The Arts in a Free Market Economy
Capitalism Is a Prescription for Producing and Distributing Great Art
DECEMBER 01, 1995 by TYLER COWEN
Dr. Cowen teaches economics at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
Capitalism has proven to be the most favorable system for the arts, letters, and music. Most renowned Western creators, from Michelangelo to Mozart to Monet, succeeded in the marketplace. Shakespeare wrote for profit and marketed his plays to a wide public audience. Marcel Proust did not write bestsellers but nonetheless lived off the capitalist wealth of his family to produce his innovative Remembrance of Things Past. The essence of capitalism—bringing producer and consumer together—is a prescription for producing and distributing great art.
Markets base artistic success on inspiring, entertaining, and educating other human beings, rather than on force or on political privilege. In a market economy, support for creative endeavors can be obtained only by convincing other individuals—whether customers or patrons—that the project is worthwhile. Free markets therefore provide the material analog of the concepts of free speech and persuasion.
The market economy encourages artistic production through diverse means. Growing wealth, for instance, enables more individuals to pursue artistic vocations. Today the world supports a greater number of full-time artistic creators than ever before. The market economy also has freed mankind from tiresome physical labor and has given our creative flights of fancy increasing room to grow and flourish. Higher standards of living give individuals more time to produce and consume art. A wealthy and comfortable society is also a beautiful society.
Money fertilizes the artistic spirit. Paul Cezanne lived from family allowances and inheritances. Poet Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance claimsman and William Carlos Williams worked as a doctor. T.S. Eliot worked in a bank while he wrote poetry. Paul Gauguin first accumulated his savings while working as a stockbroker and only later pursued a career in art.
Other artists have engaged in the pursuit of money through their art itself. Mozart once wrote to his father: “Believe me, my sole purpose is to make as much money as possible; for after good health it is the best thing to have.” Mozart was a keen bargainer who reaped the maximum profit from each concert or composition. Charlie Chaplin once remarked: “I went into the business for money and the art grew out of it.” These great creators did not “sell out,” but rather turned their personal visions into material profit by reaching large numbers of eager customers.
Wealthy economies will support a diverse set of artistic visions. Financial security gives artists the scope to reject societal values. Bohemian and avant-garde artists, in spite of their frequent protests against capitalism, owe their existence to that system. Artists who do not care much about money are a luxury that can be afforded only in wealthy societies.
The falling prices of artistic materials, brought on by technical progress, allowed the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters to subsist on the margins of society, outside the mainstream cultural establishment. Later, the Impressionists achieved riches and fame by setting up independent networks of commercial distribution for their artworks.
We tend to take artistic materials for granted, but the affordability of these materials required entrepreneurial innovation through markets. The artistic Renaissance of the Italian city-states sprang out of the growth of medieval commerce, which made painting, marble sculpture, and bronze casting affordable on a large scale. The literary revolution came to England in the eighteenth century when the Industrial Revolution lowered the cost of paper and increased consumers’ book-buying incomes. Blues, rock and roll, and jazz required the medium of electronic recording to spread and support themselves. Digital technology may well create new forms of art for our future.
The technologies of capitalism not only spur the future but also preserve the past through video cassettes, recordings, and picture book reproductions. The modern viewer has better access to Shakespeare than the Elizabethans did, and the modern listener has better access to any classical composer than did the peers of that composer. More individuals watched Wagner’s Ring Cycle during one television showing than have seen it during all the live performances that have ever been staged.
The increasing division of labor in a market economy also increases artistic diversity, as recognized by Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith. Music, literature, and the arts have all given birth to a growing number of diverse genres and sub-genres. The greater the size of the market, the greater the number of artistic forms that creators can earn a living from. Whereas authors in the eighteenth century could support themselves only by writing bestsellers, today’s authors can earn good money in a variety of genres, including science fiction, mysteries, biographies, and travel books, to name but a few examples of many.
Artists have enjoyed increasing creative freedom over time. Unlike in previous eras, today’s artists are not dependent on a single patron or customer. When artists do rely on a single patron, the artist must produce to meet the tastes of that patron or lose support. A multiplicity of sources of financial support allows artists to pick and choose projects to suit their tastes. Michelangelo, who faced strong market demand for his services in Florence, was able to walk away from his work on the Sistine Chapel when a conflict arose. He returned only when Pope Julius allowed him to finish the project to suit his desires.
Cultural outsiders—such as African-Americans, Jews, and women—have their best chance of artistic success in a market economy. Blues music, kept off the radio at first, moved into the jukeboxes, a decentralized means of product delivery attuned to consumer tastes. Jewish immigrants—drawing on their retail capital and expertise—set up Hollywood studio empires to distribute their cinematic product. Women writers received little support from patrons and governments but connected with a wide readership once a market for novels arose. Capitalist corporations, who seek to market new ideas for profit, are more effective supporters of true multiculturalism than the “political correctness” advocates are.
The modern split between high culture, those creations receiving the most critical recognition, and “low” culture, the most popular creations, reflects the diversity and sophistication of our culture, not its corruption. Modern artists can target niche audiences and take more chances. The best works need no longer fit the most popular style. The massive amount of cultural “trash” around today—while it distresses many observers—is actually a symptom of the diverse artistic riches that we enjoy.
Enter, the NEA
Despite the historical successes of markets in supporting culture, the American government initiated the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. Yet even well before the creation of this agency, America led the world in modern art, popular music, and cinema, while also holding strong positions in literature, poetry, and contemporary classical composition. America’s private museums and symphony orchestras have been the envy of the world. Supporters of government arts funding seek a contradictory goal. They want to enjoy the benefits of a wealthy political elite without suffering the costs. We end up with the National Endowment for the Arts—an institution with an impossible mandate. It is supposed to deliver the benefits of aristocratic arts spending while remaining accountable to a political system based on the rule of law. In practice government funding has supported a cult of mediocrity. The NEA funds either bland, establishment efforts or more controversial exhibits (e.g., Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano) that offend its taxpaying supporters and violate its democratic mandate.
Advocates of government funding portray themselves as progressives but they actually support a historically reactionary position. Music and the arts have been moving away from government funding since the Middle Ages. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, and twentieth century modernism all brought art further into the market nexus. Most of the important work in film, music, literature, painting, and sculpture—whether from the present or from the past—is now sold as a commodity. In the current debates over government funding, we should not forget that the history of art is a history of the struggle to establish markets.