Inequality and the arts

by Henry on April 30, 2014

Tyler Cowen on inequality and the arts.

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

Corey has argued that this passage displays a Nietzsche-meets-Hayek logic under which the idle rich serve (and should serve) as cultural taste-setters for the rest of us. Tyler would very likely disagree. But if he were to disagree, I think he’d have to state why it is better for culture that only the independently wealthy and their intimate dependents enjoy this kind of liberty. Cue George Scialabba, in a recent post on the history of Partisan Review.

There’s a reason why a lot of modern culture was produced by people living on a shoestring, from the New York intellectuals to all those poets and painters starving in their fabled garrets. It’s time-consuming to do something original; it requires bad manners, or at least a lack of automatic deference for received wisdom; and it helps to have an abundance of low-paid but undemanding jobs around–mailman, night watchman, librarian, clerical worker–that one can drift in and out of, as well as a few cheap urban neighborhoods where like-minded artistic riff-raff can congregate. (Russell Jacoby’s description, in The Last Intellectuals, of the ecology of the freelance intellectual has never been bettered.)

This scruffy, relaxed, undisciplined lifestyle–which rested on a political economy of full employment, free education, generous public services (including, let’s not forget, a fully funded postal service not handicapped by the current huge giveaway of practically free service to the credit-card industry), decent urban mass transit, and public subsidies for culture–is just what a business-dominated society makes it increasingly difficult to achieve, or even aspire to. Globalization, tight money, slashed government budgets, the destruction of unions: the result of all these and the rest of the corporate agenda is pervasive insecurity.

If you want to argue that Piketty (and other critics of inequality) fail to appreciate how inequality fosters the “dynamic productivity” of culture, you really need to show how culture is more dynamic under high inequality than it is under conditions of low inequality. Otherwise, your argument is beside the point (if all that you’re saying is that high inequality has some cultural payoffs while admitting that low inequality has greater payoffs, your criticism is probably not worth articulating in the first place). More precisely, you want to show that confining cultural production to a small minority of independently wealthy individuals (or those who can be supported by wealthy families or patrons) is better than allowing a larger, and much more heterogenous group of people the necessary freedom “from the immediate demands of the marketplace” to produce art and culture. Otherwise, your argument for the cultural benefits of high inequality undermines itself. If freedom from the marketplace is a good thing for culture, then, as per George’s discussion, it surely should be spread around among a wider variety of people.

{ 102 comments }

1

David 04.30.14 at 7:30 pm

2

Anarcissie 04.30.14 at 7:33 pm

I like the idea of a scruffy, relaxed, undisciplined lifestyle (or rather than undisciplined, let us say irreverent, because self-discipline of some sort is required to get anything done), but such lifestyles were available in the 1890s and the 1920s, when there was a lot of inequality. What I think puts the screws to the scruffy in the contemporary world is not just inequality, but the efficiency with which the system, the global work machine, pursues its victims. That could happen under a quasi-egalitarian regime. (That is, one where everyone was equal but some were more equal than others.)

3

rootlesscosmo 04.30.14 at 7:33 pm

“an abundance of low-paid but undemanding jobs around–mailman, night watchman, librarian, clerical worker–that one can drift in and out of, as well as a few cheap urban neighborhoods where like-minded artistic riff-raff can congregate.”

A friend in Berkeley ca. 1961 referred to this–admiringly–as the proletarian leisure class.

4

Jeff Martin 04.30.14 at 7:42 pm

Apropos of Corey Robin’s argument, right-wing attempts to prove the cultural superiority of inequality will quickly devolve into claims, whether explicit or dissembled, that elite tastemaking is superior because it is somehow more noble and refined, while demotic tastemaking is dreadful because the poors are dreadful and altogether tacky. The arguments in this vein will run the gamut from semi-literary invocations of the revolt of the masses, to pseudo-empirical references to g (the variant on this will be akin to Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms), to George Will harrumphing some nonsense about denim and the decline of civilization.

Leisure is the prerequisite of aesthetic creativity; there is no reason a socialist state cannot afford people the requisite leisure, and no necessary connection between creativity and the performance of obsequies for the rich.

5

Henry 04.30.14 at 7:42 pm

David – yup, but the specific point I’m interested in is made more clearly in the post linked to.

6

Clay Shirky 04.30.14 at 8:11 pm

When I moved to New York City in the mid-1980s — not the worst days of the crisis, but not yet the safe and expensive city we know today — many of the choreographers and novelists I knew worked not just in proletarian leisure class jobs; not just in one type of p.l.c job, that of para-legal; not just as para-legals at a single firm, Skadden Arps Slade Meagher and Flum. This army of the creative worked as para-legals at Skadden on a single case, Texaco v. Pennzoil, whose escrowed jury award of $10.5 billion dollars was so enormous that their was huge motivation on each side.

So the respective law firms hired armies of paralegals to harass the other side by xeroxing and shipping boxes and boxes of documents to send in the ‘discovery’ phase (ironic, since the purpose of the massive over-disclosure of documents was to make discovery harder rather than easier.)

These jobs are of course gone, for so many reasons, from the change in the legal profession to the shift to digital discovery, but it was indeed nice while it lasted.

And Henry, I think another thing that Cowen et al will have to grapple with is an attack from the right flank, where the production of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, a world-historical monument of the sort that overshadows most European paintings and symphonies. Since inequality produces superior artistic production, why should we not revert to indentured servitude, so as to get back to producing real masterpieces?

7

Adam Hammond 04.30.14 at 8:37 pm

There are pockets and corners where people appreciate the kind of culture produced by members of the proletariat leisure class … but not enough to matter. The “culture” that matters is mass produced and mass distributed to the masses. Many of the workers in this cultural enterprise are scruffy, to be sure.

My fear is that, even if we return to full employment and make a dent in inequality, mass culture will sop up any increased leisure time with brutal efficiency AND those intrepid artists that manage to ignore the sirens of the screens will be producing culture for only the same beleaguered, aging pocket-dwellers that are here worrying about it. We’ll need to include clever YouTube videography in our definition of high art, or we are going to stop having any high art — inequality or no.

8

Youtube 04.30.14 at 8:45 pm

Will I get to become a real boy, Adam?

9

Nicholas Weininger 04.30.14 at 8:46 pm

So the obvious elitist counterargument here is that 19th C art and culture were just _better_ than 20th C, indeed that compared to the glory of the 19th C the 20th was a cultural wasteland, and that one major reason for this is that the independently wealthy– particularly, the type of people who got wealthy in the high-capitalist late 19th C– were and are better people with better taste than the proletarians Scialabba lauds.

Now both parts of this are of course subjective judgments, and the second in particular is subject to counter-counters involving plausible alternative causes (e.g. artists getting killed in World Wars). But the first part seems to me at least plausible. There were great 20th C musicians, artists, and architects, but IMHO and I think in the opinion of many (not all elitists or even pro-capitalists) for overall greatness and contribution to human heritage they just can’t come close to the accumulated total of the extraordinary 19th, despite the larger population from which they were drawn.

10

Sandwichman 04.30.14 at 9:18 pm

Leisure is the basis of culture: Cowen’s argument boils down to the fixed-amount-of-leisure fallacy. There’s only so much leisure to go around and inequality ensures that it is rationed out in large enough chunks to be culturally significant.

11

roy belmont 04.30.14 at 9:19 pm

Nicholas Weininger 04.30.14 at 8:46 pm:

“for overall greatness and contribution to human heritage “

Peering through the hyperbole there, my first response is that the measure of greatness you’re using is taught not discovered, inherited through the academy not experience, and the attitudes carried forward in that process are by nature a generation or two at best behind even the main evolutionary branch of artistic achievement.

There’s a great website, “art renewal” alloneword, devoted to exactly what I think you’re on about, it has all the bigtime realist/mushpot grandees like Bouguereau etc.
The sensual accomplishments are immense, it’s really the pinnacle of something for sure, and the last time (10 years ago or so) I looked over there they were at the ramparts valiantly defying the hordes of impressionist abstract experimental dross weirdos to bring it, bring it on. Because of greatness and contributions to human heritage.

It’s just that I’d caution you to beware conflating your own aesthetic evolution with the larger group one.
We tend not to admire genius that’s beyond our present skill set’s ability to recognize.
And some of us retreat from the necessities of progress in art we turn to for comfort, we want it to stay like that, so we can stay like that.
Others love the thrill of the demanding as-yet-unknown.
What heritage there is in either of those aesthetic postures is probably beyond us to determine, at present.
Whistler wasn’t rewarded by the 19th c. for his daring vault to pure applied theory, he was controversial as all heck, to the mainish stream. But clearly he had something going on.
It’s probably still that way, I’d suggest.

12

Phil 04.30.14 at 9:21 pm

It’s easy to answer this one if you’re Hayek – there are only a small number of people capable of making anything worth a damn, and it’s the job of the cultured elite to pick them out and liberate them from the marketplace. (The rest of you slobs, back to work!)

As I said on the other thread, I don’t know how anyone who doesn’t believe elitism is a fact of nature would make the argument.

13

Sandwichman 04.30.14 at 9:32 pm

“…it’s the job of the cultured elite to pick them out…”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that is true. Let’s also assume that in the 19th century there was a correlation between wealth and cultural elevation. Even if that is the case, what’s the causal theory? Why should we expect the same effects to flow from inequality in the 21st century?

14

Vladimir 04.30.14 at 10:01 pm

Cowen has actually made multiple arguments about why a market economy is good for the arts. In fact Cowen makes the same argument – in part – as Scialabba. He points out that many artists have had full time jobs or part time jobs that sustained them .
https://www.gmu.edu/centers/publicchoice/faculty%20pages/Tyler/cost-disease.PDF

15

roy belmont 04.30.14 at 10:01 pm

Tyler Cowen says “We need to accept the principle that sometimes poor people will die just because they are poor. Some of you don’t like the sound of that, but we already…”

Not only the sound, sir, but the stench of it. Plus it looks ugly.
“The principle”. The Satanic assertion more like.

Sometimes dying people will die just because they are people who are dying.
And then (*!*) there was doctors, and even before that healing practitioners of an atavistic sort.
So the dying people did not die, and were thus not really dying people after all.

Isn’t this just the same old pseudo-Darwinian horseshit?
Muthafuckas crawled in from the margins while the rest of us worked to discombobulate pure animalistic Darwinian grind through shared effort and rules of commonality.
And once they got nice and centered, started to agitate for a return to the very raw-nature business that would have precluded their presence, if it hadn’t been short-circuited. Advocating the sacrifice of the now-marginalized who have taken their former place at the edge of things.

“Austerity” is the war cry of idiots who would have never been born if “austerity” had been in place all along.

16

BenK 04.30.14 at 10:01 pm

As usual, the fatal flaw in most of this socialist dialogue is the failure to recognize that even a little inequality is perceived as ‘inequality’ and drags people into the rat race, not so much ‘against their will’ but ‘according to their nature.’ The utopia of equality is a pointless mirage. The question is, instead, how to nurture virtue in an environment of inevitable inequality. The perception of personal merit, unbounded, is problematic – particularly if it measures merit and rewards it in a single dimension, putting everything supposedly within reach but for personal failures. This dystopia is the ultimate expression of Rand.

17

Sandwichman 04.30.14 at 10:14 pm

eh?

18

TM 04.30.14 at 10:38 pm

“artists who relied on bequests or family support”

What a weak argument – who hasn’t relied on family support at some point in their lives? I don’t know the biographical details of the artists mentioned and have better uses of my time than to look them up but even if they relied on some family support, that doesn’t have to mean Gates or Walton fortunes. And Piketty calls for higher taxes on the rich, not the expropriation of all bourgeois families. There is absolutely no justification for the claim that these artists specifically flourished because of high economic inequality, and wouldn’t have in a more egalitarian society. In fact it’s an outright ridiculous claim totally undeserving of being refuted (you are welcome anyway Tyler).

19

mdc 04.30.14 at 10:48 pm

I wouldn’t let a currently-working (especially public) librarian hear you call his or her job “undemanding.” But in a sense, the way in which librarianship has changed is a facet of the same problem.

20

clew 04.30.14 at 10:54 pm

an alternative for Nicholas Weininger #9, et al.;

The 19th c. produced art that crossed the high-low divide because capital (patrons, printing presses) had figured out how to mine centuries of non-elite `folk’ art production: melodies, melodramas, dance forms, mystery plays, moral tales, figurative styles. This was often marketed as nationalism. At the same time, capitalism was expropriating the leisure of the non-elite and providing mass market alternatives for both production and consumption.

21

Henry 04.30.14 at 11:08 pm

Vladimir – indeed, although as best as I recall from his books he doesn’t make any connection to equality. That’s why this part of his review seemed to me to be so completely out of left field. I simply cannot see how the specific advantages of inequality that he wants to argue for here comport with his earlier work (unless he is just saying, as I noted in the OP, that high inequality has some cultural payoffs while low inequality might have more, in which case, why berate Piketty?)

22

William Berry 04.30.14 at 11:14 pm

Sandwichman@10:

Yes.

roy belmont@11 and passim:

Preach it, brother. I am just an old [ex] union (USW) officer, with all the compromise that entails. But I am not prejudiced against purity. Indeed, it is a dream of mine.

I sometimes disagree with you— some of your emphases, at least— but I really think you know something– or some things— worth knowing.

Notice I said “know”, not “believe”.

23

Nine 05.01.14 at 12:59 am

“Nicholas Weininger@9 – “but IMHO and I think in the opinion of many (not all elitists or even pro-capitalists) for overall greatness and contribution to human heritage they just can’t come close to the accumulated total of the extraordinary 19th”

The opinion of many such as who ? You might want to point to someone who’s actually made this argument. I very much doubt that any made with intent to support the pro-plutocrat case will withstand review. For one, a huge majority of 19th century artists were liberals who took inspiration from the revolutions (american and french), Napoleon, 1848 and the like. This is extremely clear in Stendhal, Balzac(a monarchist, but i’m talking about his characters), Flaubert & rather melodramatic works such as “The Lost Leader”. Since Cowen & his ilk (who are standing in for the pro-inequality side here, idk what they actually believe) claim to be so enamoured of 19th century culture can we assume that they will also be ok with alternating periods of reformation and revolution to refresh the tree of art with blood ? Probably not, if they affect to be terrified by Obama, it’s unlikely they’d be ok with a Napoleonic reordering, to say nothing of the jacobins.

24

Corey Robin 05.01.14 at 1:23 am

Clay at 6: “And Henry, I think another thing that Cowen et al will have to grapple with is an attack from the right flank, where the production of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, a world-historical monument of the sort that overshadows most European paintings and symphonies. Since inequality produces superior artistic production, why should we not revert to indentured servitude, so as to get back to producing real masterpieces?”

You mean something like this?

“In order for there to be a broad, deep, fertile soil for the development of art, the overwhelming majority has to be slavishly subjected to life’s necessity in the service of the minority, beyond the measure that is necessary for the individual. At their expense, through their extra work, that privileged class is to be removed from the struggle for existence, in order to produce and satisfy a new world of necessities.

“…slavery belongs to the essence of a culture…The misery of men living a life of toil has to be increased to make the production of the world of art possible for a small number of Olympian men. Here we find the source of that hatred which has been nourished by the Communists and Socialists as well as their paler descendants, the white race of ‘Liberals’ of every age against the arts, but also against classical antiquity. If culture were really left to the discretion of a people, if inescapable powers, which are law and restraint to the individual, did not rule, then the glorification of spiritual poverty and the iconoclastic destruction of the claims of art would be more than the revolt of the oppressed masses against drone-like individuals: it would be the cry of pity tearing down the wall of culture; the urge for justice, for equal sharing of the pain, would swamp all other ideas.”

“even if it were true that the Greeks were ruined b/c they kept slaves, the opposite is even more certain, that we will be destroyed b/c we fail to keep slaves.”

From our friend Friedrich Nietzsche.

25

Corey Robin 05.01.14 at 1:45 am

I’ll be curious what Cowen says. As others have pointed out, he can take several routes.

The first is to say that there is some sort of correlation between economic wealth and artistic excellence, that the wealthy simply have, as an empirical fact, finer taste, better aesthetic judgment, etc. I think you’d be hard pressed to show that, but it’s a route he could take.

But it raises a second question, which someone mentioned up-thread: what’s the causal mechanism by which the wealthy have such good taste? Is it the wealth, and the access to a more educated and cultured upbringing, that gives them the taste? Why then not spread it around some? I suppose Cowen could argue that that diminishes the actual level of taste and excellence at the top for the sake of a wider distribution. But empirically it runs into the problem George mentions and Henry cites: it just ain’t true.

Hayek tried to offer an evolutionary answer: the cultivation of that sensibility takes decades, if not centuries, and so is a multi-generational project. Taste is something that develops over time, and each generation of wealth is better than the previous one. To mandate equality in each new generation is to essentially ask society, or society’s great, to start from scratch every twenty or thirty years. That’s a waste of cultural heritage. But again that runs into problems: must the beneficiary or inheritor of Tolstoy be a Russian count? Isn’t the story of culture the reconstruction and adaptation of previous forms by new forces and new social classes?

As the Nietzsche quotes that I just cited above suggest, there’s a different way of approaching this. And I think it’s the one that you see most often, historically, on the right. And that is that it’s not that the men at the top of the social/economic pyramid are the most culturally excellent — and once he came face to face with the realities of Bismarck’s Germany, Nietszche quickly abandoned that notion. And it’s not that the artist needs great resources to do his art, resources that can only be accumulated if the society is massively unequal (which again, when you think about it, doesn’t seem true.) It is instead that a society of massive inequality — indeed, of slavery and all manner of terrible social domination — is a society capable of cultural profundity. Indeed, that is the only kind of society that can generate or appreciate the deep tragic vision that great art truly entails.

For a few reasons. First, there seems to be a notion that the depth of a social hierarchy — literally the distance between the person at the bottom and the person at the top — will be mirrored in the depth of that society’s vision. Philosophical depth requires social depth; a flattened egalitarian society will produce a flattened or shallow social vision. (I actually think you see similar sorts of anxieties among some on the left, but that’s a different story). Nietzsche believed in that; so did the slaveholders in the Old South, incidentally. So did Burke.

Second, the struggles that are generated by that massive inequality — whether it be the struggle of those on the bottom to rise up the ranks of that society or overthrow it altogether; or the effort of the ruling class to hold onto its power, to defend it against attack; or more simply the complexity and dexterity of the political task of holding it all together — will generate philosophical and cultural profundity. If you end inequality, you end struggle. If you end struggle, you eliminate the sociological yeast that makes for great art. Again, you see some of this in Nietzsche and the slaveholders.

The problem with this last argument is that it seems to run counter to the whole “we need leisure and freedom from toil” to create art argument. In other words, it’s immersion in difficulty, conflict, struggle that creates art, not separation from it. Though I suppose it can be reconciled by saying you want the society to be rife with conflict but the artist should be free from it, able to look down on it all. Or something like that.

26

Harold 05.01.14 at 2:34 am

“And it’s not that the artist needs great resources to do his art, resources that can only be accumulated if the society is massively unequal (which again, when you think about it, doesn’t seem true.) It is instead that a society of massive inequality — indeed, of slavery and all manner of terrible social domination — is a society capable of cultural profundity. Indeed, that is the only kind of society that can generate or appreciate the deep tragic vision that great art truly entails.”

What art does this describe, exactly?

27

Corey Robin 05.01.14 at 2:46 am

It’s not my argument; I’m just reproducing it here. But I suppose you could say it describes the great 19th century novelists from Austen to Musil and Mann (at least the inequality part). Nietzsche thought it described the world of Greek tragedy. Again, I don’t think the argument holds.

28

Harold 05.01.14 at 3:01 am

I suppose this is an argument that only civilized societies, which by nature are characterized by a high degree of social stratification, can produce profound art. I am glad it is not your theory, since it seems the kind of statement dating from a period when people believed that they were living in a time when civilization had reached its pinnacle, namely, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

29

Anon 05.01.14 at 3:03 am

Corey Robin @24,

For the record, those Nietzsche quotes are from a very early piece (1871, before the Birth of Tragedy). They do not even represent his developing views, much less his mature views. He is still, at that stage, very much a Schopenhauerian and Wagnerian. That is to say, an anti-Nietzschean.

30

LFC 05.01.14 at 3:16 am

Contra Nietzsche’s point, I’m hard-pressed to think of much great art produced in the antebellum American South (though it’s hardly my field). The North produced Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, just to name some of the most obvious names. The South produced… ?

31

Corey Robin 05.01.14 at 3:28 am

Anon: That very early piece was actually written as a chapter of The Birth of Tragedy, not before Birth of Tragedy. For various reasons, Nietzsche chose to take it out.

32

Michael Harris 05.01.14 at 3:28 am

The South produced… ?

…the blues? Oh, wait…

33

Corey Robin 05.01.14 at 3:33 am

LFC: Poe. And Frederick Douglass. Also, where would Melville have been without the theme of slavery? Benito Cereno, Billy Budd (one could argue), likewise Moby Dick (one could argue). But again I’m not a defender of this theory; I think it’s nonsense.

34

Sandwichman 05.01.14 at 3:45 am

“Is it the wealth, and the access to a more educated and cultured upbringing, that gives them the taste? Why then not spread it around some?”

Wait! I think I’ve got it! Taste is a positional good. If too many people have access to it, it ceases to be good taste.

I can haz cheezburger?

35

Nine 05.01.14 at 3:49 am

Corey Robin @25 – “The first is to say that there is some sort of correlation between economic wealth and artistic excellence, that the wealthy simply have, as an empirical fact, finer taste, better aesthetic judgment, etc.”

If you read Proust – and i’m going to be a snob and insist that you need to read all volumes since, every now and then, he will praise the refinement of a Marquise De Villeparisis or who-have-you – he makes it quite clear that this is not the case. That is to say – the too easily changed tastes of the salonnieres are shaped by the artists to whom they lend their patronage & who, just as often as not, are parvenus from the provinces, & not the other way around.
Not that this proves anything, but i’m going to assume that Proust knew more about 19th century arts than Cowen and kind ever will.

36

John Quiggin 05.01.14 at 3:49 am

As Piketty observes, Austen’s novels presume an unequal society, where marriage is about inherited money. But there’s no notion of terrible social domination: members of the working class, not to mention the slaves on whose sweat Mansfield Park is built, are pretty much invisible, and the Napoleonic wars serve only to provide employment for some of the characters.

37

Nine 05.01.14 at 3:50 am

The bolsheviks produced Vladimir Nabokov.

38

Corey Robin 05.01.14 at 4:06 am

John Quiggin: I don’t think the idea is that the novel or whatever art form we’re talking about has to actually reproduce or depict or even much discuss the terrible domination (though doesn’t Edward Said have some apposite thoughts on those slaves and Mansfield Park?). It’s more that the terrible domination will be reflected, however obliquely, in the philosophical depth and aesthetic vastness of the novel or art form.

39

roy belmont 05.01.14 at 4:13 am

Corey Robin:

“what’s the causal mechanism by which the wealthy have such good taste?”

Not good taste full stop – none of us have the right to claim to know what that is – but good compared to the taste of the people below them, whose lives are compressed by tension, anxiety, and in the 19th c near slave-like toil, in a downward progression of increasing intensity.
So that the art that most immediately gratifies whatever needs it most is going to be the art of them, what their taste will feature.
Above that come the spheres of bourgeois aspiration and complacency, which are almost entirely concerned with status, not aesthetics.
People who’ve been intimidated most of their lives by their superiors in education and attainment, and are worried about their place in the social hierarchy, don’t have the mental freedom to wonder at Damien Hirst’s flabby shark-in-vitrine. Don’t have the time it takes to develop the perception necessary to begin to take in Gerhardt Richter’s genius. So they can’t tell if it’s good or whether they should allow themselves to like it.
Until someone above them grants permission.
The wealthy don’t have to give a fuck if someone else doesn’t like the paintings on their walls.
None of those below the rungs of actual wealth have the individual freedom to risk championing something on their own.
So the fearful will seek refuge in safe and commonly-approved aesthetic experience, even when it’s counter to their actual aesthetic needs, what their souls require from art.
Neither position, toil and poverty and cheap easy sentiment, or middle-class insecurity and social reassurance, are conducive to the recognition of real contemporary artistic superiority.

Plus.

The standards used here that inform aesthetic “good taste” were and are being set by the wealthy to begin with, by example and by economic main force.
So there’s undoubtedly an overlap between the persona necessary to get and keep wealth and the artistic standards of a society whose aesthetic taste the wealthy have a dominant part in setting in the first place.

40

john c. halasz 05.01.14 at 4:14 am

@36:

It all depends on how you read literature. The traces of the “other” can always be found in the breaches of decorum. (And J. Austen was a master,- or mistress,- of observing such matters). So the younger sister runs off with the junior commissioned officer who turns out to be a cad. Leaving aside conventional literary analysis about “character foils”, do you really think that the broader world fails to leach into such episodes?

41

Corey Robin 05.01.14 at 4:14 am

Sorry, I forgot one of the more obvious reasons, which at least Nietzsche gives, as to why great art requires massive hierarchy and terrible social domination: suffering. The horror and exploitation, the misery of slavery and other manner of domination, provide the key ingredient for artistic creation. Again, suffering. We make meaning out of our suffering. Great suffering, great meaning.

42

Peter T 05.01.14 at 4:18 am

“the production of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, a world-historical monument of the sort that overshadows most European paintings and symphonies. Since inequality produces superior artistic production, why should we not revert to indentured servitude..”

Just a minor digression. From all I have read, the pyramids were built by peasant farmers who were proud to be participants in the great cycle of divine order that kings and gods together maintained. St Petersburg might be a better example.

43

Luke 05.01.14 at 4:29 am

Nine is on to something. You know which 20th C society was really keen on Serious Culture? Soviet Russia. You haven’t *heard* someone complain about the infantilising philistinism of capitalist comsumer culture until you’ve heard it from a former Soviet intellectual.

@Corey
One of the things that always astonishes me about Nietzsche is his apparent inablility to grapple with the reality of Athenian *democracy*. I don’t know his work well enough to expand on this.

44

john c. halasz 05.01.14 at 4:51 am

@41:

‘Cause, ya know, maybe without any experience of suffering, there’s no possibility of compassion. Or, maybe, compassion can serve as a disguise for resentment. Or maybe suffering and enjoyment, pleasure and pain, are not mechanical opposites, in the mode of utilitarianism. Or maybe you realize the full scope of pain and suffering in this world, and your powerlessness to do anything about it, so you ironize the integrative capacities of “Art”. Etc. Or maybe you step outside the received conventions of both “art” and social domination,- and for that matter scientific mastery,- and demand a new mode of creation and integration of it all. So you propound an “immoralist” ethics of self-mastery that is beyond the comprehension of the common “herd” of your time.

45

geo 05.01.14 at 5:06 am

Corey@24: This is slightly off-topic, but whenever I come across some particularly hateful opinion in Nietzsche, I think of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” where he comes close to saying that bad ideas are invariably expressed in bad writing. (What he actually says is: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Not quite the same thing, perhaps.) Nietzsche seems to me not merely incapable of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness, but incapable also of writing a sentence that isn’t (even in translation) fleet, shapely, vivid, pungent, pregnant. I find that this complicates my reaction to the aforementioned bad ideas to the point of near-paralyzing confusion. Do you ever feel that way?

46

Sandwichman 05.01.14 at 5:18 am

Great suffering, great meaning.

Ergo boils make better theory.

47

Corey Robin 05.01.14 at 5:21 am

geo: I definitely agree with you about Nietzsche. Though interestingly he disagrees with both of us about himself: his assessment of Birth of Tragedy is that is terribly over-written, embarrassing Schwärmerei. The opposite of fleet and shapely. But I never bought into Orwell’s notion that bad political ideas necessarily entail bad writing. Because it’s premised on the notion that proponents of bad ideas inevitably seek to hide the badness of their ideas behind a fog of pleasing rhetoric. But there are a lot of writers, especially on the right, who don’t seek to hide the badness of their bad ideas at all. Maistre is a good example. Calhoun — at times — too (though he’s a bad writer for other reasons). If anything, there’s a strain on the right (which has some devotees on the left) that revels and luxuriates in wickedness. ‘Cause it’s, you know, profound.

48

GiT 05.01.14 at 5:31 am

Has anyone in thread read Ranciere’s “Nights of Labor?” I had it on a list but never got to it. Seems topical for this thread.

49

Phil 05.01.14 at 7:57 am

#47: or see Carlyle, the later Carlyle especially. He’s writing racist, elitist filth, and boy does he know it, and boy is he having fun doing it. There certainly is a kind of bad thinking which can only be expressed in muddy writing (I’d cite Arnold, and I wouldn’t exempt St George himself, ironically) but it’s not universal by any means.

As well as believing that taste (and the ability recognise Art) took generations to develop, did Hayek also believe that true talent (and the ability to create Art) was a rare evolutionary sport? It seems to me that he would have to believe something along those lines in order to complete the picture – otherwise you’d have the awful thought that there were millions of mute inglorious Miltons out there, toiling away in wage slavery, and our noble patrons were only plucking out one or two of them. (I think of the Carvers at the beginning of Titus Groan, most of whose work went on the fire; I also think of X Factor.)

50

bob mcmanus 05.01.14 at 8:08 am

「出る釘は打たれる “The protruding nail will get hammered down”

I have always read Nietzsche’s theme here as alienation. Alienation perhaps to the point of delusions of grandeur and paranoia. I hope I don’t have to make a list of great thinkers and artists who were alienated and or exiled from their societies, or felt alienated. I will if necessary. In addition, we can have obvious subcultures or countercultures that are alienated, like the bohemians and the Beats. And I would contend we can have entire polities that were alienated, and the Athenians as self-described in Thucydides reveled in their distance from contemporary Attic society and tradition. Maybe when a culture feels alienated then an individual within that culture doesn’t have to be. I would also contend that early Soviet artists were in a society that felt alienated and outlaw.

Obviously it can go very wrong, and is often romanticized.

I guess the question isn’t whether alienation is necessary for great art, sometimes you can have good art that is entirely conformist and completely socialized, but whether great alienated art and thought is possible.

Is alienation, the othering of one’s native traditions, values, morals, companions is always and everywhere “wicked” as geo wants to call it. Nietzsche chose to say it always was wicked because choosing your own society is in itself anti-social, and called himself so. The usual trick answer for liberals is that when you have discarded and rejected your social setting, you then must find and embrace a new one, perhaps global, perhaps universal. These new friends will call you “good” and tell you that you love. Their way, a new way, a better kind of love than the one you grew up with, which wasn’t really love at all.

Which is what the donkey told Zarathustra at Dawn.

51

bob mcmanus 05.01.14 at 8:16 am

I don’t want to run very far with this, the audience is not receptive, and I have reading to do.

But for the alienated, she who has rejected conformism and the stultifying value of her “conservative” origins, couldn’t the home she left behind sort of a “slave society?”

This is also a common theme among the alienated, or the new “universal” subcultures, false consciousness, organization man, salarymen, what’s the matter with Kansas etc.

Again, the examples I could give of this attitude are legion.

52

David 05.01.14 at 8:50 am

Apologies, Henry – regretted #1 as soon as I posted it, but seems to be no way to delete comments. Am sure I will now regret this one as well.

53

Alex 05.01.14 at 10:15 am

This post reminds me of reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and being startled by the sheer generosity of the society she and Mapplethorpe were working in; lots of cracks and niches and terms of business that allowed of interpretation. (There’s an old Beachcomber joke about how rat-infested garrets in Paris have got so expensive these days because there’s a man who owns a lot of them. But now everywhere’s like that.)

54

Henry 05.01.14 at 11:13 am

David – don’t worry, no offense taken.

55

Trader Joe 05.01.14 at 11:43 am

@13 Sandwichman asked

“Let’s also assume that in the 19th century there was a correlation between wealth and cultural elevation. Even if that is the case, what’s the causal theory? Why should we expect the same effects to flow from inequality in the 21st century?”

I think the answer is painfully simple – its the money. Great art is deemed great art when people start paying big dollars to own it or view it – art is one of the ultimate vanity items and in the high dollar art world its more salesmanship and convincing the patron that “this piece has value” than any actual merit that tends to separate artists (either in their lifetime or after it).

Paintings and graphic art (a la Warhol) become valuable and ‘great’ when someone deems them so and then people with money pay to posess it. No doubt there are hundered of other artists who produce art superior in some technical sense to art that’s deemed great – but its the patronage, direct or indirect, which elevates some relative to others.

Said differnently, as long as there’s some rich dude to pay ridiculous sums for a piece of art, there will be new art deemed “great”. The inequality is part of what makes this possible. This doesn’t preclude the creation of great art through other means, but I’d question the mechanism through which this art would eventually rise through the ranks to get enough notoriety to become “great” in some consensus sort of way.

The other thing not touched on in many of these discussions is that while its certainly the case that the wealthy buy and consume art, its long been corporations that have been what is commonly thought of as “patrons” by way of supporting theater, symphony, galleries etc….this is a class of patronage that essentially replaced the church which played this role in times past (or the CIA). Not sure if it adds or deducts from the equality argument but corporate patronage does improve the availability of art – although not always at prices the masses can consume it at.

56

LFC 05.01.14 at 12:57 pm

Corey @33
LFC: Poe. And Frederick Douglass. Also, where would Melville have been without the theme of slavery? Benito Cereno, Billy Budd (one could argue), likewise Moby Dick (one could argue).

Point taken on Douglass, and I guess Poe (though the latter, iirc and I may not be remembering correctly, was from MD? ie not the deep South, but this is a quibble, I suppose). Melville: never read Benito Cereno; have to put it on list.

Michael Harris:
…the blues? Oh, wait…
Not sure what the “oh, wait” means here, but yes. And possibly some other things that, unlike the blues and related music, never came to light. (Then there’s e.g. Northrup’s (sp?) 12 Yrs a Slave, but that’s sort of in a category of its own, I suppose, and arguably doesn’t quite fit b/c he was from the North (I haven’t read it; only saw the recent movie).)

57

LFC 05.01.14 at 1:09 pm

@Nine
The bolsheviks produced Vladimir Nabokov.

Some good art did come out of the USSR, eg, to mention one example, Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, though it was published in the West.

58

Anon 05.01.14 at 1:35 pm

Corey Robin @31

Either way, its way too early to tell us anything about Nietzsche’s views about art, culture, and inequality. Nietzsche’s distinctive philosophical views do not really begin to take substantial shape until a decade later with The Gay Science. There are bits of originality and brilliance in Human All Too Human and Daybreak, but for the most part, his 70s work is a hodgepodge of bad influences (his antipodes Schopenhauer and Wagner, as well as the Romantic poets and French enlightenment thinkers) that shouldn’t be taken at face value, since he explictly repudiates most of them later.

Incidentlly, Nietzsche was right about Birth of Tragedy–it is a godawfully written, godawful book.

In his mature work, Nietzsche’s outgrows his infantile aestheticism. He keeps his elitism, but his elites are philosophers, not artists. The question of whether inequality promotes the arts is, at that point, a non-issue for him.

59

Anarcissie 05.01.14 at 1:38 pm

People who aren’t suffering unusually also produce a lot of art. They probably produce more art, since less of their energies are used up by unusual suffering. If you don’t like the kind of art they produce, maybe it’s the unusual suffering you like, rather than the art. I’m not deprecating anyone’s taste; people do like different flavors of things. But there are a lot of flavors of suffering to go around in this vale of tears, so maybe the lovers of unusual suffering should get out more.

As noted by others, much of the supposed greatness of supposedly great art appears to come from its association with great power and wealth. To the large extent that power and wealth are positional, social orders which are highly unequal will produce more supposedly great art because the way in which their inmates view art will be formed by the way they experience their society as a whole.

About the Blues in particular, there is a lot of music in Africa which sounds rather Blues-like, yet without the weight of cotton-picking slavery in the Delta. Maybe you would not have to enslave anybody to get the Blues.

60

TM 05.01.14 at 1:45 pm

TJ 55: “its long been corporations that have been what is commonly thought of as “patrons” by way of supporting theater, symphony, galleries etc….this is a class of patronage that essentially replaced the church which played this role in times past (or the CIA)”

Do you realize how US specific that is? In other countries, all these institutions are just taken for granted as public institutions. And even in the US, there is usually significant and often overwhelming support from public funds, even when the building is named after a corporation or rich donor.

61

Cian 05.01.14 at 2:38 pm

Some good art did come out of the USSR, eg, to mention one example, Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, though it was published in the West.

Actually some really really good art came out of the Eastern Block. And much of it, despite the censorship, would never have come out of the west.

But this whole argument is so snobbish it makes me scream. Take music. Arguably the majority of music innovation and great art has come out of ‘low’ and ‘outsider’ art. I’m thinking everything from jazz, to industrial via hip hop and techno.

As for paintings/scultpure. What TM at #60 said. The state in Europe has a pretty good record as a patron. Arguably better.

62

Harold 05.01.14 at 2:47 pm

It seems a trivial statement because what it is really saying is “only we (men) in our complex nineteenth century civilization with all its injustice and suffering can produce great art.” Which is what they used to say and which is bullocks.

There is suffering even in Arcadia.

63

reason 05.01.14 at 2:52 pm

“great art is deemed great art when people start paying big dollars to own it or view it “

- Complete and utter rubbish (think of art that is now in the public domain). Greatness is not a function of excludability. Everybody in the western world can own a copy of a great performance of Beethoven’s Fifth.

64

Sandwichman 05.01.14 at 2:57 pm

Trader Joe @55.

By George, I think you’ve got it! Great art is great art by virtue of its subjective value to those with the money to pay for it. The marginalist snake swallows its own marginal revenue product tail!

65

Trader Joe 05.01.14 at 3:39 pm

“Everybody in the western world can own a copy of a great performance of Beethoven’s Fifth.”

Indeed that’s true…but if I wish to hear it performed live at the NY Philharmonic next month, I should plan on paying about $100 bucks a chair for it (or plan to bring your own oxygen mask for the upper level seats). Sponsored by Credit Suisse, incidentally, or the prices would inevitably be higher.

I’m quite certain however that we can find a guy busking a subway stop who could bang it out on a trashcan lid for some pocket change while we wait for him to compose his own “great” symphony. All he needs is a chance and a real keyboard and we’ll have more great art than we can shake a stick at.

66

Jim Buck 05.01.14 at 4:50 pm

67

Sandwichman 05.01.14 at 5:05 pm

^^ wonderful!

68

TM 05.01.14 at 5:35 pm

“but if I wish to hear it performed live at the NY Philharmonic next month, I should plan on paying about $100 bucks a chair for it (or plan to bring your own oxygen mask for the upper level seats). Sponsored by Credit Suisse, incidentally, or the prices would inevitably be higher.”

But it doesn’t cost so much because it’s Beethoven. It costs so much because it is really expensive to maintain a performance hall in Manhattan, to maintain a world class orchestra, and so on. Your whole line of reasoning I’m sorry is just silly.

69

TM 05.01.14 at 5:40 pm

And I would like to add my Ceterum Censeo: Why waste so much time paying attention to ridiculous right-wing talking points? Pretty much everything Tyler Cowen says is ignorant, poorly reasoned and unworthy of serious debate. Why o why do we waste so much time and space on debating this silly BS?

I guess I should now stop posting on this thread.

70

Trader Joe 05.01.14 at 6:20 pm

“But it doesn’t cost so much because it’s Beethoven. It costs so much because it is really expensive to maintain a performance hall in Manhattan, to maintain a world class orchestra, and so on. Your whole line of reasoning I’m sorry is just silly.”

And how would this change if there was more income equality? The hall and musicians wouldn’t suddenly get cheaper and there won’t be any more seats. The NY Philharmonic is funded by the state of NY, the city of NY, the NEA + individual and corporate sponsorship and it still costs $100 bucks to see Beethoven. You can hardly find a major venue that gets more government funding than the NY Philharmonic, most rely to a much greater extent on private contribution, yet it still costs $100 bucks if you want to hear it live.

Are you trying to say that if there was less income inequality we’d be hearing more Beethoven for less money? Unless there were a pretty radical shift in funding priorities at all levels of government, that would seem improbable.

My guess is if you didn’t have people who could afford $100 for Beethoven concerts, and people willing to given them charitable contributions to keep the prices even at that level, there’d be a lot fewer Beethoven concerts, but hey maybe I don’t understand the economics of funding world class orchestras.

71

TM 05.01.14 at 6:26 pm

[Your argument is trollish and strawmannish, continually moving goal posts (see 60, 63, 65) and just silly. I have heard great music many times for free or almost due to the public funding of art and music made possible by democratically accountable governments. Also I'm not posting here any more.]

72

TM 05.01.14 at 6:29 pm

[Plus: road building and maintenance are expensive too, more so than classical orchestras, yet nobody seems to claim that without rich patrons and social stratification, we couldn't have public roads. Sorry I couldn't resist. Will shut up now for good.]

73

Trader Joe 05.01.14 at 7:00 pm

“I have heard great music many times for free or almost due to the public funding of art and music made possible by democratically accountable governments. “

I’m sure you have, I have too. There’s tons of them, everywhere. There’s nothing better than a free concert.

But its not Yefim Bronfman and its not at the NY Philharmonic (it might be Beethoven).

High end theatre, art, orchestra etc. is its own little eco-system. They charge $100 because they can still fill the house at $100 and that way Bronfmann can get more and they guy selling Raisinettes can get $5 a box instead of $3 and the guy in the business office can afford to rent somewhere and not commute from Jersey and then, with the profits from charging rich people $100 so they can say they saw Bronfman at the Phil, rather than listening to it on their iPod for $0.99 …. they can afford to do some concerts in the park for free and everyone feels good about it. The rich guy gets to boast that he saw Bronfman, more art gets produced and anyone who wants to can watch a nice concert in the park.

I’m not trying to be a jerk here, and it may well be different in other countries, hopefully it is, but in the U.S. this is how money spins the merry go round. Take the money out and some new source of funding needs to replace it. As Sandwichman commented above, the marginalist snake swallows its own marginal revenue product tail!

74

Cian 05.01.14 at 8:20 pm

So how do European countries manage it then TJ. Hint – the answer’s in the post you quoted.

Still I have learnt something here. Apparently Beethoven is still producing great art. Which I did not know.

75

Anarcissie 05.01.14 at 8:37 pm

If by ‘great’ you simply mean ‘very good’, then it is true that some great art (great for some people) can be obtained free or very cheaply. However, if you look at the language and other social phenomena around certain well-established kinds of art, ‘great’ seems to imply that the art in question somehow defeats and overmasters other, lesser art. Beethoven beats Mendelssohn and Schubert, but maybe is tied with J.S. Bach, etc. This mode of evaluation runs parallel to ideas of political power, wealth, and status: the ‘great’ art is the art which the great people say is great, either by buying it themselves for a lot of money, or causing public institutions to buy it for a lot of other people’s money. It has the highest score.

One might want to ask how Beethoven would fare if the population had equal wealth and incomes, considerable social equality and liberty, and thoroughly democratic government; in other words, if classical Western music no longer imparted any sort of cachet of upper-classedness. No doubt the existing recordings would be lovingly preserved and transmitted by his fans, but maintaining a top-level symphony orchestra and a place for them to work in might be mostly out of range for most communities. So would Beethoven still be ‘great’ in the second sense? I don’t know, but I do know that even in these class-ridden times the Beethoven species of music has been disappearing from the mass media, and that symphony orchestras have been finding it difficult to stay in business.

At some point in the future it may be possible for individuals to synthesize good new Beethoven performances on their smartphones, but we aren’t there yet.

76

Harold 05.01.14 at 9:11 pm

Beethoven wrote lots of music for solo instrument and chamber group. His symphonies were never played frequently.

77

Anarcissie 05.02.14 at 12:21 am

But it’s the symphonies that are supposed to blow the ‘competition’ away, except, of course, for the highly sophisticated. That’s what was mentioned here — and, in fact, the loudest and most militaristic of the symphonies, with the most blowing of horns and beating of drums. When Edna St. Vincent Millay writes, ‘Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease! Reject me not into the world again’ she’s talking about a symphony. Would B. still be ‘great’ if he had not written the symphonies and the concertos and Fidelio? Maybe in the way that Palestrina is great.

I’m not disparaging Beethoven and his kind at all, but I do think one should recognize the ideology connected to the realizations of their larger works and the way people talk about them.

78

Harold 05.02.14 at 1:04 am

“Blow the competition away” ? Well, they are more grandiose that those of Haydn and Mozart. Supposedly, they are influenced by now-forgotten French revolutionary composers, such as Gossec , Lesseur and Méhul, which Beethoven would have heard in Bonn. They wrote huge, outdoor celebratory pieces. If that’s the “ideology of Beethoven and his kind” to which you are referring. http://www.soundjunction.org/themusicofthefrenchrevolution.aspa

As far as Millay, in 1928 when she wrote that poem, it would have been a red-letter day when you heard a performance of a Beethoven symphony.

Modern music, designed to be played in outdoor stadiums to audiences of thousands is loud, too, thanks to amplification.

79

Anarcissie 05.02.14 at 1:22 am

No, not the ideology of Beethoven the person; I’m talking about the more recent ideology of Western classical music (and a lot of other art) which is laced with notions of mastery and domination. That is why the symphonies are the big deal — because they are physically big and costly to perform, and their size requires a conductor, a leader, usually one of considerable charisma, social standing, and income, there is banging of drums and blowing of horns, and of course the gods worshiped are male, warlike, powerful, heroic. So, of course, this sort of art is said by rightists to be producible only by a wealthy elite, because that’s how it was produced in the first place. This has little to do with the formal properties of the music. I’m talking about its aura in social life, not its intrinsic aesthetic qualities.

80

Harold 05.02.14 at 1:30 am

Powerful, heroic males. Plus ça change.

81

Meredith 05.02.14 at 6:12 am

Corey’s CIA post and this one are connected for me. Eumaios the swineherd is joined in Book 20 of the Odyssey (which I think of as “the workers’ book”) by the mill woman as the interpreter of art as justice. (She doesn’t even imagine Odysseus’ homecoming — she just hopes for an end to toiling for the suitors.) Is that what we’re finally talking about here? (Though the text sees even the mill woman through Odysseus’ eyes. At first, that focalization seems elitist. But maybe not. Maybe more an aspiration — what if the mill woman and Odysseus could really occupy more or less the same position from which to view things? Happy May Day.)

82

novakant 05.02.14 at 11:44 am

#79

You don’t seem to know much about the contemporary classical music scene at all – maybe you’re talking about Karajan-style conducting fifty years ago. I will grant that the audience for classical music still tends to be bourgeois and that there are some ideological holdovers around, e.g. certain types of Wagner aficiandos.

But what you’re describing here is a silly caricature that smacks of prejudice and ressentiment: Simon Rattle et al are worshiped as warlike and heroic males, really? And what about the large number of brilliant female soloists who have reached superstar status? What about Dudamel and El Sistema?

83

J Thomas 05.02.14 at 12:47 pm

“But it doesn’t cost so much because it’s Beethoven. It costs so much because it is really expensive to maintain a performance hall in Manhattan, to maintain a world class orchestra, and so on. Your whole line of reasoning I’m sorry is just silly.”

It was always expensive. That’s the point.

It took a king to maintain a world-class orchestra. If you were just a duke and you had your own orchestra, how good was your fifth-seat flute? Probably not that great.

And of course it helped that in those days orchestra members didn’t get paid all that much. Nowadays median salary for a concert violinist is around $55,000. We could probably cut salaries considerably by getting green cards for talented third-world musicians.

But this is entertainment that was always intended for elites. Kind of like, say, foxhunting. In the old days the noblemen chased the fox through the peasants’ crops, and peasants could watch but certainly couldn’t participate. If a lot of people wanted to try it today we simply wouldn’t have the resources. They wear velvet-lined hardhats because, well, why not?

84

novakant 05.02.14 at 1:23 pm

But this is entertainment that was always intended for elites. Kind of like, say, foxhunting. In the old days the noblemen chased the fox through the peasants’ crops, and peasants could watch but certainly couldn’t participate. If a lot of people wanted to try it today we simply wouldn’t have the resources.

Have you checked the ticket prices for top pop/rock acts lately? – your “peasants” seem to be perfectly able to pay anything from $100-1000 to attend. This is more a cultural and sociological boundary, and that’s a shame really.

85

J Thomas 05.02.14 at 1:52 pm

“Have you checked the ticket prices for top pop/rock acts lately? – your “peasants” seem to be perfectly able to pay anything from $100-1000 to attend. This is more a cultural and sociological boundary, and that’s a shame really.”

Yes, and the costs are different. They pay many fewer musicians but much more security. The audience doesn’t mind sweating some, but lighting costs more.

86

Christiaan Hofman 05.02.14 at 2:22 pm

Why should a very small pool of rich people offer more people of talent than a large pool formed by basically the full population? Or is Cowen arguing that talent is rather unimportant for artist, and time is much more important? Or does he say that quantity of art is much more valuable than quality? As an economist, he should know about mechanisms. Or is what he says just excuses for high inequality? I’d really want to know.

87

TM 05.02.14 at 2:27 pm

[JT 83 already refuted in 72. Sigh.]

88

J Thomas 05.02.14 at 2:49 pm

TM, are you saying that 72 already refuted the same things 83 did? Yes, but it’s been done many times before.

Are you saying that 72 refutes 83? I don’t see how. If an expensive art is intended for only a small audience, ever, then the audience needs to be powerful.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be rich. Like, I used to do caving. We did it on the cheap. If we’d had the money we might have sent little caving robots ahead of us through tiny holes to see if they were worth following, but we didn’t have those resources. Some cavers who worked for NASA used expensive dynamometers to test strength for rope and other equipment. Some who were in the army had access to 3D photography that helped them find sinks and blowholes. Everybody envied them, and still did it cheap.

But in France the organized cavers were a branch of the alpinists and they got government money. They said everybody got government money, it was the way things were done, you got more or less by how persuasive you were. They had expensive equipment and some of them went to tropical south sea islands to explore caves for the greater glory of France. Caving will always be a sport for a tiny minority even though it provides fantastic beauty and thrilling dangers etc. Does it deserve a public budget? It depends. There were many places in caves that I could not get to, that I could reach by spending a lot of money. I wanted to go everywhere but I knew I could not. I can imagine arguing that it would be worth it for the government to fund all that, and we could take videos for anybody to watch from the comfort of their own sofas. If I was rich I might be powerful enough to get the government to do it.

Maybe in France you don’t have to be rich to be that persuasive.

89

Harold 05.02.14 at 3:29 pm

The French think pleasure is worth supporting.

90

Anarcissie 05.02.14 at 3:30 pm

novakant 05.02.14 at 11:44 am @ 82 — I could be out of date, but the kind of advertising I get from prestigious arts institutions certainly follows the pattern I described. So they’re out of date, too.

Of course my caricature smacks of prejudice and ressentiment; that’s what caricatures are supposed to do. I was trying to get at the resonance between the rightist theory of ‘great’ art and a certain kind of rhetoric which still abounds in the arts wherever large amounts of money and prestige are to be moved around.

91

Anarcissie 05.02.14 at 3:38 pm

Harold 05.02.14 at 3:29 pm @ 89:
‘The French think pleasure is worth supporting.’

So why don’t they support it directly, then, instead of going through the rigmarole of passing laws to tax themselves, collecting the taxes, and having elites, politicians and bureaucrats distribute it, to support it? This is not a rhetorical question. Is the rigmarole itself a pleasure? I’m curious.

92

TM 05.02.14 at 4:10 pm

Ok I give up.

Why do the French and much of the world (*) have publicly funded theaters and orchestras and museums? Why do they have publicly funded parks and swimming pools, spas and saunas? Why publicly funded hiking trails, bike trails, skateboard parks, beaches, even rest rooms? It’s all a rigmarole – why don’t they lower their taxes so that everybody can afford their own swimming pools and parks and orchestras if they so choose instead of being patronized by “elite bureaucrats”?

Seriously? And still nobody can answer why public highway funding is different. Why do we let elite bureaucrats decide where and how our roads are built? Why is that not a rigmarole?

I know I shouldn’t feed this hypertrollism and I’m gonna regret it bitterly but I am a weak mortal. Sorry.

(*) including the US – do you guys really not realize that?

93

roger gathman 05.02.14 at 4:21 pm

The classic reference for the connection in modernity between the “millionaire society” and the arts is Wynham Lewis’s The Art of being ruled, one of the series of brilliant pamphlets he issued in the 20s. Much better than the Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, in my opinion, Lewis makes a very good case for a distinct change between the aristocratic and the millionaire relation to the arts, and its motives.

94

J Thomas 05.02.14 at 4:30 pm

“So why don’t they support it directly, then, instead of going through the rigmarole of passing laws to tax themselves, collecting the taxes, and having elites, politicians and bureaucrats distribute it, to support it?”

Anarcissie, I cannot answer your question. I have not talked to enough French people to think I understand them. I could say something vague about “national character”, but maybe “national character” is mostly historical accident. I just don’t know.

Why do the Americans pass laws to tax themselves, collect the taxes, and have elites, politicians, and bureaucrats decide what military equipment to buy with it instead of just each of us spending our own money to arm ourselves to repel invasion? It’s something about the American character, but I’d have a lot of trouble explaining it even though I’ve lived in the USA most of my life.

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Anarcissie 05.02.14 at 5:04 pm

J Thomas 05.02.14 at 4:30 pm @ 94 — I see some difference between broad national projects which affect everyone, like war, police, highways, public health, and so on, and about which there is considerable agreement as to purpose and technique, and more specialized concerns, like various arts, or, as in the example that set me off, caving. In the former category, one has no choice but to bring in elites, politicians, and bureaucrats, because that is the only way we know how to do things of that scope. In the latter the need for these types is not at all clear, and in some areas, like the arts, the participation of elites is (from my point of view) undesirably conservative or even retrograde, besides generally encouraging relations of domination and passivity. I am surprised I have to explain this.

So, if the French take pleasure in caving, and robots would be helpful, why can’t the Association National de Spéléologie collect the money from interested parties and buy the robots? Again, this is not a rhetorical question. Perhaps they simply feel better if it’s handled through a bunch of officials in Paris?

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J Thomas 05.02.14 at 6:00 pm

“I see some difference between broad national projects which affect everyone, like war, police, highways, public health, and so on, and about which there is considerable agreement as to purpose and technique, and more specialized concerns, like various arts, or, as in the example that set me off, caving.”

In the USA there’s a surprising amount of disagreement about all of those. Lots of pacifists are upset about our military spending, lots of individualists are upset about police. Some libertarians argue that highways should be private and toll roads or whatever, and various people think that public health efforts are harmful.

The cavers in France assisted scientific work which I think was their excuse to attend an expedition into caves on a french-owned south sea island at public expense. It was a matter of national pride to do the science, and also it affirmed the claims of French sovereignty over that land.

“Again, this is not a rhetorical question. Perhaps they simply feel better if it’s handled through a bunch of officials in Paris?”

I don’t know. I have the vague impression that France never had the degree of pushback against government that Britain or the USA did. They overthrew their monarchy but maybe it was that they were against authoritarian kings more than against authoritarian government. Probably somebody who knows more will correct me. I have the impression that they figure the government is like a giant juggernaut that will do whatever it does, and private citizens must be alert and get out of its way, and look for opportunities to use it for their own ends.

When I briefly visited, I was surprised at the number of people I met who stole electricity. They jimmied their meters, or tapped into the lines without meters. If somebody got caught doing that here I think there would be very serious consequences, but it seemed like nobody gave it a second thought. I wondered how the system got paid for….

My second day there a shopkeeper gave me a counterfeit 20 franc coin. A week later I showed it to a friend and he said I must take care of it. We bought takeout food and when the cashier complained we grabbed the food and ran. I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to do that here.

There was a lot of pick-pocketing. I’ve never seen that here except one time in the New York subway where I saw a man accuse a woman of that to a cop, late at night. The cop told her she could go but he didn’t want to ever see her again. Here it’s something you might go to jail for, but my friends didn’t worry at all.

And there was a whole lot of casual nudity indoors, and a lot of casual sex. Except it wasn’t exactly casual, people kept taking out their knives and getting upset about it. Hardly anybody actually got cut, everybody would talk them out of it, but you were supposed to be alert and not get in the way. Again, over here if you get in a knife fight it’s like you’re a criminal and it’s a big deal.

It really seemed like everybody just accepted the government as a massive institution that they could try to influence and get stuff from, and when it took stuff from them they just had to put up with it.

But possibly I’m estimating from a biased sample and maybe the people I met were not completely typical.

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roy belmont 05.03.14 at 12:20 am

96: ‘I’ – 18x.

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Cian 05.03.14 at 1:20 am

But possibly I’m estimating from a biased sample and maybe the people I met were not completely typical.

You think?

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js. 05.03.14 at 8:33 pm

I need J Thomas’s contacts in France!

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Ronan(rf) 05.03.14 at 8:47 pm

Sounds like a hell of a holiday.

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AJtron the Invincible 05.04.14 at 3:44 pm

The question of the issues/locales on which the artist (or artists) chooses to situate his art is another one that comes to mind. On the one hand, there are issues which get relatively little coverage. On other issues, there is tremendous over-coverage.

There is virtually little art that abounds where I live that pleads the case of, say, the dispossessed of the Narmada Valley or the victims of the Rwandan genocide. Where I live, there is much pleading the case of a man born in Palestine 2000 years ago who, no doubt, didn’t deserve to be crucified. But we already knew that. We don’t need another beautiful new church building to make the same point.

The laws of demand and supply, if left alone, seem to result in skew.

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TM 05.05.14 at 7:24 pm

Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the promise of casual sex with knives out.

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