Another Swim Meet, Another Econo-Culture Tome Reread, and a Reflection on the Theory of Moral Sentiments:

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….


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