The view that we exist in a cultural wasteland is both popular and mistaken. Contemporary humans have unparalleled access to the greatest amounts and qualities of expressive media created in any point in our history. The fruits of the division of labor and specialization have grown so bountiful that we can eat our fill of the raw necessities of life while having enough left over to savor the nuances of delicate artisanal wines. The rise of capitalism has driven down the costs of producing and enjoying creative works; the supply and diversity of products has expanded accordingly. Still, the tempting allures of cultural pessimism stubbornly persist.
In this month’s edition of The Freeman, one member of the creative class airs his grievances towards his comrades’ penchants for rabidly gobbling subsidies to the arts stolen from the meager pockets of the army of baristas-slash-whatevers likewise struggling to make a splash in the art world. Comedian and writer Andrew Heaton decries the regressive injustice of extracting involuntary endowments for the arts from working class people to buttress the coffers of exquisite high society taste.
Heaton is right that people are made worse off when their hard-earned money is siphoned from the monster truck rallies and Croods that they would otherwise enjoy and diverted towards a $75,000 NEA grant to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall so that Motown’s élite can enjoy a complete cycle of Beethoven’s works on the cheap. This criticism, however, falls on hollow nouveau aristocratic ears: they don’t care that fewer people can watch the Croods if it means that Beethoven will live on. Defenders of public arts funding argue that undirected market activity produces too many low-brow Psys and not enough high-brow Beethovens; they forget that Beethoven himself was a glorious agent of commerce and trade (and an old school pop artist, to boot).
Tyler Cowen extols the largely unappreciated virtues of capitalism as the driving force behind artistic development and dissemination in his book, In Praise of Commercial Culture. Plucking and presenting the most popular theories that drive cultural pessimism—among them conservative worries of degeneracy and decadence, gripes of capitalism’s corrupting mediocrity from the Frankfurt crowd, and multiculturalist concerns of global cultural whitewashing—Cowen demonstrates that each of them fail to recognize how commercial development assuages their artistic anxieties and expands high, low, and minority culture.
Take our friend Beethoven. His stellar musical rise was fueled by the productive powers of capitalism. The commercialization of the printing press allowed the Maestro to sell sheet music directly to middle class families and make a cozy artistic freelance living. Businessmen eager to peddle instruments to a growing middle class improved production and lowered the costs of owning a family piano, which drove demand for the sheet music that allowed classical composers to live free from the bondage of patronage. The rise of a wealthy merchant class allowed composers to work for private grants and performances, freed from the strictures of stuffy state and religious taste. Classical composers’ growing roles as businessmen in the developing music market allowed them unprecedented degrees of artistic freedom.
Classical music flourished in the fertile commercial culture of 19th century Germany and Austria without the meddling of the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, technological developments and growing wealth makes the case for government-subsidized culture all the more scant.
Not only is the market better for creative culture than most people realize, the state can be downright toxic to creative expression and cultural development. Elsewhere in the fresh pages of The Freeman, Mike Reid warns of the perils entrusting social culture to the brute purveyance of the state. The state exerts its tyranny on social culture through paternalism and imperialism. In the case of the Jarawa “primitives” of the Andaman Islands, their government’s desire to preserve their “pristine” culture resulted in laws that forcibly prevented these people from culturally assimilating. Elsewhere and more commonly, governments have enacted harebrained “culturalization” schemes to smother the traditions of indigenous people.
In the same way, when placed in a position to judge and cultivate artistic culture, the state oscillates between propping up stale established forms and attacking the avant-garde. Upon appointment as head of the state-controlled French musical Academy, composer Jean-Baptiste Lully refused to subsidize works that did not meet his particular taste; many years passed where his production was the only one bankrolled in the entire country. On the other side of the spectrum, the cool angles and industrial philosophy of Walter Gropius’s Staatliches Bauhaus was stifled by state cultural authorities in Nazi Germany. More recently, state funding for the arts has backed questionable works of middling quality for pure shock value (Piss Christ: never forget).
The areas in which the modern arts have most flourished are those that are the most commercial and free from the clumsy taste of the state. In her book The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel chronicles the explosion of aesthetic options wrought by our growing global marketplace. Today, consumers survey seas of products that deliver solid functions and the perfect forms to suit more individualized tastes—all for a fraction of ugly earlier models’ costs. Echoing these observations, social critic Camille Paglia suggests that the relative stagnation in the visual arts is a result of modern artists’ disconnectedness and disdain for commercial culture. Industrial designers are driving renaissance of style and function because they are still tapped in to the creative forces of market activity.
There is no reason to believe that the state will be a responsible steward of our culture. Our cultural history gives us every reason to believe that capitalism will continue to provide the diversity and quality of forms that we have come to take for granted. The rich should shell out to pay for their own whimsies; the art world will thrive with or without this stolen “generosity.”