Bryan Caplan  

The State of the Arts: Cowen Was Right

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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.


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The author at Remains of the Day in a related article titled State of the arts writes:
    Bryan Caplan on Tyler Cowen on the state of the arts: 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... [Tracked on February 10, 2008 4:41 PM]
COMMENTS (19 to date)
JH writes:

I know what you mean by "modern classical music" but the phrase itself makes me cringe.

And J.S. Bach certainly wasn't considered the best Baroque composer in his time. He wasn't even considered the best Bach in his time. At least one of his sons, Carl Philip, was more popular (unless my source, Barzun, is wrong).

Alex Martelli writes:

You knew you were looking for trouble with that "fifth best Baroque composer", right?-) Nobody will agree with the exact ranking, but in my case, after JS Bach, Vivaldi, Haendel, and Telemann, I'm left with plenty of Baroque composers I enjoy listening to -- Corelli, Scarlatti (both A and D), Pergolesi, Marcello, Buxtehude, Purcell, Lully, Rameau, Couperin, just to name ten whose names should be familiar to all lovers of Baroque music, and I keep getting pleasant surprises with names I hardly recognize when just listening to appropriate radio channels...!

Cliff Styles writes:

What you said, Alex. But I didn't much like baroque when I was young like Bryan...

Personally, I'd pay to have much of modern music go away, rock or classical, but it seems to me one implicit Cowenesque point is that I don't have to. I can fill my attention with the tremendous availability of stuff I like, and thereby blot out the rest. Exactly what I do, with occasional visits across the spectrum to see if I'm missing anything (isn't that another Cowenesque idea?).

Scott Scheule writes:

Being naturally curmudgeonly, I too complain about modern classical music. But at the same time, I've goot to admit that conservatives like me have existed at every era in history, and somehow, we've always been wrong. That doesn't mean we're wrong now, but it gives one pause.

Mahler's good, but not that good.

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.

Alex's point here is fair. I'd add in Torelli and Albinoni, for my part. But say we move down the list to the tenth best, and then compare them between periods. Let's say you'll listen to the tenth best rock band and not the tenth best Baroque composer. That's true today. But in a hundred years, I'm guessing people will remember the tenth best rock band the same way you remember Buxtehude--they won't. Now maybe it's because music will be that much better in the future--but I imagine the real explanation is that time separates the wheat from the chaff. You listen to whoever the hell you listen to today not because they're that good, but because you haven't had time to realize how bad they are.

This all inspires me to read Tyler's book.

John writes:

I'd be very interested to know the names of the five punk rock bands you consider to be better than the Dead Kennedys...

pogo pundit writes:

always a treat to see the dead kennedys mentioned on my favorite economics blogs!

ten years ago, a punk fan such as myself could never have known that the genre was thriving far off in other parts of the world. Today, thanks to myspace, I've discovered great bands from as far away as Malaysia such as Roots & Boots, or the thriving "Skunk" scene in South Korea.

Troy Camplin writes:

It is also easy to lose the excellent amongst the sea of mediocrity. One of the benefits of time is that the mediocre tend to fade away, while excellence remains. In a hundred years, we may hear people going on and on about how the 20th century was a Renaissance, but look at all the garbage now! This of course doesn't mean that there aren't in fact times when more great art is being produced than others, but the cultural conditions right now are good. It resembles those times when burst of creativity did happen. Of course, maybe I'm just optimistic because my brother is a painter -- see www.camplinart.blogspot.com -- and I am a poet, fiction writer, and, more recently, playwright.

Swimmy writes:

Indeed. TV shows are getting much better. Videogames are getting deeper. And punk rock--boy howdy, we've left The Ramones in the dust. I've felt like this for a long time, but the more obscure your little loves are, the fewer people you'll find who agree. A lot of my friends are stuck in the 90s, musically. Which, from my perspective, was a horrible time. Expectations count for a lot.

BWV writes:

Elliott Carter is writing classical music the equal of anything from the 18th or 19th centuries. The main reason people object to the current state of any living art is that they base their expectations on the past (where is the next Mozart / Beethoven / Brahms etc). The fact is that the talent pool for any art form has been dramatically expanded by the larger population and wealth of society. Just about any citizen of a developed economy can try their hand at an artistic pursuit (not that they will necessarily succeed). Compare that to previous centuries where the vast majority of the population was engaged in sustainence agriculture and would have no opportunity to participate outside of perhaps local venues. The problem of modern music, and all the arts, is one of abundance.

abe writes:

Classical music is a dead art form because "serious" composers are not producing works with popular appeal. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms all had to earn money through their music. Listen to Beethoven's opus 1 piano trios. The idea of composing music as entertaining as that is anathema to most living "serious" composers. Before the 20th century the composer was supposed to primarily entertain and please. Now, he's just supposed to be artistic and uncompromising.

Composers and music academics, with their copies of Nicolas Slonimsky's "Lexicon of Musical Invective," comfort themselves with the idea that great music is always misunderstood in its time, and takes a while to become established. Why look at Beethoven's late string quartets, taking nearly a century to become appreciated!

But Beethoven, and other big composers were quite popular in their own time, and could earn a living with their music. Much of Beethoven was well known in its day, as was much of Mozart. Perhaps not the extent that we regard them today, but musical audiences knew and respected them. Audiences did not have to be force fed their music, unlike modern audiences with modern music.

So yes, classical is dead. For more, see here:

http://www.kafalas.com/urbcol72.htm

William Newman writes:

abe wrote "Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms all had to earn money through their music. [...] Now, he's [i.e, the compose is] just supposed to be artistic and uncompromising."

To a good first approximation, I think people won't pay enough for new classical-ish stuff to make it worth it. E.g., I really like Bach's _English Suites_. But would it be a good commercial move for someone with the talent to write them today to do it? How much does the market reward something with that level of (um, my wine critics' vocabulary is weak, lessee) austerity and cleverness? They sell well in an absolute sense, and continue to sell well, enough that being able to collect royalties on them would be a big incentive. But if they had been written by an unknown composer ten years, how high would their sales have risen by now?

People compose fairly sophisticated stuff for some movie scores, and for things related to jazz. I think if there was a market for more-classical new music, people from the borders of the jazz scene would be able to serve it. When I listen to _Take Five_ or _Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano_, I don't get the impression that in our modern era no one making successful commercial music has enough technically rigorous training to make things as complicated as popular baroque pieces. And while you can argue that a particular modern commercial composer is nowhere near your preferred baroque composer in talent, I think it's harder to argue that if the market were understood to be underserved, no modern composer as talented as your baroque favorite could rise out of the pool of modern strivers.

ChrisW writes:

I think abe makes a great point, and it's really consonant with Bryan's (and I think Tyler's) point.

The modern elite are refusing to let the market do its job to drive emergent great works.

bwv writes:

The market is doing just fine. Carter, Ligeti, Schnittke, and others all had commercial success with their music (Ligeti's music even getting several prominent film spots). Elliott Carter premiers sell out in NY and Boston and there is a small but avid fan base for his music. The hankering for the past is really IMO part of a collectivist impulse for a universal culture to which all will subscribe - holding some individual up as the "greatest". I much prefer the fragmented state of the arts with everyone free to follow what ever their preferences are. Opponents of modern classical music (or free jazz) like to enshrine their personal preferences in absolute terms and cannot seem to tolerate that others actually like the music they hate and cannot understand. If people do not like a certain type of music then don't listen to it - but spare the rest of us the whining.

hmm writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

megs writes:

"But whatever he says, the stock of great Cowenian writings will remain to comfort me."

This is the best sentence I've read today, to kinda quote TC. lololol etc!

abe writes:

It isn't whining to wonder why the music of Boulez/Schoenberg/Berg can't find a place in the concert halls without having to be sandwiched between Beethoven and Brahms. Some years back composer Charles Wourinen said in a New York Times interview:

"It's a very simple matter. As I've said a million times, there has been an attempt, largely successful, to confuse what you might call art and what you might call entertainment. I think there's a very simple distinction, and it doesn't diminish entertainment in any way because we all want it and we all enjoy it. Entertainment is that which you receive without effort. Art is something where you must make some kind of effort and you get more than you had before."

This redefinition of art is bizarre to say the least and quite elitist. It essentially excuses modern works from having to prove itself against established canon in terms of audience attraction. Guess what type of music Wourinen specializes in.

Troy Camplin writes:

Homer was wildly successful, as was Shakespeare. It has only been in the 20th century that Artists arose, with their disparaging view of popularity. A truly beautiful work is one that anyone can enjoy, but the more you know, the more you see there is to is, and the more you view/read/see the work, the more you see is there.

bwv writes:

Abe writes

It isn't whining to wonder why the music of Boulez/Schoenberg/Berg can't find a place in the concert halls without having to be sandwiched between Beethoven and Brahms. Some years back composer Charles Wourinen said in a New York Times interview:

The Wuorinen quote is perfectly legit. Why that should be a point of outrage escapes me. Wuorinen has written some fine music in recent years - has anyone heard his 3rd Piano Concerto, Mass for the Restoration of St Lukes or opera setting of Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories? This is great music and not necessarily more inaccesible than Brahms or Mahler.

Modern music gets "sandwiched" between 19th century music because it is part of the same tradition. However dead composers without copyrights do not need to be paid and their music is more familiar to audiences.

Scott Scheule writes:

I've never really looked for details on this, but I presume that any new, adventurous music results in tepid audience response at first, even if later people, even laypeople, love it. Stravinsky, Debussy--raked over the coals in their time, for certain pieces.

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