Review: Good and Plenty

by Henry Farrell on September 25, 2006

Tyler Cowen – _Good & Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding_

Available from “Powells”:, from “Amazon”:

There are two, quite different libertarian styles of writing about culture that I enjoy. One is the pop-culture variety, which uses libertarian precepts as the framework for a certain kind of flip, contrarian analysis. This can be quite entertaining, but it usually doesn’t bear up well to close examination. Libertarian nostrums all too frequently substitute for actual thought (granted, much leftist opinionating on culture has similar problems). The second style is that of Tyler Cowen. Cowen writes in an entertaining and straightforward manner. He’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable about both high and low culture. But the fun of his arguments is that they’re serious, interesting, and properly thought through. If they’re hard to fit into conventional frameworks of debate, they aren’t self-consciously contrarian either. Instead, they lead in their own directions, and Cowen isn’t afraid to follow them, even if they lead to unexpected destinations.

_Good and Plenty_ is about how art should be funded. Cowen argues that people in the US have two very different approaches to funding for the arts. First, many conservatives and libertarians abhor the idea that there should be government funding for the arts at all. Second, many art lovers (often of a leftist persuasion) believe that there should be more government funding for the arts, as there is in Europe. These viewpoints are roughly contiguous with two very different ways of understanding art; an economic and aesthetic approach. Economists are concerned with externalities and the like; in the absence of significant externalities, they would likely suggest that the production of art is best left to the market. Those who prefer the aesthetic approach argue that there is a value to art which can’t be captured by what people are prepared to pay for it, and that greater beauty in society is an irreducible good in itself. Broadly speaking, economics types tend to oppose state subsidies to the arts, whereas aesthetics types tend to be vigorously in favor of them.

The battle between these two approaches bedevils debates over whether art should be publicly funded and to what extent. However, they are probably irreconcilable. Sensibly, Cowen doesn’t try fully to synthesize these approaches, or even to take one side in the argument. Instead, he argues for the benefits of focusing on practicalities. If specific arguments for the arts can (as he argues they can), be justified in both economic and aesthetic terms, then it should be possible at the very least to reduce the space of disagreement. Thus, the bulk of the book is devoted to arguing two things that both economic and aesthetic approaches might agree on. First – that prestige may play an important role in determining our tastes over art. If individuals value the broad prestige accruing to their society from producing art of a certain kind, but aren’t prepared to pay for the art directly through market mechanisms, then we may say that there is an important economic externality. This provides (although Cowen doesn’t phrase it in quite that way) a means to understand the emphasis of aesthetic arguments on art for art’s sake within an economic framework (if individuals’ tastes are constituted such that markets fail to provide what they want, then some degree of intervention may be warranted). Indeed, the prestige argument implies that people may positively prefer some level of state funding of prestigious art, since it provides them with a sense of connection to it

The bulk of Cowen’s argument is devoted to setting out and defending a set of claims about a second possible justification for public funding of the arts – decentralization. Here, Cowen _isn’t_ claiming that art funding is necessarily better conducted through the decentralized means of the market. Instead, he argues that state policy inevitably affects art, not only through funding, but because it sets the parameters of market interactions through copyright law and so on. The important thing isn’t that states shouldn’t be involved in the production of art – they inevitably will be. It’s that they shouldn’t dictate the production of art in ways that set rigid guidelines of taste (as, for example, the _Academie_ did in nineteenth century France). Thus, he argues that state policy on art should be decentralized – that is, that the government should “encourage a diversity of funding sources for art.” Cowen devotes a long chapter to discussing ways in which US government policy beyond the NEA affects art. He discusses the value of both university positions and government sinecures as a means of indirect support that allows artists to take greater risks without dictating the kinds of art that they produce (he might equally have noted the values of social welfare in doing same – the welfare state surely has been an enormous indirect subsidy to the British pop music industry). While he doesn’t defend these policies in absolute terms – it may be that the tradeoffs they lead to are bad in some broader economic or political sense – he does argue that they have clearly had positive consequences for art production.

Cowen is quite critical of the NEA. This isn’t because it is a government-run program; he comments favorably on how a 1930’s WPA initiative supported writers and painters who turned out to be very important later (although he also notes that a similar initiative in modern Holland hasn’t worked out nearly so well, and seems to believe that government will work best when there isn’t a thriving marketplace for art). Nor are his criticisms of the NEA those of modern conservatives, who claim that it supports art which is un-American, obscene usw. Indeed, Cowen’s viewpoint could hardly be further away from that of conservatives; his main complaint that the NEA is overly centralized, bureaucratic, and unwilling to fund risky projects, precisely because it wants to avoid political controversy. His arguments don’t point towards an abolition of the NEA, but towards reforms that would allow it to take more risks.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is one that goes on a tangent from Cowen’s main argument – his discussion of how changes in the ability of producers to enforce copyright are likely to affect cultural production. Here, he argues that the likely consequences will differ dramatically from art form to art form. Simplifying a little, he adapts Walter Benjamin to argue that there is likely to be a big difference between art forms that rely heavily on their “aura,” and art forms that can be transformed into information without losing much of their cultural content. The former are likely to continue to do well – they aren’t fundamentally challenged by the Internet. In contrast, forms of art which can be translated into information without losing much of their content are likely to see substantial changes, thanks to competition from file sharing services. Over time, we may see “the symbolic and informational” functions of art [becoming] increasingly separate,” as the Internet offers pure information, and other outlets invest more heavily in providing an “aura” and accompanying benefits of status that will make consumers more willing to pay for art (because it is being produced in a prestigious concert hall, exhibited in a museum etc). Pop music is likely to emphasize live concert performance more, because this has value that can’t be reproduced easily through electronic means (you have to ‘be there’ to properly enjoy it). Cinema is likely to emphasize the benefits of the movie theater experience, rather than enhancements to DVDs that can easily be ripped off by pirates. It’s likely to remain economically healthy even if profits are hit by illegal filesharing (most people didn’t bother to copy video cassettes because it was cheap to rent them).

I don’t have major criticisms of the content of this book, because I agreed with most of it. I’m entirely convinced that the benefits of decentralized cultural provision are strong, perhaps in part because of my own personal tastes. Were I a fan of opera, I might prefer to live in Germany, where most major cities have heavily subsidized and relatively cheap opera houses. I’m not such a fan; given my doubtless idiosyncratic spectrum of tastes I’m rather better off in the US than I would be in Europe. This book could certainly have discussed the benefits of the European system in more detail – it too has some quite substantial benefits. Nonetheless, it succeeds in its own terms in defending and celebrating the much more decentralized approach to art funding that is characteristic of the US, and in showing how a greater degree of decentralization in areas such as NEA funding might substantially improve this system further. Nor do I think that the lessons of decentralization are necessarily right wing (I don’t imagine that Cowen does either).There are good leftist arguments suggesting that there are wide areas of cultural and social life that _shouldn’t_ be subjected to detailed central planning – see Jane Jacobs, James Scott and Yochai Benkler among others.

However, exactly this broader concern with decentralization (and in particular the lessons of Benkler’s book) points to a set of recent developments that Cowen perhaps should have discussed. It seems to me to be clear that we’re in the middle of real changes in the relationship between artistic production and consumption. The means of artistic production is in the hands of the masses as it hasn’t really been before – and the results are both changes in existing forms of art, and new forms of art (mash-ups, various forms of video art) emerging. Most of this stuff is amateur – it isn’t aimed at producing a profit. Most of it isn’t much good either – but “Sturgeon’s Revelation”:’s_law applies to high art too. Some of it is quite good indeed. Even when it isn’t, its existence suggests that many people aren’t so much art-consumers as art users and producers in their own right, remixing and remaking art for their own purposes.

Some of the consequences of this revolution, such as its relationship with copyright law, are been explored in detail by other scholars. Others aren’t – and should be, because they present a serious and perhaps (but only perhaps; time will tell) fundamental challenge to the way in which we think about art and how it is funded and produced. Cowen’s book rests on an implicit distinction between producers of art (whom policy should encourage, in whatever way to create art), and consumers (whose tastes and desire for prestige etc help define the parameters which art funding should occupy). But it’s getting harder to distinguish between consumers and producers, and may become harder still in the future. This, it seems to me has some interesting implications for the public funding of art. Two examples. First, if a significant number of people value art not only as passive consumers, but also because they can remix and reuse that art in novel and unexpected ways, should public funding of art be conditioned, say, on this art being released under a Creative-Commons type license where possible? Second, the emphasis of the kinds of secondary production and remixing that I’m talking about blurs the distinction between high and low art, between the kinds of art that ‘artists’ produce, and the kinds of art that people produce for their own entertainment. How does this affect the prestige argument for art that Cowen discusses?

Of course, this is the usual reviewer’s trick; I’m suggesting that Cowen should have written a somewhat different book to the book that he has written. But I do think that these issues are important to the arguments that Cowen is trying to tease out in this fun, stimulating and important book. Perhaps next time.

Next up, Joseph Jupille on procedural politics in the European Union, and shortly thereafter, Jacob Hacker on the Great Risk Shift.



Tom Hurka 09.25.06 at 11:14 am

Does Cowen discuss indirect government support for the arts, through tax deductions or tax credits for charitable donations to the arts? If I recall correctly (from reading twenty years ago), when that’s included total US government support for the arts isn’t that different from European governments’. The mix is different. In Europe direct subsidies to arts organizations are higher, but there’s less indirect support because there’s much less charitable giving to the arts. In the US direct subsidies are lower, but higher levels of private giving lead to more indirect support, in the form of foregone tax revenues.

Again if I recall correctly, the basis for the long-standing US preference for indirect support is precisely a belief in decentralization: rather than itself pick the artists to support, the government lets private citizens do that and in effect tops up their contributions. The result, though, is a concentration of control over government funding for the arts by the rich, since it’s disproportionately they who contribute to art. (Good for highbrow arts like opera and the symphony, good also for NYC. Not so good for everyone else.) This is especially so if there are tax deductions rather than credits for charitable donations, since the value of a deduction is higher at higher income levels. (I don’t know which is in place in the US now; Canada switched from deductions to credits a while back.)

Anyway, the tax treatment of charitable contributions is a major way governments support the arts, and is one where what’s supposed to be decentralization doesn’t actually work that way.


Tracy W 09.25.06 at 5:11 pm

The result, though, is a concentration of control over government funding for the arts by the rich, since it’s disproportionately they who contribute to art. (Good for highbrow arts like opera and the symphony, good also for NYC. Not so good for everyone else.)

Do the rich tend to have very different tastes in art from the rest of the population? If not, then I don’t see how the rest of the population would miss out from rich people’s charitable efforts, as they would be getting much the same diversity as if they chose for themselves.

Obviously the rich can afford to attend the opera/symphony/ballet more often and from better seats, while the very poor who are fans of classical music are limited to listening to it on the radio or attending free performances or the like. But does that mean more rich people prefer classical music than poor or middle-class people? How many rich people don’t go to classical concerts because they don’t like the music?

I don’t know of any evidence that rich people’s tastes run different from the rest of the population for extended periods of time (obviously there may be differences at the start of an artistic movement, for example when the Beatles were playing at the start of their career in Liverpool, before they got a record deal, very few people outside Liverpool could have been fans of them as they woudn’t have known the Beatles existed). Didn’t Princess Margaret cause an uproar in the British establishment for listening to rock & roll? Does Prince Harry listen to classical rock at those parties that make the headlines of the tabloids? Does Paris Hilton exclusively attend jazz nightclubs?


djw 09.25.06 at 5:43 pm

Thanks for the review, Henry. I’d typically run for the hills at “Libertarian writes about arts funding” but this sounds like a genuinely thoughtful and even compelling argument.


Harald Korneliussen 09.26.06 at 2:01 am

Tracy w, I think that you are right to question the assumption that the rich like different forms of art than the poor, because I believe there is much prejudice there. Just about all the people I meet in a local classical concert are people who play an instrument themselves. Of the people I know who study or have studied music, practically all are middle-class people who accept a significant decline in prospective income to pursue their musical ambitions. In other words, they downclass (if there is such a word).

There are basically two extremes of art, popular art where everyone’s opinion matters equally, and “high” art where only the opinions of other “peer” artists (and perhaps their sponsors, if they have them) matter. Those are the extremes, reality is usually somewhere in between. But it’s wrong to identify anything with an electric guitar in it as belonging to the first group (or anything with a violin to the latter) – to me it looks as if prog rock, metal and even punk are modern music forms which are strongly peer-oriented, and there is also some “crossover” classical which is held in contempt by most “real” classical music lovers, but which is very popular, for instance Karl Jenkins.

But you know what I’d bet on? I’d bet that the cultural gap between rich and poor is largest where there is least social mobility, like in Britain, and smallest where there is most, like in Scandinavia.


Jack 09.26.06 at 3:13 am

Tom, the book has an excellent and extensive discussion of tax-break supported funding of the arts. Your concern about biases introduced by that method of funding is valid but direct funding is usually plagued by accusations of elitism too.

I agree with Henry that the book is well written and interesting. More books should be writtenlike this but I do have some quibbles with the content.

Just as Tom does, Cowen sometimes assumes that a section of society only benefits from an arts subsidy if it is actively consuming the fruits of that spending. That reasoning is to ignore the value of opportunity. As an example keeping access to the British Museum and National Gallery free means that anyone able to visit London can benefit from the collection.

It seems slightly churlish to criticise a book that covers everything from CIA funding of abstract expressionism to WPA funding of James Baldwin for its omissions but there are some I think are important. One is that the discussion is focussed on US institutions with occasional comparsions between the US and mainly European activities. The result is to focus on the contrast between direct and indirect funding. That overemphasises the source of the funding as the determinant of quality of art funding and misses the opportunity to discuss the varying success of different direct funding schemes. Writing about what makes a direct funding organisation good would however be much more contentious ground than most of what is in the book.

One of Tyler Cowen’s own examples, the fashion industry, would have been interesting because it operates with almost no effective intellectual property protection.

Cross subsidy and scale effects in Hollywood would also have been interesting, as would a discussion of small country responses to the same issue.

These are quibbles and are made in no small part because it would be interesting to read Cowen writing about them. The book is short, well packaged, entertainingly written and very mild in its conclusions. All of those make it possible for anyone, wherever they stand on frequently highly polarised debates about arts funding, to get something out of. With luck it will help debates be more constructive.


Steve LaBonne 09.26.06 at 7:37 am

Just about all the people I meet in a local classical concert are people who play an instrument themselves.

Like me, for instance. As a public employee (and single parent) with a fairly modest income I’m just the kind of “downscale” classical music lover you’re talking about. And I know plenty of people like me- many of them, to further reinforce your point, fellow members of the community orchestra I play in. (The mission of which, in turn, is to make symphonic music accessible to people with even less money!)

I’m extremely grateful for every source of subsidy, private and public, that makes it possible for me to attend half a dozen Cleveland Orchestra concerts each year. If ticket prices were even to double from their current level that would probably become impossible.


Tracy W 09.26.06 at 6:06 pm

Cowen sometimes assumes that a section of society only benefits from an arts subsidy if it is actively consuming the fruits of that spending. That reasoning is to ignore the value of opportunity. As an example keeping access to the British Museum and National Gallery free means that anyone able to visit London can benefit from the collection.

I don’t quite follow. How does someone benefit fom an arts subsidy without actively consuming/producing that art?

I derived a great deal of benefit from the British Museum and National Gallery when I visited London, but, judging by his behaviour, my husband derived negative benefit (on the other hand, he gets far more out of classical music than me). How does someone who lives in London but never visits the National Gallery or the British Museum benefit from that opportunity?


Jack 09.26.06 at 7:41 pm

think about expanding higher education. Higher education is consumed disproportionately by the wealthy and by the upper classes but that does not mean that making it available to the poor and lower class is regressive.

At an individual level, anything in a museum that I can see for free is something that I can see if I need to. Less of the world is hidden from me.


Tracy W 09.27.06 at 1:21 am

I think we have different definitions of option value.

You appear to be saying there are some benefits from poor and lower class people consuming/producing art, or higher education. Fine. But earlier you talked about the value of opportunity, and implied that Cowen was wrong to assume that art only had value to those segments of society that are actively consuming the fruits of that spending. This implies that you were stating there was a value to someone in having an opportunity to visit the National Gallery or British Musem, even if they never actually did so. This sounds like option value to me.

Now option value does have value. For example, when I go tramping I carry some survival equipment, including a bag of rice and a survival blanket and a box of matches. I’ve never had to use that equipment yet. But I still carry it, and value it, because of the option it maintains if, eg, I get delayed by bad weather for a few days.

You appeared to be arguing in comment 5 that there is some sort of option value in having art to people who never actually consume/produce that art. I don’t follow your argument. The benefit my husband appeared to obtain from the National Gallery and British Museum was negative, not an option benefit.

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