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In Praise of Commercial Culture

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Does a market economy encourage or discourage music, literature, and the visual arts? Do economic forces of supply and demand help or harm the pursuit of creativity? This book seeks to redress the current intellectual and popular balance and to encourage a more favorable attitude toward the commercialization of culture that we associate with modernity. Economist Tyler Cowen argues that the capitalist market economy is a vital but underappreciated institutional framework for supporting a plurality of coexisting artistic visions, providing a steady stream of new and satisfying creations, supporting both high and low culture, helping consumers and artists refine their tastes, and paying homage to the past by capturing, reproducing, and disseminating it. Contemporary culture, Cowen argues, is flourishing in its various manifestations, including the visual arts, literature, music, architecture, and the cinema.

Successful high culture usually comes out of a healthy and prosperous popular culture. Shakespeare and Mozart were highly popular in their own time. Beethoven’s later, less accessible music was made possible in part by his early popularity. Today, consumer demand ensures that archival blues recordings, a wide array of past and current symphonies, and this week’s Top 40 hit sit side by side in the music megastore. High and low culture indeed complement each other.

Cowen’s philosophy of cultural optimism stands in opposition to the many varieties of cultural pessimism found among conservatives, neoconservatives, the Frankfurt School, and some versions of the political correctness and multiculturalist movements, as well as historical figures, including Rousseau and Plato. He shows that even when contemporary culture is thriving, it appears degenerate, as evidenced by the widespread acceptance of pessimism. He ends by considering the reasons why cultural pessimism has such a powerful hold on intellectuals and opinion-makers.

288 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Tyler Cowen

81 books722 followers
Tyler Cowen (born January 21, 1962) occupies the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University and is co-author, with Alex Tabarrok, of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. He currently writes the "Economic Scene" column for the New York Times and writes for such magazines as The New Republic and The Wilson Quarterly.

Cowen's primary research interest is the economics of culture. He has written books on fame (What Price Fame?), art (In Praise of Commercial Culture), and cultural trade (Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World's Cultures). In Markets and Cultural Voices, he relays how globalization is changing the world of three Mexican amate painters. Cowen argues that free markets change culture for the better, allowing them to evolve into something more people want. Other books include Public Goods and Market Failures, The Theory of Market Failure, Explorations in the New Monetary Economics, Risk and Business Cycles, Economic Welfare, and New Theories of Market Failure.

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for Aaron Gertler.
194 reviews69 followers
June 18, 2015
Recommended for: People who think art is getting better; people who think art is getting worse; people with neither opinion who just enjoy art history.

Tyler Cowen is in fine form here: "In Praise of Commercial Culture" reads like a great Marginal Revolution post stretched out to a few hundred pages. The book is packed with cultural history, and most of its arguments are built around historical events rather than abstract economic theory, which enlivens the discussion from start to finish.

When I began reading, I already felt that it was obvious that culture gets "better" over time: More diversity in what gets released, more diversity in what audiences want to experience, and (of course) a higher population that gives evolution more chances to produce incredible artists. For me, "Commercial Culture" fed my confirmation bias and made me feel smarter and more secure in my own beliefs.

What about pessimists? This book will provoke people who firmly believe culture is heading downhill, but it might also convince them. At the very least, it will make you an interesting and/or insufferable conversationalist at your next dinner party.
Profile Image for Alex MacMillan.
142 reviews56 followers
May 18, 2023
This makes an excellent complement to Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment in that it fills in the gaps in humanity's growing variety and capacity for self expression through art - not only as creators but as consumers and distributors. Unlike Murray's book, which leaves out any evaluation of art and literature after 1950, Cowen thoroughly carries the baton into the present. He also emphasizes the role of technological advances and unprecedented capitalist wealth in bringing about expanded opportunities for creation to subcultures and socioeconomic stratas. The unique benefits and novel relationships of capitalism - comparative advantage, specialization of exchange, ecological niches of consumption, rewards for technological and creative innovation - operate in the arts in a manner identical to their influence on any other market. I mistakenly perceived the artists I revere within a unique mysticism of emotional truth untrammeled by materialist concerns, but Cowen the economist quickly brought market incentives to the surface. Even Beethoven needed some way to pay the rent.

Cowen's focus on new technologies and spreading wealth brings an unusually Marxist flavor to this anthem of libertarian cosmopolitanism. I constantly thought of Marx's concept of the material base and ideological superstructure. Each new innovation in art depended on the invention of a new technology (the base) for capturing a representation of the artists imagination (the superstructure). No cultural pessimist is as powerful as an art whose time has come. This really made me reflect on how new technology, particularly the Internet, has set down pathways shaping my identity and behavior in a manner apart from my parents or grandparents. To take one example, the fact that I am inspired to write book reviews like this one on Goodreads for perfect strangers, how such public online cataloguing motivates my reading, how the ideas I've been exposed to by the desire to express myself through the books I read... Goodreads is just one galaxy in the universe of capitalist discovery. Let this book - and this review - be a star in your own superstructure. - 2/20/15
Profile Image for Richard Zhu.
79 reviews40 followers
March 13, 2021
First four chapters 3 stars, last chapter alone 5 stars. This is my first read of Cowen, and it cements my belief that he is one of today's great thinkers. I know of few books that have a higher density of annotations I need to follow up on. If you're strapped for time, Chapter 5 on cultural pessimism can be read alone as well.

As an important note: the book seems like it is mostly about culture, but it is also about universal themes of optimism v. pessimism, left v. right, elite v. common, and the past, present, and future. There are important reasons why throughout history, culture, commerce, and politics have been inextricably linked.
Profile Image for Shelley.
124 reviews
August 14, 2012
this guy may be a media darling, but his ratio of words/footnotes needs examining. He isn't a thinker, he's a thought consolidator like Huff Post or yahoo news.

Said better here:
You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you want to sell it!
Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm
Profile Image for Bryan.
Author 1 book62 followers
September 14, 2019
Essential reading for arts-and-humanities types. The commercial/economic context in which art is created is every bit as important as the intellectual climate, race, gender, or any other factor you wish to name. Cowen also makes the case that markets liberate artists and culture and further argues that we should be optimistic when it comes to cultural progress. Fascinating stuff.
Profile Image for Ryan.
1,010 reviews
February 21, 2022
For as long as I can remember, I have been suspicious of commercial culture, I suppose because many of my aesthetic views were shaped by the grunge bands of the early 1990s. I especially remember how Pearl Jam broke through and then fought like crazy against their success. Bands and acts that embraced their fame were conformist, commercial, disposable, shallow, and inauthentic.

"Damn right!" thought teenage Ryan listening to Nirvana's "In Bloom" and Pearl Jam's "Not For You" on repeat. The only thing I wanted more than to listen to these albums was to get cable TV so I could watch grunge music videos.

I don't want to dismiss my skepticism of commercial culture. Musicians often write about friction between major labels and their idiosyncratic inspiration. Further, I was recently able to listen to Sirius XM radio, which has channels devoted to the 1960s, '70s, etc. I could not believe how commercial, plastic, and just awful much of the 90s music was. It was as though each decade since the '60s had seen a decline as music had gotten bigger and bigger.

And yet, in spite of (because of?) that commercial boom, those grunge bands still emerged. I still like Beck. The Beastie Boys. The Wallflowers. Oasis. The Tragically Hip. OLP. Radiohead. (Not a comprehensive list...) If there was room for music I viewed as junk, the prosperous '90s also offered market share for bands I loved.

In other words, the cultural products trying to be authentic (the grunge bands, Douglas Coupland, Reality Bites) were all commercial products, and a rising tide made room for all of them.

Much of In Praise of Commercial Culture offers that sort of argument--how bad can the commercial influence be when we can find such gems within it? Or how about this one: Beethoven seems great and yet people don't listen to him very much. But Cowen would argue that more people can listen to Beethoven's music today than at any point in history--not to mention a ton of other musical styles. A cultural pessimist like Jonathan Swift might criticize his time, and yet within that criticism he produces a work like Gulliver's Travels that is still read today as a masterpiece of satiric literature.

If we take Cowen's arguments seriously, how should we update our priors? Cowen breaks cultural commentators into two broad groups, cultural optimists and cultural pessimists, and In Praise of Commercial Culture urges us to side more readily with the optimists. Cowen acknowledges that he cannot offer a "knockdown argument" against cultural pessimism, but he wants to "chip away" at our faith in the pessimist argument. He would also have readers put more faith in the market and less in state sponsored support of the arts.

I am happy to recommend this work, especially to Gen Xers, and it left me wondering what other aesthetic preferences and assumptions linger from my childhood.


A side note. I was struck by how "Tyler Cowen" TC was even at the end of the 1990s. In Praise of Commercial Culture ties up its defense of cultural optimism in a defense of capitalism. For readers unfamiliar with Cowen, two of his most recent books are Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Underdog and Stubborn Attachments, which argues that economic growth should be understood as a moral imperative. Cowen's blog, Marginal Revolution, is well known for its Straussian readings, and a few are here, too. And he is already doing "underrated vs overrated" (a segment in his podcast) in this introduction: "I am arguing that we should upgrade our estimate of the efficacy of the market, not that the market is all-important" (4).
477 reviews20 followers
July 11, 2019
Consistently interesting and largely persuasive argument, full of fun historical tidbits (the varying ways in which the same patterns of cultural pessimism occur is really amazing). One of my favorite parts of the book was how much it made me appreciate the inherent elitism in so many forms of cultural pessimism. Culture and art forms move and expand in so many different ways that most attempts at imposing patterns on them are victims of too narrow a lens. Cowen's breadth of knowledge helps him take a wider view here. This book forced me to update my views on the topic, and that is a good criteria for a thesis-driven work. That being said, there are a few areas I wish Cowen had probed deeper, and where I think he is vulnerable to counter-arguments. 1) Further inquiry into question of whether different art forms intrinsically have different depth/complexity, and thus can offer different depth of experience. This is a tricky area (and becomes elitist fast), but I think Cowen was too dismissive of it the one time he raised it. 2) More consideration of general aesthetic degradation of the living spaces we inhabit (public & private) due to the reach of commercial enterprise. Maybe this argument is less about art forms and more about environment/romanticism, but I think it is related, and Cowen didn't really address it. 3) The possibility of "too good" mimetic entertainment that drags people's time/attention away from more interesting art appreciation and creation. Much of the historical examples Cowen uses kind of tangentially could be used here, but I don't think Cowen takes it up explicitly enough. 4) Cowen wrote this before the true rise of the internet, but I wonder how his views would update in terms of the way the internet has potentially allowed for monopolization of certain artistic tastes (his commentary on radio was useful for thinking about this but I would like more). 5) Most importantly, I don't think he considers the best "cultural pessimism" argument which is about the conflict between rationalism/romanticism, and how the ascent of rationalism can be aesthetically troublesome. His evidence does a good job of showing how the "ascent of rationalism" can make space for many types of non-purely rationalist/universalist art, but he doesn't engage with the idea that true rationalism/liberalism as a worldview inevitably leads to homogenization. Ironically, I think Cowen's own writing is subject to this critique. I enjoyed reading his argument but he is so lacking in beauty or play in his writing, and it feels to me like a byproduct of the worldview he is trying to praise! This is the thorniest part of the debate and I don't think there is an easy answer, but it would have been nice to see Cowen at least try and handle it. Regardless, interesting read that contains an important argument.
20 reviews
March 20, 2022
I discovered Tyler Cowen and his blog at the end of last year. He is a lot of fun. I've been really impressed by how he approaches thinking about different topics, and he got me into learning more economics.

"Contemporary culture, Cowen argues, is flourishing in its various manifestations" says the Amazon description of this book. I've always been interested in trying to learn how we can judge whether music is good or bad, so combined with the previous interests, this book was a must read.

The gist of the book is that commercialization of culture leads to more artists, more art, and a greater diversity of both. When economic change facilitates an expansion of a market, art explodes in that area.

There are five chapters: chapter 1 gives an overview of arts in a market economy; chapters 2, 3, and 4 look specifically at the role commercialization has played for literature, painting, and music over time; and chapter 5 argues against cultural pessimism. I enjoyed chapters 1, 2, and 5 the most. Most of the story for chapters 3 and 4 is the same as chapter 2. This is surprisingly, because going into the book I was most interested in learning about music.

This quote from the book interested me the most:

"Unlike white Protestantism, most branches of African-American religion never accepted the strain of Christian doctrine that emphasized the sinfulness of sex and bodily enjoyment. Instead, sex is to be enjoyed, celebrated, and sung about. This more liberal view of sex influenced the lyrics, the rhythms, and the aesthetics of black music."

This was part of the section explaining why African-American music has dominated contemporary popular music, with jazz, rock, hip hop, and a multitude of other genres all originating from the community.

Overall, an enjoyable easy read, and a nice perspective that is hard to find elsewhere, but less new information than I expected.
January 29, 2019
There are fascinating historical insights here, most notably the market vs. the state in regards to payola, but you have to dig for them under an onslaught of dry, encyclopedic anecdotes. Much of the book is taken up with sentences that go like this, this, this, this, that, that, and this. Some sections had me digging for the purpose they served and their relation to commercial culture, seemingly more in service of musical history than they were of this book’s thesis. The last section, on cultural pessimism, is the most interesting and insightful.
Profile Image for Tom.
253 reviews2 followers
April 23, 2018
Why did I read: I like Tyler Cowen's "Marginal Revolution" blog and was interested to hear more of his thoughts on markets for culture.

Reaction: Got what I came for. Contains many interesting case studies of artists as entrepreneurs, and a good framework for thinking about artists as economic actors satisfying some mix of market desires and their own taste.
9 reviews
June 15, 2023
Delightful treatise on several questions I've been pondering for the past 6 months on art elitism, literary canon, and refining one's aesthetic tastes. Tyler Cowen discusses these topics by presenting the distinction between high culture and popular culture, spending the bulk of the text constructing a concise histories of literature, art, and music markets to argue the economic forces that shape aesthetic criteria. Ultimately, Cowen is a cultural optimist who at the same time understands the motivations and usefulness of cultural pessimism. Those familiar with Cowen also know that he is a brilliant consumer of both contemporary works and the classics, which makes his cultural commentary all the more edifying.

Personally, I had fun looking up all the cultural footnotes; the music examples especially have a soft spot in my heart.
20 reviews
September 8, 2018
Interesting take on how capitalism supports or impedes the market for the arts and their development.
92 reviews22 followers
October 31, 2015
This book is an important reply to a common complaint that capitalist society is bad for culture. Cowen argues, instead, that capitalist societies tend to be more supportive of good culture. Good culture denotes the variety of cultural production a society can support, including access to those of the past. One of Cowen's primary strategies is to document how periods of great cultural flourishing in Western history (the Florentine and Dutch renaissances, for example) were also highly commercial periods, and to show possible causal mechanisms by which these two correlates relate. For example, commercial periods tend to be correlated with periods of technological development, which often makes possible new materials and techniques (e.g. the development of oil painting over tempera)

Cowen also offers an "error theory" of cultural pessimism--a theory of why people might come to believe in cultural pessimism. Several mechanisms support cultural pessimism: myopia, status signaling, competition among artists, and religious doctrine. As with all error theories, it is insufficient to show that cultural pessimism is false, but they should undermine our confidence.
Profile Image for Gavin.
125 reviews5 followers
January 23, 2014
Good Book on how capitalism is the best system for art. Also a well put critique on cultural pessimism.
3.5 Stars
Profile Image for dv.
1,266 reviews47 followers
October 5, 2017
The book is basically an argumentation against what it defines as "cultural pessimism". Unfortunately it goes no further than common sense.
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

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