By Tyler Cowen, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 278 pages, $27.95
In the second volume of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville - the one Frenchman, living or dead, who somehow seems immune to the contempt Americans hurl at all things Gallic - spun out a number of hypotheses regarding "cultivation of the arts" in aristocracies and democracies. Though proffered more than 150 years ago, Tocqueville's views still frame one side in an ongoing debate about the relationship between the arts and the marketplace. (One might add that in his put-down of America as essentially a throwaway culture, Tocqueville manages to remain quintessentially French even from the grave.)
"In aristocratic ages," proclaimed Tocqueville, "the emphasis is on doing things as well as possible, not as quickly or as cheaply as one can....Where wealth and power are permanently in the hands of a few, it is these people, always the same, who enjoy most of the good things of this world....The heirs to this hereditary superiority naturally like things very well made and lasting....Craftsmen...work for a strictly limited number of customers who are very hard to please. Perfect workmanship gives the best hope of profit." Tocqueville argued that even the peasant in such a society has exacting standards, "sooner do[ing] without the things he wants than get[ting] imperfect ones." (What role the peasant's lack of disposable income might play in the decision to "do without" goes unspecified.)
The situation is "very different" in democracies, wrote Tocqueville, "when men are continually rising and falling in the social scale" because of relatively free markets and attendant economic mobility. Formerly wealthy people have good taste but no money to buy good art; newly rich people have money to burn but no taste. Like the regular workman, the artist, according to Tocqueville, responds by lowering his standards to raise his profit margin. "He seeks ways of working, not just better, but quicker and more cheaply, and if he cannot manage that, he economizes on the intrinsic quality of the thing he is making, without making it wholly unfit for its intended use. When only the rich wore watches, they were almost all excellent. Now few are made that are more than mediocre, but we all have one....Democracy...induces workmen to make shoddy things very quickly and consumers to put up with them....Much the same takes place in the case of the fine arts as we have seen happening in the case of the useful arts. Quantity increases; quality goes down." In this way, the marketplace is revealed as the enemy of the museum: It may create lots of stuff, but none of it is very good.
It's interesting to ponder whether Tocqueville would make the same argument today, when people can buy Rolexes for tens of thousands of dollars or pick up equally time-worthy, if arguably less stylish, watches at their local Wal-Marts for under $10; when reproduction techniques have made virtually everyone in the West familiar with the Mona Lisa and inspired endless parodic knockoffs (ranging from Duchamp's moustaching of the image to its use in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series); and when ever-bigger bookstores stock $3.00 paperbacks of Dickens and Hugo next to $30 hardcovers by Jackie Collins and John Grisham. How, one wonders, would Tocqueville respond to an America filled with gas stations that sell gourmet coffee, quality cigars, and classical music CDs?
But of course one hardly needs a dead Frenchman's particular thoughts on the matter. One hears echoes of and variations on Tocqueville's aesthetic guns-and-butter curve all the time: In order to jack up ratings, television necessarily sinks to the lowest common denominator, an aesthetic abyss deeper than the Mariana Trench; the profit-driven search for gargantuan blockbuster movies tramples art-house fare underfoot; publishers, interested only in climbing The New York Times best-seller list, are dropping midlist and unknown authors like so much dead weight; and on and on.
Tyler Cowen's excellent In Praise of Commercial Culture offers a detailed, compelling, and insightful - though necessarily incomplete, for reasons I'll address later - counterargument to such claims. "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?" asks Cowen, a professor of economics at...