Is moolah the muse of great art?

In Praise of Commercial Culture
October 23, 1998

Locking together causes and effects is rarely simple. And rarely is it more difficult than in the arts. How do different social and political structures encourage, or discourage, artistic endeavour? To what extent are artistic talents inherited, to what extent learned? Are they teachable? What drives some individuals to create works of art at the expense of their personal happiness, material well-being and -Joccasionally - their very sanity? What, in short, are the causes that result in great art? And what, for that matter, is great art?

Into this nebulous maelstrom Tyler Cowen, of George Mason University, has marched with admirable panache, if with a tad too much confidence. His thesis is straightforward. The world can be divided into cultural optimists and cultural pessimists. He is a cultural optimist. He believes that culture, which he uses as a synonym for art, has got better and better from the year dot onwards. With each decade that passes there is more cultural output, it is more diverse, and it is probably improving -Jcertainly not getting worse. The principle cause of this burgeoning of culture, he argues, is humanity's greater material wealth; and the cause of humanity's greater wealth is capitalism. Ergo, contrary to the opinions of the despised cultural pessimists, capitalism (cause) creates great art (effect). No need for a PhD in aesthetics there, then: everything in the cultural garden is lovely. As long as capitalism survives we can all sleep contentedly in our designer beds.

To germinate his thesis, Cowen gathers pollen from almost every cultural honey pot in the history of the western world. He buzzes busily from music to literature, from live entertainment to miniature watercolours. He hurries from 18th-century Vienna to 20th-century Chicago, and scurries from the Beatles to Brancusi, from Samuel Richardson to Diana Ross, from Thucydides to Cy Twombly. His index lists more than 600 artists, beginning with Kobo Abe and ending with Stefan Zweig. And he knows a fair amount about every one of them. It is a masterful performance.

He argues his case with formidable logic. He asks two consistent questions: who shall pay the artists, and how can we ensure the system of payment encourages, rather than hampers their art? He examines the many mechanisms by which governments have sponsored the arts and comes down pretty heavily against all of them, especially the French: "The French Ministry of Culture spends $3 billion a year and employs 12,000 bureaucrats. Yet France has lost her position as a world cultural leader and few other countries embrace American popular culture with such fervour."

He goes on to quote the American painter John Sloan: "Sure, it would be fine to have a Ministry of the Fine Arts in this country. Then we'd know where the enemy is."

That sentiment will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has ever been involved with our own dearly beloved Arts Council. However generous, any system of state funding of the arts, as Chris Smith and Gerry Robinson have been learning, inevitably provides a wonderful Aunt Sally. Anyone and everyone can take a pot-shy. Artists who do not obtain funds grumble publicly because they are not appreciated, while artists who do not obtain sufficient funds grumble covertly because others have got more; right-wingers wonder why tax-payers' money should be doled out to egotistical loafers, left-wingers wonder why so much money goes to elitist arts the populace neither wants nor understands. Almost nobody is satisfied nor ever could be.

The United States system, in contrast, appears both fairer and more effective. Their rough equivalent of the Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, has less money and fewer resources. ("The American government spends more on military marching bands than on the NEA," notes Cowen cheerfully.) Instead, the arts there are largely funded by individuals, who get tax breaks on their donations. The US government thus subsidises the arts indirectly, by rebating taxes, and millions of people personally choose which artists are to get their money. That is the explanation of the interminable lists of worthy people's names that greet you as you enter even the smallest American gallery or auditorium.

Naturally the US system is the one Cowen espouses. But he does not quite clinch his argument. First, their system works better for some arts than others. They have no equivalent of our levy-funded BBC, for example, nor of our National Theatre. And boy aren't they envious of both. Second, though Cowen tends to pooh-pooh the differences between high culture and low culture - and with good reason, when dealing with cultural snobbism - quantity and diversity do not always lead to quality. Great art has often been sponsored by blinkered potentates who were the governments of their time and place.

And very occasionally Cowen's arguments border on the ludicrous. It is plain daft to deduce that material progress benefits artists because John Keats would have lived longer had he be born later. Causes and effects are not that easy-peasy to lock together. Who knows, Keats might have been run over coming home from school. Material progress has its downsides, too.

Nonetheless, Cowen has provided a marvellously exuberant counterblast to the widespread 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 is chairman, Bozell UK Group.

In Praise of Commercial Culture

Author - Tyler Cowen
ISBN - 0 674 44591 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 8

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