Markets and Culture

(I wrote this in response to a professor's complaint on a mailing list about the rampant commercialization of modern culture)

Markets enable coordinated action between anonymous individuals. They are essential for the functioning of large-scale society. But they have popped up rather recently in our evolutionary history so they don't sit well with our subconscious. They feel, well, anonymous and impersonal. As they are.

So in the classroom we organize interaction to look like much older social structures that sit better with our subconscious, namely tribes or extended families. One could imagine the professor as an older hunter, passing along his knowledge of tracking game animals in the forest to the tribe's children. Markets for labor and material are used to make the university function but on the inside it doesn't look that way.

It is considered rude for a boss to influence his employee by reminding him that "I pay your salary", although it would be an accurate statement to make. Politeness requires us to temporarily forget that market forces were often responsible for drawing us together in the first place; we remember only when we get a paycheck or a tuition bill comes due. Even at the checkout line in a grocery store we make small talk with the clerk and inquire after his well-being while the true nature of our interaction is as plain as the money we hand over.

At the risk of sounding Panglossian, this seems pretty optimal. There is wisdom in choosing the correct social structure to apply to any given interaction. Markets enable us to build and run structures like universities, but it would feel wrong if a professor charged students for attending his office hours, or if students paid his salary by handing over a $10 bill at the beginning of every class.

But I do think our innate suspicion of markets may be stronger than what is rational and we sometimes fail to use markets in situations that make sense. I also think we tend to underestimate the good qualities of markets, especially when we harken back to halcyon times when markets figured less prominently in everyday life. Yes, life was more personal then, maybe even happier. But people also had a lot less freedom in how they organized their lives. Freedom is one of the market's two most compelling virtues (the other is economic growth).

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I don't even know what to

I don't even know what to make of a complaint against the commercialization of culture. A lot of the best artists were commercially successful in their day, and all of them without exception were eventually commercially successful. Take an extreme example, Van Gogh. His paintings are now worth many millions. If that's not commercial success, then what is? In this extreme example, at worst all that can be said about the market is that it was slow in recognizing Van Gogh. But here's the thing: who recognized Van Gogh early? His brother did, but who else? I mean, if someone wants to complain that the market is slow on the uptake, compared to what exactly?

Can anyone name a single undeniably great artist whose work experiences no commercial success today? Please do because I would love to buy their stuff for cheap. I have walls I would love to fill with first-rank original art. Sadly, this is just not the reality of the situation. Sadly, the market knows what's what. I wish it didn't, because then I would have a great advantage.

Meanwhile a lot of the great artists were commercially successful in their own lifetimes. I have a short list of favorite painters and the top two are probably Rembrandt and Durer (in that order). So let's look at them. They were both famous in their own lifetimes, and commercially successful. As Wikipedia notes: "Dürer ... became very famous by his mid-twenties." All you have to do is glance at his watercolors to see why. As for Rembrandt: "...his etchings and paintings were popular throughout his lifetime, his reputation as an artist remained high".

As I said, it's hard to know what it even means to complain about commercialization of culture. It seems to require that a person be afflicted by myths about the way things used to be, before they supposedly became corrupted by commerce. Mythical thinking about the supposedly pristine past before it supposedly became corrupted is nothing new. The garden of eden, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden is another example of that myth.

The Market Failed

If the market fails to recognize a Van Gogh when he was actually painting, then it is fair to say that the market failed. That's the point of Europe's binge on subsidizing artists. Today, even crappy artists get paid in their day in certain countries.

The market ain't perfect. It doesn't have to be in order for us to defend it. And often, the anser to market failure is not changing the market but adding new players, who meet the unfulfilled need. We don't need government programs; we need people of means with good taste who are willing to patronize unrecognized talent that they spot. Usually this means second generation wealth, as the first generation rich are focused on whatever made them rich.

Second generation wealth

Second generation wealth with the level of saturation required to nourish an artist scene of the magnitude necessary, depends on the government getting off the neck (then backs) of the productive class.

If the market fails to

If the market fails to recognize a Van Gogh when he was actually painting, then it is fair to say that the market failed.

Anyone can define "failure" any way they damn well please, as you just did. This inherent ambiguity of the term "market failure" is one of the reasons I did not employ the term "market failure" in my comment to which you replied. I employed the word "fail" zero times in my comment. You used the word "fail" three times in your much shorter comment.

And your point was already raised in my comment and already answered. So why do you raise it a second time, after I have already raised it a first and answered it? It would be more useful for you to attempt to answer my response, than to repeat the point to which I had already responded.

Or did you intend your mention of the European binge to be your answer? Then I will answer it.

Crappy artists may get funding from the government, but the government cannot possibly fund them all. Over at deviantart, a website for amateur artists, I see a tremendous number of people with talent. I doubt many of them are funded by the government, but I am confident that some of them, some of these unfunded amateurs, will turn out in retrospect to be among the great artists of our time. So the European binge which you mention would still, in all likelihood, have failed to help out van Gogh. The only way to fund van Gogh is to fund everyone, without exception - turn the government into a universal welfare state. Anything less takes human judgment to sort out the genuine artists from the talentless beggars lining up for free money, and you're not going to find the best human judgment in a government bureaucracy such as a government agency responsible for funding the arts.

Chill dude!

I mentioned it because your comment was semi-incorrect. If the market eventually recognizes a van Gogh, then the market did succeed in preserving what he did do. But the market did not pay van Gogh for his efforts when he was alive.

I am not advocating public financing of the arts, BTW. I am simply recognizing imperfection of the market -- as I type this comment on a QWERTY keyboard, another failure.

When we claim perfection, we set ourselves up for disproof, and the hard left is extremely good at nitpicking away at us vs. putting the focus on their own failures. This is why I am on a mission to squash the libertarian practice of overgeneralizing and making outrageous indefensible statements (cf. "Government doesn't work"). We do better with side by side comparisons.

"I mentioned it because your

"I mentioned it because your comment was semi-incorrect. If the market eventually recognizes a van Gogh, then the market did succeed in preserving what he did do. But the market did not pay van Gogh for his efforts when he was alive."

But here you are just repeating what I originally pointed out. I picked van Gogh precisely because he was unrewarded in his lifetime, and I brought this point up specifically, and I discussed its implications. So all you have done is confirm the correctness of my comment while failing to engage my discussion, as far as I can see.

as I type this comment on a

as I type this comment on a QWERTY keyboard, another failure.

Failure your ass.

The Fable of the Keys

The "hard left" sneaked this one past you. QWERTY is not an obvious market failure.

A quibble or two for a slow comment day

Can anyone name a single undeniably great artist whose work experiences no commercial success today? Please do because I would love to buy their stuff for cheap. I have walls I would love to fill with first-rank original art. Sadly, this is just not the reality of the situation. Sadly, the market knows what's what.

I share the view that people tend to romanticize the world of art and artists, and find a dissonance in associating that world with the world of markets. That said, we can over state the role of markets in art.

I also regard market prices as strong indicators of fact. Markets reflect the perspective of people with the resources and guts to back up their hunches with money. But the fact that markets fluctuate – and even experience booms and busts – strongly suggests they lack clairvoyance.

Can I think of an undeniably great artist whose word experiences no commercial success today? Well, there was this guy named Mozart that people seemed to think highly of as a composer, conductor and performer. Yet today we only find a market for his compositions, not his conducting or performing. Is this a reflection on the weakness of his conducting and performing skills? Or does this reflect something unrelated to the merit of his conducting and performing talents? Indeed, I don’t know what conclusions we can draw about the role of market forces in reflecting the genius of performing artists throughout history.

So let’s restrict ourselves to looking at the legacies of people who left us with actual examples of their artistic work. Somebody wrote the song “Mary had a Little Lamb.” Somebody invented the waltz. We are still blessed with the results of their artistic efforts, yet I’m not aware of any market to reward these artists, even so much as to acknowledge their names. I suspect the fate experienced by these unknown “folk” artists is much more common than the fate of Van Gogh.

There are other arguable examples of “market failures.”

[M]aybe I can best express the American dream in a story. It’s about a kid who grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the early 1950s. He was a poor kid, but he had a rockin’ guitar, some flashy clothes, and a wiggle in his hips – and he had that certain something called “talent.” Of course he never made a nickel because he was black, but two years later Elvis Presley made a fortune doing the same thing.

A. Whitney Brown, “The Big Picture,” from Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Edition, 198? (arguably alluding to the singer Jim Wetherington).

Finally, I suspect there are artists that have an ideological resistance to market forces. Tibetan Buddhist sandpainters, for example, spend days creating elaborate works of art out of colored sand with the intention of destroying the artwork upon completion. Which is not to say that there are no market forces involved. Some of these sandpainters travel the world creating these works of art. To the extent they find it flattering and desirable to tour like this, I suspect there really is a kind of market reward for being especially skilled at this practice. But no, I don't expect that you'll be able to get an original work of theirs for your wall.

What little I know about the market/intellectual property rights for performance art I’ve gleaned from a recent discussion with a Broadway choreographer. If you write a show, there are mechanisms to provide you with revenues every time the show is performed. If you compose music for a show, the same rule applies. If you choreograph a show – not so much. There’s an assumption that the people who mount a new production will use the original script, original music, but create their own choreography – even though shows such as Chorus Line and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers may be as famous for their choreography as for any other aspect. Should there be a “look and feel” intellectual property right to choreography?

Your first argument is that

Your first argument is that it is a market failure that Mozart is dead and therefore unable to perform.

Your second argument is that it is a market failure that memory and historical records are imperfect, so nobody remembers that Sarah Hale wrote Mary's Lamb.

Your third argument is that it is a market failure that people like Elvis are able to use sex appeal to push a product, and that sex appeal hasn't always crossed racial boundaries.

Your fourth argument is that not all artists choose to sell their works.

Your fifth argument is that the regime of intellectual property rights has significant gaps.

One thing I noticed is that

One thing I noticed is that your arguments get progressively better. Your first argument is silly, and your last argument isn't, and the arguments in between are incrementally less silly and incrementally more serious. This suggests that you started writing before you had a response in mind, you started writing with nothing more than a desire to find fault, and that you kept thinking as you wrote.

Mary Had a Little Lamb

Your second argument is that it is a market failure that memory and historical records are imperfect, so nobody remembers that Sarah Hale wrote Mary's Lamb.

Well, not quite nobody. Touche!

Re-quibble, pt. 1

Your first argument is that it is a market failure that Mozart is dead and therefore unable to perform.

Your second argument is that it is a market failure that memory and historical records are imperfect, so nobody remembers that Sarah Hale wrote Mary's Lamb.

Your third argument is that it is a market failure that people like Elvis are able to use sex appeal to push a product, and that sex appeal hasn't always crossed racial boundaries.

Your fourth argument is that not all artists choose to sell their works.

Your fifth argument is that the regime of intellectual property rights has significant gaps.

* * *

This suggests that you started writing before you had a response in mind, you started writing with nothing more than a desire to find fault….

Admittedly, these were quibbles for a slow comment day.

1. That said, I was mostly responding to the thesis that “the market knows what’s what” and all undeniably great artists are recognized by market forces.

Thus, I note that performance art does not command a market price after it is performed (absent a means of recording the performance). I must therefore conclude that there were no undeniably great performance artists, or that there is some fault with the thesis.

Many artists are completely unknown, and therefore unrecognized by market forces today even though their artistic works endure. I must either conclude that they were not great artists, or that there is some fault with the thesis.

Some art is not offered for sale. I must therefore conclude that these artists are not great, or that there is some fault with the thesis.

Whether you choose to characterize these faults in the thesis as “market failures” depends on what task you ascribe to the market. If you require markets to be arbiters of great artists, then arguably this does reflect a market failure. If you merely require markets to efficiently allocate resources, then arguably it doesn’t.

Thus, I note that

Thus, I note that performance art does not command a market price after it is performed (absent a means of recording the performance). I must therefore conclude that there were no undeniably great performance artists, or that there is some fault with the thesis.

No, you're being silly again, you're saying random silly things in a superficial attempt to rebut the thesis. I notice that you no longer quote my words. My challenge was to find first-rank original art to hang on my walls. That means paintings. You're not going to hang a performance on a wall, for the reason you yourself indicated: absent reproduction, a performance lasts only as long as it lasts.

Is this a market failure? Is it an example of the market not knowing what's what? How so? Consider: I do not benefit from a performance which I did not attend and which was not recorded for my benefit. Why, then, should I pay so much as a penny for it? Surely if the market knows what's what, it knows, among other things, that I have not benefited from a performance which I have not witnessed, I have received no value, and therefore the amount that I ought to pay for this performance which I did not enjoy is zero.

I'm not going to answer the rest of your points because it's looking like a repeat and we'd just be going in circles again.

Re-quibble, pt. 2

2. The Elvis reference is arguably my most serious argument. I’m challenging the presumed distinction between object and observer.

I’m not sure what it means to describe someone as an “undeniably great artist” abstracted from the audience for that art. In this discussion we’ve discussed the audience in abstract terms, as a market. Yet a market reflects both supply AND demand – and demand refers to the audience. So if you take two people with identical “artistic qualities,” they may very well experience different degrees of market success due to the attributes of the audience, not of the artist.

In short, a statement about who is or is not an “undeniably great artist” is fundamentally a statement about ourselves as much as a statement about any given artist.

Re-quibble, pt. 3

3. Finally, yeah, I’m kind of intrigued by the possibility of commoditizing choreography.

Think about it: Before the growth of printing, people memorized everything. There was a great premium paid to people who could remember stuff, and people who could “perform” what they remembered. These people were performance artists! The growth of written language changed the market for their services, and changed the premium people placed on rote memorization in general (to the dismay of Plato and certain Vikings, if I recall correctly).

This evolved to the point where the Tin Pan Alley era of popular music (1880s-1930s?) was driven by the sale of sheet music, not by recordings or performances. Middle-class people throughout the US would buy pianos for their parlors for their own entertainment, just as we buy TVs today. This era was eclipsed by the growth of radios and phonographs, in which performance artists would be able to better deploy their skills. Arguably the growth of TV and film has had a similar effect on the world of print literature.

Today I understand there are various types of choreography notation, but few people read it. The idea of “writing down” choreography in an easily accessible manner, making it more like print media and less like performance art, fascinates me.

So if you’re looking for an undeniable genius that may be underappreciated by market forces, perhaps you should look to buy shares in Bob Fosse’s estate? Marry one of his heirs, maybe?

Not sure how you’d hang it on your wall, though.

If I plant fruit trees and die before they yield a crop

Ii can't be blamed it on market failure.