and well, and thriving as never before. Cowen goes a long way towards explaining why. For anyone with any interest in the history, funding and encouragement of the arts, In Praise of Commercial Culture is not to be missed.
–Winston Fletcher (Times Higher Education Supplement )
[Tyler Cowen] argues that market forces stimulate the production of culture, high and low, and that far from homogenizing taste, they tend to produce art that is more specialized and diverse than it would be otherwise. In three especially lively chapters, Cowen traces the markets for the written word (where the printing press has been around for centuries), music (where recording technology became available only relatively recently), and painting (where reproductive technology counts for much less)…The picture of the art markets that emerges from In Praise of Commercial Culture is a reassuring one…It is less possible than ever before to create the monopoly on commercial culture that is the objective of totalitarian states. Within wide bands of fad and fashion, people are going to decide for themselves what they like.
–David Warsh (Boston Sunday Globe )
(Cowen, a George Mason professor, is also now an economics columnist for the NY Times, and has a very interesting column today on the argument made at TheMoneyIllusion econ-blog that, particularly given the difficulties and downsides of fiscal policy today, the Fed should deliberately aim for re-inflation, at the 2-3% level, and should even move to negative interest rates (see Mankiw’s blog for discussion of what and how) – essentially, penalties on bank retention of reserves. I have no settled view of any of this, but Cowen is a clear writer and his columns are always worth reading.)
Both when I first read In Praise of Commercial Culture and on this re-read of it, I took away a far broader lesson than simply an argument over public or private arts funding. The book seemed to me, then and now, to echo the cultural forms of life that the proto-economist-philosophes of the Scottish Enlightenment saw in the rise of commerce and capitalism….
Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Hume and others of that period and school of thought saw in the rise of commerce many virtues for society and culture quite apart from simply a material increase in wealth. They saw it as the rise of ‘civil society’ – the social space for the ‘moral sentiments’ or the ‘agreeable sentiments’ or the ‘social virtues’. Nowadays, following the re-conceptualization of the term ‘civil society’ following the theorizing of Eastern Europeans under Soviet communism (Adam Michnik, for example), we use the term to refer to a social space that lies between the state and the market, in which social life that is mediated neither by state authority nor market discipline holds sway. (Hegel and Marx saw civil society as something different still.)
Cowen’s book can be understood as praise for the mixed up, materially conscious, market engaged, and yet also aesthetically involved, world of an active business culture that is interested in money and interested in the culture that money can support, buy, foment, interact with … there is a space for the art that is completely uninterested in commerce or the changes that commerce indubitably makes upon the art it supports. The composer Charles Ives, who supported himself in a business executive position, and whose music, to say the least, made no concession to the market, is one 20th century example.
The TLS once asked me to review a couple of books on amateurs and amateurism in music. The books included a final edition of the late Wayne Booth’s invigorating memoir of being an amateur cello player, while being professionally a professor of English at the cutting edge of criticism, For the Love of It. And the review included an odd, self produced volume on the nature of amateurism called Bloody Amateurs (see? not even on Amazon!). Taken together, the two works illustrated the split nature of amateurism – split, in one sense, by the question of what it means to be a “professional,” but split in a different sense by its relationship to commerce and commercial culture. On the one hand, there is Booth’s (and for that matter, my) amateurism in playing the cello:
Booth came to the cello in his thirties with prior music lessons as a youth in the wind
instruments, but no experience in strings. He is refreshingly practical in his approach; he
chose the cello over the piano and the violin because (especially in those years in the 1950s
when the cello was less appreciated than it is today) there were fewer cello players and so
the instrument put him in greater demand in amateur chamber ensembles. Music for Booth is
not finally about scholarship, or about listening, it is about playing -and his book is really a
reflection on the inadequacy of our modern reduction of the “love of it” to simplistic notions of
It causes the reader to acknowledge the heterogeneity of the pleasures involved in making
music; the satisfaction in playing well, the pride one takes in learning a difficult piece or
passage or technique, the buzz in one’s fingertips and the sense of completeness with the
bow when the turn is done just right, the pleasure of playing with others, the comfort of a
shared society, the joy of not just hearing, but making, the music, the wonder at the notes
lingering on the air. These are, Booth insists, distinct and distinctly experienced pleasures.
And when he says that amateurs do it for the love of it, that is not the end of the matter, but
rather the beginning of understanding the neglected varieties of pleasure within the human
experience and how, within amateur music, they combine together, the abstract and the
visceral, the head and the gut, to make the activity, for those of us who seek to do it,
irresistible and – it is not too strong a word – sublime.
What Booth does not address, however, is the larger world of music itself, and how the
collapse of the amateur as performer is part of the complicated shift in relations between
musical professionals and their audience. For the Love of It is a work fundamentally about
the interior experience of an amateur striving to play the most traditional canon of
traditionally serious music, the ones “everyone” learned about in those first years at the
piano. It therefore engages not at all with contemporary music, or with the avant-garde in any
form. Booth, who as a literary theorist was on the cutting edge of criticism throughout his
career as professional and professor, would no doubt say, with blunt practicality, that such
music is not playable by amateurs, even good ones, and that anyway it’s neither attractive
nor beautiful: the professor comes to music as a respite from the professional cutting edge in
his own field, not to carry it from vocation into avocation.
By contrast, there is Ives. Is Ives an amateur? In what sense? He makes no concessions to commerce, commercialism, demands of the market that consumes culture, the culture industry:
Ives understood after graduating from Yale that “he would never make a professional
musician. Rather than compromise his radical, rugged and abrasive style, he picked a
conservative profession (insurance), made a million, and composed at weekends, rarely
hearing his music performed.” Ives is the role model for many of the artists in this book [Bloody Amateurs], and
yet despite the sneers of “amateur” status implied in comments by Elliott Carter and Aaron
Copland, it would be hard to characterize him as anything other than a dedicated,
Far from being an amateur, at least in the sense that Booth means it, Ives’s artistic
professionalism was so complete that it denied him the possibility of compromising it for any
kind of commercial success.
Or any interaction with the ‘middling’ world that mingles culture and materialism. There’s a separate discussion, for another day, about what the culture industry represents at this moment; but Jed Perl has, as ever, a splendid essay in the current The New Republic on exactly this issue, covering several exhibitions of painting in New York. Suffice it say here that the vibrant commercial culture that Cowen has in mind is very far from what the ‘culture industry’ is all about.
I haven’t really wandered all that far from Cowen’s book, or at least the culture it praises. There are vibrant commercial cultures with very little interest in ‘culture’ in the sense of art, aesthetics, meaning beyond materialism or beyond consumerism. One compares Singapore to New York, for example, or Hong Kong. The priorities of a generation not far out of utter poverty are entirely understandable; likewise the priorities of a generation falling into genteel poverty will have its own impact upon cultural production, and I wonder what the effects will be upon fiction and literature.
But let me return, finally, to the virtues that the philosophes of the Scottish Enlightenment saw in commercial culture, and to which Cowen, in a larger sense, pays tribute in his book. (I draw here from one of the great short books on civil society, Marvin B. Becker, The Emergence of CIvil Society in the Eighteenth Century.) They include, to start with, a culture built upon public trust – a society of merchants in which people would trust interactions with strangers, not because they trusted strangers, but because they trusted the neutral enforcement of contracts by public institutions. A society based around the full mobilization of its human capital and not limited to cousin-trust is a wealthier society, and artistically richer, among many other advantages. (There is an issue of how this ‘contract enforcement’ view of public trust fits with embedded agency and non-contractual fiduciary duty, but I will ignore that here.)
Second, Ferguson and Smith saw commerce as a benevolent activity, not simply in the sense that it makes society wealthier, but because it provides a productive and benevolent outlet for energies that might otherwise be diverted into war among those wanting to gain wealth and power on that basis.
Third, it provides a public space with reasonably neutral commitments that get away from religion and other elements of constitutive identity around which one can easily – and the generation before these philosophes did – wage bloody civil and religious wars.
Finally, commerce lays the foundation for the separation of public and private, in a rough and ad hoc yet still identifiable way. It thus provides the bourgeois cultural and material floor under the claimed-universal but, in fact, culturally-supported and -embedded artifice of liberalism as a political ideal.
There is a method behind all this reading and re-reading. I suspect we are going to see a revival of institutionalism in economics literature. Behavioral economics is not the only corrective to hyper-rationalism and the assumption of hyper-efficiency everywhere one supposedly looks. Kenneth Arrow is quoted in a recent interview on health care markets with the Atlantic’s Conor Clarke as pointing to ‘extra-market’, institutional forces of professionalism and culturally embedded ideals of performance and service that are not accounted for by market drivers. There will be a sociological revival, I suspect. Cowen’s book fits into that in a certain way.
But there will also be a revival of an even older literature than, say, Weber. It is the claim that if markets and economic forces must be explained not only on narrow rationality grounds, but also drawing in behavioral economics and sociological-institutional explanations, they must also be accounted for far greater attention to the ‘moral sentiments’. Far greater attention, that is, to affect, social affect, affections, the virtues of sympathy and the ‘agreeable sentiments’, the psychological and moral qualities of ‘sociability’.
It is not an accident that these same Scottish Enlightenment philosophes I have cited above praising the agreeable virtues of peaceable exchange and commerce should also be committed to offering theories of the interior moral qualities of honor, trust, ‘bindingness’, sympathy, and all the other affective qualities that undergird what might otherwise, on the surface, appear to be merely the enforcement of contracts.
I mentioned in an earlier post the loss of any significant attachment in law and economics to theories of agency as affective relationships, and not merely enforceable contracted duties, undertaken or not according to rational expectations of fulfilment. That is not, at bottom, the nature of agency, which is fiduciary duty. Fiduciary duty is finally premised upon sympathy and affect – rules and principles for dealing with others based upon a near-Adam Smithian notion of sympathetic response, how you would deal with yourself. (See this interesting paper by Eric Rasmusen.
Or, to put all this in other terms, The Wealth of Nations does not stand alone. It stands in tandem with a theory of moral psychology, one that Smith himself surely saw as being as crucial to the overall enterprise as the division of labor and gains from trade. That moral psychology is found in the much-ignored work, a work read perhaps by philosophers and intellectual historians, but not economists, but which for Smith stood alongside and as an equal pillar, the theory of affect and social virtue – Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.
This is not a crazy call to abandon rationality or its quantified expression in economics, heaven knows. Please don’t misunderstand me on this point. I have too many conversations with, for example, anthropologists who believe they understand monetary economics that I make no claim to understand, better than the Fed does, because they understand something about exchange in hunter-gatherer societies. This is not the current argument (often unexpressed from academic politeness but, let’s facing, one that has occurred to bunches of people) that – professional economics apparently having fallen down on the job in the financial crisis – let’s jettison it in favor of re-making economics a branch of the English department. But it is a claim that it’s time to draw back into economics a necessarily qualitative account of the moral sentiments in economic life as we know it. This is a different inquiry from behavioral economics or the sociology of markets. It is moral psychology in the traditional philosophical sense, the ‘relational’ teachings of how we use and intend words of not merely logical force, but affect.
There might indeed be room, in other words, after a really, really long time, for the humanities once again in economic explanation.
(Update: Responding to comments, particularly the important first comment, let me add this:
T Gracchus writes: As a story about Hume or Smith, this pretty farfetched. Moral Sentiments, for Hume and Smith, have a rather different foundation, and explaining commercial activity is not it. More to the point, the ‘sentiments’ to be explained have no particular connection to the commercial culture — the sentiments aren’t the sentiments of particular economic culture. But points for creative reassembly.
KA responds: Blogging written without a lot of review, so apologies for not being clear. I don’t disagree with you at all that the moral sentiments to be explained have no particular connection to the, or a, commercial culture. I agree entirely. What I would want to say (and did not express particularly well) is that even this commercial culture requires explanation at least in part by reference to moral sentiments; one ought not to jettison them from the explanation for how that culture works entirely and think that one has nonetheless accounted for it. I don’t mean to suggest, although I’m sure I do, that the theory of moral sentiments is a theory about this or any other particular commercial culture.
One other remark going to the comments. When I talk of the virtues that Smith, Hume, Ferguson, others of that period and broad body of thought, saw in ‘commercial culture’, I don’t really mean, in this context, any sense of the ‘inevitability’ or near-metaphysical nature of the market. I mean in this context something far more historically specific and contingent, viz., that an important part of the virtue they saw in commercial culture arose out of the previous generation’s experience of civil war over religion. It might or might not be some universal response – but an important part of their endorsement had to do with endorsing ‘milder’ ideologies that sought pragmatic accommodation to different views, helped in very practical ways to establish public social spaces in which religion was not the defining feature. It is not a claim about universal human nature or social institutions, but instead an understanding of what, in their specific circumstances, they wanted to avoid. Becker has an outstanding discussion of why the Scottish Enlightenment figures would be attracted to a less ‘heroic’ public morality than the one that had animated the civil wars. Becker’s discussion of Walter Scott is particularly compelling.