The Capitalist Muse
IN PRAISE OF COMMERCIAL CULTURE
Harvard University Press, 1998, xi + 278 pgs.
Cultural pessimists such as John Ruskin claim that capitalism leads to a decline in literature,
painting, and music. The market panders to the debased
tastes of the masses and strikes a mortal blow at "high" art. Another Victorian, Matthew Arnold,
in his classic Culture and Anarchy, indicted "our
Liberal friends," including John Bright, for their "mechanical" adherence to laissez faire. Their
single-minded devotion to the market put culture at risk.
(Oddly, Cowen's erudite book mentions neither Ruskin nor Arnold.)
How might a defender of capitalism respond? One way is to admit the crime but exonerate
the suspect. Culture is indeed in a bad way today, but the
market is not to blame. It isn't the fault of the free market that no composer today can match
Mozart or Beethoven: to replace the market will not make
artistic genius appear.
Tyler Cowen in this ambitious book replies to the anti-capitalist argument on entirely
different lines. Culture in the present, far from being in decline, is
in great shape. "The cultural optimist position does not seek to make the achievements of modern
creators commensurable with the achievements of the
past, just as we cannot... ascertain whether five or ten Beatles songs might add up in value to one
Haydn string quartet. It can be said, however, that
modern creators have offered the world a large variety of deep and lasting creations that are
universal in their scope and significant in their import" (p.
Many of us, I dare say, will find it quite easy to judge Haydn superior to the Beatles. But our
author has much more in store for us than a gush over a
rather tame group by present-day standards. Rap music, it seems, is also part of the cultural
renaissance that capitalism has created. "Rap music has
received special opprobrium, and is commonly associated with riots, murder, and obnoxious
boom boxes. But approached from another context and
freed from its sometimes threatening tone, rap is a startling musical achievement. Rap
interweaves advances in musical technology with the cultural
clothing of modern urban black America" (p. 173).
I suppose we should at least be grateful that Mr. Cowen's praise extends only to rap music
"freed from its sometimes threatening tone." But I speak too
soon: the concession has been made only to be at once withdrawn. Cowen cannot contain himself
where speaking of "hard" rap: "Hard rap forces us to
encounter contemporary music and poetry at their most barbaric. It uses violence in the artistic
tradition of Shakespeare, Bosch, and Verdi to create an
entrancing fervor" (p. 175).
Readers may well wonder: how low can he go? (Not me, of course: I mean Professor
Cowen's taste for barbarism.) I fear that we have not yet reached
bottom. Opponents of government funding for the arts have often held up to ridicule the
photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and the sculpture of
Andrés Serrano. Defenders of the NEA counter that the grants to these purveyors of vice
were aberrations: should we not be willing to tolerate a few
rotten apples in return for the government's promotion of good art?
Cowen's slant on the issue differs from both positions just sketched out. He does not favor
government funding of the arts, but he thinks that
Mapplethorpe and Serrano are successes of the National Endowment. "The result is an agency
whose best and most innovative actions--such as funding
exhibits of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andrés Serrano--are precisely those that offend its
taxpaying supporters" (p. 38).
Our author later uses his admiration for these artists to take a swipe at those libertarians not
so culturally enlightened as he. "Despite their protests, many
libertarians are glad to hear that the NEA sometimes funds dubious art. They would rather have
their negative view of government confirmed than enjoy
a great public mural. Since Mapplethorpe's photos and Serrano's Piss Christ give them
marketable fodder for attack, they assume that these artists must
be degenerate and low quality" (pp. 199-200).
One might at this point raise an objection to the line of criticism of Cowen implicit in my
foregoing remarks. I have suggested that his defense of
markets is in one respect worse than useless. He merely holds up to praise exactly the sort of
trash that critics of the market adduce as their prime cases
of cultural decline. What good is this?
But, you may object, my criticism is fatally flawed. I have suggested, in my usual sneering
tones, that rap music, Mapplethorpe, and Serrano are not
ornaments of modern culture. But am I not just opposing my preferences to Cowen's? I have
expressed disgust for what he admires: that is no argument.
And may we not go further? Cowen knows vastly more about rap music and similar wonders
than I. He speaks learnedly of Schoolly-D, NWA, the Geto
Boys, Public Enemy, and the Wu-Tang Clan, of whom I know nothing. (I had thought the NWA
a professional wrestling association of some years ago.)
Given this disparity in knowledge, is not Professor Cowen's judgment likely to be sounder than
The first objection rests on an aesthetic philosophy that I reject. It reduces disputes about art
to differences in taste not subject to rational resolution. As
the nineteenth-century novelist Mrs. Margaret Hungerford famously expressed this view, "beauty
is in the eye of the beholder." I should contend,
contrary to our author and Arthur Danto, that it is objectively true that Andy Warhol's Brillo
Boxes are not significant works of art (p. 28). To think
otherwise, as Danto does, is ridiculously to inflate the importance of "self-referential" art.
But, you may continue, this is mere assertion on my part. Surely defenders of degenerate art
like Cowen will not grant me an entire aesthetic philosophy
as a premise. The point is well taken, and the task of elaborating objective principles of art far
exceeds my powers. (In literature, Irving Babbitt and Yvor
Winters have, I think, at least made a good beginning.)
But the objection does not much help Cowen. Since he defends the art that critics damn as
degenerate, it is up to him to make a case for his aesthetics.
I can assume my comfortable and usual role as critic, and attempt to knock down the arguments
he advances. Unless he justifies his aesthetics, his case
for contemporary culture is of mere biographical interest.
As to the second objection, a simple observation suffices to dispatch it. It is not always the
case that more knowledge of a subject better equips one to
judge it. No doubt astrologers are much better acquainted with their pseudo-science than are
critics; but is it not the latter who manifest better judgment?
In the space remaining, then, let us address Cowen's arguments in defense of present-day art.
For one thing, he claims that his beloved modern music is
as complex as the great music of the past: "The premise that the creations of twentieth-century
music are less complex than the classics is dubious.... The
songs of Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, or the Beatles are arguably no less
compositionally complex (and perhaps more complex) than
the Lieder of Schubert. Schubert wrote about 700 songs, most of which no one ever listens to or
analyzes. Many of these songs are technically and
compositionally undistinguished" (p. 180).
Let us grant Cowen his claim about complexity; why does the fact that a song is more
complex than a Schubert composition qualify it as a better work of
art? Why is complexity a criterion of aesthetic merit? I suspect Cowen has mistaken complexity
for the familiar principle of organic unity, which
celebrates unity-in-variety. The entire point of this latter principle is to identify a criterion of
beauty, a word that seems absent from Professor Cowen's
vocabulary. Would he really want to say that the Beatles' music is as beautiful as Schubert's?
But what of Cowen's point that not all the Lieder of Schubert are great? Perhaps so: once
more I bow to his superior learning. But a supporter of the
cultural decline view may argue that this does not refute him. Should not the state of culture be
judged by its supreme products, rather than its average
ones? And if the best of Schubert surpasses the best of the Beatles, he may say, we have an
instance of cultural decline.
Too often Cowen assumes that in art, more is better. Thus, he argues that art progresses
because new works provide us with additional ways of
interpreting old works. "Art creates an interdependent language whose whole exceeds the sum of
the parts. Masterpieces therefore provide more
satisfaction and insight as we accumulate artistic experiences.... The more music we know, the
more we can hear in the compositions of Bach and
Beethoven" (pp. 27-28).
Cowen's point, taken as he acknowledges from T.S. Eliot, is a good one; but it does not
prove what he wants it to. From the fact that new works give us
new interpretations, it does not follow that our new view is better than our old. Perhaps previous
interpretations have been forgotten; and even if not,
once again it does not follow that the more interpretations, the better. Why is an abundance of
interpretations to be preferred to a more detailed
exploration of a lesser number?
A similar fallacy infects Cowen's account of one of his best points. Cowen rightly notes that
under capitalism, the masses have access to a vast number
of the great masterpieces of the past. Those who do not share Cowen's preference for the Beatles
over Schubert can have all the Lieder they want. It is
also true, as Cowen says, that "forms of professional cultural criticism, all relatively new
professions, owe their [existence? D.G.] thanks to capitalist
wealth" (p. 27-28). Do we not live in the best of times, so far as art is concerned?
A proponent of the cultural decline thesis need not agree; and as usual, Cowen bypasses his
concerns. Once more, what of those who think that the state
of art in a period should be judged by its supreme masterworks, rather than by the spread and
variety of the art available in it? And what of the argument,
advanced among others by Eliot, that the height of culture is characterized by a unity of artistic
production, based on a shared tradition? Eliot's thesis of a
dissociation of sensibility, which began in English literature in the seventeenth century, is not
refuted by ignoring it.
Further, Cowen's excellent point that the capitalist market makes art available to the masses
was advanced long before him by Ludwig von Mises, in The
Anti-Capitalistic Mentality and by Edward Banfield, in The Democratic Muse. Our author finds
neither of these works worthy of mention: no doubt
Mises and Banfield lack the openness to new trends of Alvin Toffler, whom Cowen does
I have no doubt been unfair to this book, of course by design. It includes much valuable
discussion of the way in which changes in technology affect art.
But it is not clear how this material speaks to the book's ostensible subject, the question of
cultural decline under capitalism. How does the vast
profusion of facts in this book fit into a coherent thesis? Timur Kuran, in a blurb, refers to the
book's "delightfully parsimonious arguments." I wonder
whether this is altogether a compliment?