Saturday, November 7, 2009

Art is a kid, art is a kid, in a bull market: In Praise of Commercial Culture

You thought I'd forgotten all about you, didn't you? Maybe even my ramblings about commercial art and the like. Not quite.

For example, I finally got a chance to take a peek into In Praise of Commercial Culture by economist Tyler Cowen (one of the influential voices behind econoblog Marginal Revolutions). Only about 20 pages in, but I still have a few thoughts.

  • Cowen's writing is probably best suited to blogging. I suppose that, given the normal quality of the stereotypical professorial paper, mere readability is a rarity. But he makes Malcolm Gladwell look like Joan Didion. Perfectly adequate prose sentence plods into perfectly adequate prose sentence. For a book dealing with art, there's very little art. In small doses, clarity is fine. For an entire book, it's a slog.
  • So much of it is him putting down examples of his point. "You think artists don't care about money? But Beethoven said this. And Gaugin did this. And this person died in poverty." That's only slightly exaggerated. I hope later on he gets into a specific, piece-by-piece analysis of one work of art or artist.
  • To Cowen's credit, it's refreshing to see someone who points out the fallacies in all the well-crafted but contrived cultural polemics that seem to be the main way any pundit/philosopher makes money these days. He's not saying everything is perfect, but he is willing to point out that, yes, life has become less nasty, brutish and short for more people and to consign those people back to the status quo ante for some weird sense of cultural homogeny is stupid.
  • On the other hand, his triumphalism really vague. Some of his points, about the decrease in prices for materials as basic as paper have opened up the art field, make sense. Other arguments seem to boil down to, "hey, people have benefited from this technology/advance, and that's because of capitalism. And since artists are people, artists are benefiting from capitalism." Which is technically true, but, well, he decided to write a book about how capitalism benefits the artist specifically. It's not titled In Praise of Modernity.
More to come. Maybe next time, I'll get to his thought experiment (in blog-form) about how just recycling pop culture every 50 years would be perfectly cromulent.