One aspect of society that conservatives often state that they want to conserve is the culture of the society they live in. They are distressed by the refusal of schools to teach Shakespeare, the degeneration of art, and the seeming degeneration of music. However, they often have trouble relating their ideas about culture and preserving it to their ideas about free-market economics. In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen changes that.
In Praise of Commercial Culture is a great book that discusses the history of Western culture- its art, music, sculpture- and how the free-market system created by the West, which Niall Ferguson describes in Civilization: The West and the Rest, made the West more innovative when it came to art and how the application of the free market to art allowed more artists to develop new styles and prosper.
Although I am not normally one to read about culture, especially the history of art and music in the West, I found In Praise of Commercial Culture quite interesting. If this review of it interests you in even the slightest, I highly recommend that you order a copy and check it out.
Summary of In Praise of Commercial Culture
In Praise of Commercial Culture is interesting in that it is a book about art by an author, Tyler Cowen, who is likely more of a conservative or libertarian than a liberal.
His main thesis in In Praise of Commercial Culture is that the West is on a cultural upswing because of, not despite of, capitalism. In his view, the free market system that was developed in Europe throughout the Renaissance, especially in Italian city states and the Netherlands, and then openly written about by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, allowed artists to become more innovative and empowered the best artists and musicians to rise to the top.
To prove that thesis in In Praise of Commercial Culture, Cowen makes a number of points.
One is that the cultural pessimists, whether they be conservative or liberal, are wrong. Where they see cultural degeneration or racism, he sees market-empowered diversity of thought. Don’t like modern art? The marketplace recognizes that there are niches and there is still a large amount of traditional art being produced and sold. Hate modern music, such as rap? There is still classical music being produced.
More generally, his point is that right now, the West, because of its embrace of capitalism, has a wide array of available art that we can consume. Everyone will like some of it and dislike some of it. But, because the market is free, artists that produce art that is likable by any segment of the population are monetarily rewarded and continue to produce. So, his view in In Praise of Commercial Culture is that, despite what some pessimists say, our culture is not degenerating. We are just seeing a wider array of art than used to be available, mainly because of the expansion of the marketplace.
Another point Cowen makes in In Praise of Commercial Culture to prove his thesis is that, while we might think of art during the Renaissance being funded by the church or government, it generally wasn’t. Yes, there were certain works commissioned by Italian city states or churches. St. Peter’s Basilica is the most famous example.
But, generally art and music was commissioned by private citizens (even if they were also princes, it was meant for their enjoyment) and guilds. Much of it was placed in churches, but it was commissioned by citizens. That diversity of revenue sources in Italy, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire meant that artists and musicians were more free to innovate and develop new forms of art or music than in France, where central government assemblies controlled what could be produced.
In freer Renaissance and early modern states, the art was generally better and more diverse than in states that placed a central, government body in charge of culture. The same thing happened in the Cold War; the West, which had a free market for art, produced better and more diverse forms of art than the Soviet Union, which had strict controls on what could be allowed. Rock music, for example, was never allowed behind the Iron Curtain.
A third point Cowen makes to defend the thesis of In Praise of Commercial Culture, which is also the last one I will discuss, is that the written word as we think of it would not have been possible without free markets. Those markets, which developed printing presses and newer, better types of paper, allowed the mass production of written works. As a result, books, which had previously been a very expensive item, quickly became something that everyone could own. That allowed for a wider array of political thought and better fictional works in Western nations, which had free markets and free people, than Eastern nations, which were stuck with authoritarian despots.
My Take on In Praise of Commercial Culture
I thought that In Praise of Commercial Culture was excellent. As I said in the introduction, Republicans attempt to defend culture, but often defend it in the wrong way. I think that we cannot really defend a complete conservation of our culture. It will change over time, no matter what we do. But, we can (and should) defend the free market for art.
It’s a bit like defending free speech. There will always be people that say things with which we conservatives disagree. But, we should defend that freedom of speech nonetheless, as the Founding Fathers would have wanted. Similarly, we should defend the freedom of artists to attempt to sell what art they want. Even if we find it degenerate, offensive, or just poorly done, we should defend their right to sell it.
The end result of that won’t be that the culture we know and love will disappear. Instead, I think it will grow stronger as people see listening to classical music and viewing traditional art as a choice rather than a mandate from their grandparents or people like them. We should trust the free market.
On another note, I thought that In Praise of Commercial Culture showed that we should attack government funding for any type of art. We have a free market. If something is worth preserving, individuals will preserve it or innovate to create better and more appealing forms of art. Free nations need to allow individuals to sponsor art; there should be no government innovation.
Finally, I thought In Praise of Commercial Culture was interesting as an exact opposite of Joseph Ellis’s After the Revolution, which made the argument that capitalism prevented culture from forming in early America. In In Praise of Commercial Culture, Cowen, although he mainly sticks to writing about Europe, makes the opposite point, which is that capitalism is what allowed early culture to develop and form in America and for culture to be further developed abroad. I found Cowen’s arguments more compelling, but you will have to read both yourself and decide!
I still don’t think I will spend too much time in the future reading about culture. However, I did find In Praise of Commercial Culture. It was masterfully written, well-cited, and presented a number of points that I had never before considered. Plus, it is relatively short (~210 pages), so it won’t take you too long to read. If anything in this review of In Praise of Commercial Culture interested you, I highly recommend you take the time to order and read a copy. It might make you less worried about the state of Western culture.
By: Gen Z Conservative