The State of the Arts: Cowen Was Right
By Bryan Caplan
I first read a draft of Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture 15 years ago. Back then, I thought he was mostly crazy. A combination of my reverence for classical music and Randian contempt for modern culture made me strongly reject Tyler’s claim that the state of the arts has never been better.
Fifteen years later, I have to admit that he was largely right. From the standpoint of the consumer, the supply of great art has clearly never been better. And even from the standpoint of the producer, it is easy to argue that, overall, this is the best of times.
A few key Cowen-friendly points to keep in mind:
1. First with digitization, and now with the Internet, consumers’ situation practically has to improve every year, because we keep everything we used to have, and add some more. And we add so much. Even if you hate modern classical music, for example, firms like Naxos have vastly increased the availability of historic recordings.
2. The market – and new technology – has made the existing stock vastly more available in practical terms. When I was a kid, if it wasn’t at the local store, you basically couldn’t get it. You probably wouldn’t even hear about it. This is truly an area where the Internet has changed everything.
3. Genres go through cycles of creative destruction. I’ll still say that there is little good and new in classical music or painting. But why focus on that? Those genres had their day, and their accumulated achievements continue to delight the world. But if you’re looking for good, new art these days, there’s plenty going on. You just have to look elsewhere – for example, to television, movies, and graphic novels.
4. You might complain that you want to live in a time when most people appreciate the same art that you do. But what are you really after? If your goal is to communicate with informed, thoughtful people who share your tastes, the Internet has made that incredibly easy. It’s probably a lot easier to find someone to discuss Mahler today than it was during Mahler’s heyday.
5. One of Tyler’s best points: The past often looks better than the present if you compare the best to the best. There is no living composer as great as Bach. Nevertheless, the present looks much better than the past if you compare the fifth-best to the fifth-best. Who even wants to listen to the fifth-best Baroque composer? But the fifth-best punk rock band (say, the Dead Kennedys) is excellent.
Of course, there is a danger that Tyler will renounce his cultural optimism now that I agree with it. But whatever he says, the stock of great Cowenian writings will remain to comfort me.