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Monday, November 21, 2011


In Praise of Commercial Culture
by Tyler Cowen
p. 1998
Harvard  University Press

   Any discussion about "culture" starts with the potential for great confusion.  Culture has multiple meanings- most often it is either used in a broad sense- culture as an assortment of believes, customs and shared assumptions that bind a community together in time and space.  Or a narrow sense- to refer to Arts.  This narrow term is summarized in Cowen's In Praise of Commerical Culture:

  I use the terms culture and art interchangeably to cover man-made artifacts or performances that move us and expand our awareness of the world and of ourselves.  I have in mind painting, sculpture, music, film architecture, photography, theater, literature and dance.

    The broad usage is defined in Eric Jones, Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture as, "the pattern of beliefs, habits, and expectations, of values, ideals and preferences, shared by groups of people, large and small."

   Much confusion results when writers attempt to talk about both meanings in the same article or how both meanings are manifested in a specific individual.  The broad meaning is more methodologically controversial, the narrow meaning is a widely accepted synonym with a 300 year traditions of philosophical debate.  The network of concepts that lattices the broader meaning of Culture is essentially specialist only territory, whereas the usage as a synonym for the arts was/is/always will be a topic of great interest to specialists, and non-specialists alike.

  In Praise of Commercial Culture- written by a professor of Economics from the United States, is a good example of just how  the discussion of culture as arts continues to generate ample debate well into the present. day.  Unfortunately, the great majority of this discussion- the nature and quality of culture as arts, is the equivalent of cave dwellers making cave paintings: possessed of their own beauty, certainly, but not particularly technically sophisticated.

      That is because even as the Arts themselves develop a larger audience over time, the average interest level of that audience declines.  This observation, at the dilution of the attentiveness of the audience as it expands, is itself at the heart of Cowen's great distinction, Cultural Optimists vs. Cultural Pessimists.

       This distinction spans time, space and ideology to embrace practically the entire history of ideas that surrounds the Arts.  The main school is that of Cultural Pessimism, "Cultural pessimism comes from various points along the political spectrum and transcends traditional left wing/right-wing distinctions.  Its roots, in intellectual history, include Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, Pop, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Spengler.
       Cultural Pessimism has modern advocates, including Harold Bloom, Neil Postman and a legion of arts critics in every country of the world.  For people who actually think about a subject like "the meaning" of the Arts, or a specific Art, this is the "default mode."  In other words, if you are reading this and you have an opinion on the subject "Is a specific Art or Art generally getting better or worse over time?"  you are likely to answer, "Worse."

       Although Cowen does an excellent job in detailing the specific views embodied by the modern advocates of Cultural Pessimism towards the Arts, he doesn't do a very good job of explaining, "Why Cultural Pessimism?" as he purports to do at the end of this book.  His answers are illuminating: Old people don't like new things!  Artists are alienated by capitalism!  Parents don't like new things!  Religion is jealous of the power of the Arts! but pretty shallow.

     I think a better understanding is reached by looking at the maintenance and generation of ideas about art over time as constituting a cultural(broader sense) system, and thus subject to systemic analysis. Shared ideas have their own force, which tends to grow or diminish over time.  The shared idea of Cultural (narrower sense) Pessimism is clearly a winner.  Just how strong the playing field favors Cultural Pessimism is demonstrated by the weak, hesitant nature of Cowen's argument, which largely takes the form of a rather timid argument that market capitalism supports, rather then hinders a Culturally Optimistic view point.  I agree with what Cowen is arguing, but he doesn't go far enough- and that's by decision.

  An Economist, Cowen isn't interested in engaging Plato and T.S. Eliot on their own terms, he is simply summarizing and cataloging their viewpoints.  Personally, I think  In Praise of Commercial Culture would have been better received. (700k rank in book sales.)  Considering that he is specifically seeking to invalidate the ideas of writers of Harold Bloom and Neil Postman, you'd think he would steal some of their better ideas in terms of popularizing an unpopular idea (Cultural Optimism.)

   The position of advocating for Cultural Optimism is clearly vacant at the present moment- really, it's not even a debate that exists outside of this book, but personally I think the Cultural Pessimists are simply wrong for a lot of reasons- a lot of the same reasons that caused me to start writing by own book on what is essentially the same subject (former title: False Consciousness: How Intellectuals Misunderstood the Importance of Art)  but minus the Cultural Pessimist schematic and the hoary analysis of Cultural Pessimism and its causes.


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