Cultural Philistines and Marxism
By Scott Sumner
I guess if I’m going to pretend to write about art, I’d better at least bring in some economics. So here goes.
First a disclaimer. Here I’ll try to employ a non-pejorative definition of ‘philistine’—let’s make it a simple descriptive term for people of conservative artistic taste who find most modern and edgy art to be ugly, pretentious and/or phony. (In the spirit of how the gay pride movement embraced the term ‘queer’, or the way that feminists should embrace the term ‘spinster’, instead of the appalling “bachelorette”, which makes unmarried women seem slightly embarrassed not to be men.)
I’d like to discriminate between two views of the aesthetic experience:
1. When viewing art, the mind is a sort of blank movie screen. The eye objectively transmits images to this screen in the brain, where each person (with adequate eyesight) sees essentially the same thing. If someone likes something that looks ugly to you, they are being pretentious, or they’ve been somehow duped.
2. Each person’s brain is different, because of both innate differences and education/experience. Thus when we look at art we each see something very different (in terms of expressive possibilities—we may all perceive the same shapes and colors.) The aesthetic experience is very subjective.
This second view is actually not quite equivalent to the Latin phrase, “De gustibus non est disputandum”, as arguments about art can serve an educative function. But it’s close.
The first view is often associated with people who are more “conservative”, and yet it seems fundamentally Marxist in a couple respects.
1. The Marxists emphasized that there were certain important truths about the world, and people that did not recognize those truths suffered from “false consciousness”.
2. Because there is one objectively best type of clothing (in their view), it makes no sense to have different companies produce different fashions. Just figure out the best type of clothing (say the Mao suit) and have a government factory produce millions of copies for everyone to wear.
The Austrian critique of the Marxist view is that tastes differ, and a free market is an excellent way to cater to these diverse tastes. No one central planner can understand what pleases millions of individual people whom they have never met.
In the comment section of my previous post, I was struck by how may people were confident that millions of museum-goers who enjoy modern art (and are often very highly educated and intelligent) are in some sense “wrong”. (And yet I suspect almost none of the commenters were Marxists.)
If you think about it, this is an extraordinary state of affairs. It would be like non-biologists, people with no advanced training in biology, being confident that biologists are wrong about evolution, because it goes against common sense that the highly complex human eye could have simply evolved. Or non-physicists rejecting quantum mechanics because it seems too “weird”. Why do we tend to defer to expertise in physics and biology, but not in art and economics?
In the past, commenters have argued that physicists and biologist have produced valuable things, whereas economists have not. I don’t think that’s true of economists, but let’s say it is. Modern art also passes the “value” test; some of these paintings sell for more than $100 million.
I get why Marxists reject the market test—“false consciousness”—but why do right wing philistines reject the market test? And does their view of the formation of tastes and preferences in some way provide aid and comfort to Marxists?
Perhaps Trump and Corbyn are not opposites, but rather are both at the opposite end of the spectrum from sophisticated cosmopolitan urbanites (who will vote for Corbyn until they discover his true agenda–returning the UK to the culturally drab 1950s.)
PS. I lost power yesterday, and so only got around to answering comments to my previous post this morning.
PPS. Below I added two pictures, one of a man in a Mao suit, and another of Jimi Hendrix during the hippie era. Which image is more appealing to America conservatives: an image of cultural conformity under Chinese communism that led to the death of millions, or the image of a vibrant capitalist enterprise, full of diversity, which exploded on the scene in the 1960s?