The Relationship of Capitalism and Culture

By Edward Rothstein N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, May 5, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Relationship of Capitalism and Culture


Edward Rothstein N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


"Two Cheers for Capitalism," was the way Irving Kristol once heralded his measured acclaim for the marketplace and its freedoms. But when it comes to culture and the arts, the growing tendency is to give capitalism no more than one cheer. And that is of the Bronx variety.

The indictment is considerable. Look at what the forces of the marketplace have wrought, say capitalism's critics: In writing, style is often dumbed down; mass taste is pandered to. In the world of art music, avatars of sophisticated styles go on the dole, while second- rate pop music sells out stadiums.

Every major cultural institution, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the New York Public Library to Lincoln Center, would collapse immediately if it were at the mercy of market forces. That is, in fact, pretty much what happened when communism fell and state- supported cultural institutions became subject to the whims of the marketplace. Now, a handful of entertainment conglomerates have become the main suppliers of cultural products, and even popular arts, it is argued, have suffered under their watch, with films dominated by spectacle and special effects, and television talk shows by Springerism. There is even an intellectual foundation for the dismay. The condemnation of capitalism's effect on culture was pioneered in mid- century Germany by the Frankfurt School of Marxist thinkers, who tended to see capitalism's pleasures as a mass drug, distracting the populace from more important matters. And the sociologist Daniel Bell suggested in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism that capitalism and culture are almost doomed to lock horns. Capitalism requires a rational political order and a certain amount of discipline and restraint to plan for the future and ply its current wares. But a capitalist culture like the one that has developed in recent decades doesn't value the kind of patience and asceticism that sociologists like Max Weber associated with the origins of capitalism. Instead, capitalist culture values self-gratification and novelty. The result, Bell suggests, is a nihilistic culture commonly known as postmodern. But is there any chance of at least one halfhearted cheer? One way to feel more sanguine about capitalism's influence is to be more welcoming of the variety the marketplace produces: virtue in the midst of plenty. This is an approach taken in a new book, In Praise of Commercial Culture (Harvard University Press), by Tyler Cowen, an economist. He argues that capitalism and commerce, far from corrupting the arts, help them develop. Cowen calls himself a cultural optimist and says we are living in a fabulously creative and fertile epoch. Indeed, he thinks some of the misunderstandings about capitalism's negative impact come from cultural pessimists who see value mainly in the elite styles of the past and not in the plenty of today. He loves all varieties of sights and sounds, praising the marketplace for providing access to the music of the Pygmies of Central Africa as well as the compositions of Pierre Boulez. Well-developed markets, he argues, support diversity, encourage experimentation, allow for high and low culture to interact. In fact, he suggests, the differences between popular entertainments and high artistic achievement are mainly matters of economics. High- cost artistic forms like film must find the largest audience. And low-cost forms like poetry can afford to seek more gourmet tastes. …

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