Cultural Goods and Cultural Welfare Some Praxeological and Proprietarian Notes
The core intellectual conundrum that fuels the present essay is the following: is culture a product made in “free markets” or a “public good” to be provided by the state – allegedly the only societal institution able to grant individuals the collective means for bundling cultural values, for breeding cultural capital, and for maintaining sustainable cultural behaviour? The answers diverge culturally: from laissez-faire French harmonists to Marxist or Maoist communists, from cosmopolitan libertarians to nationalist autarkists, from old-school conservatives to politically-correct progressives, from Maecenas-entrepreneurs to sacrosanct bureaucrats, from freelance, self-contained artists to publicly-subsidized, politically-connected spoiled artificers.
The economists acknowledge the dual view of culture: anthropological (viz., “shared attitudes, beliefs, customs, traditions, values, and practices”) and artefactual (viz., “cultural goods / organizations / industries / sectors”). They see that both economy and economics display the profound imprints of culture: the material substance upon which spiritual symbols are imprinted is scarce, while scientific truth is often discounted through value judgments. Still, a hardly deniable feature of economic analysis, to be processed / professed, is that societal workings are always “property rights-sensitive”, irrespective of the cultural background of the observers, as well as of the observed. By virtue of being mine, yours, ours or theirs, culture is property.
“Spirit” always matters. But so does “mater”
This essay explores a possible answer to a scarce question: is culture – say, that of a nation – more appropriate to be understood in the matrix of the free market, of (economic and political) freedom of expression, or, on the contrary, it is some sort of a public good, to be provided, facilitated and filtered by the State? The State proclaims itself to be the supreme social institution, capable of offering individuals – its citizens – a collective, community-based framework, for the “review” of cultural values, for the “rationalization” of cultural capital and for sustainable cultural “regeneration”. Is this “the question of all questions” regarding “the world and the life” of a culture? We shall just sketch an answer.
As social scientists, the political economists and philosophers noted the double dimension of the cultural space: anthropological (“attitudes, beliefs, habits, values and shared practices”) and artefactual (“cultural goods”, “cultural services”, “cultural institutions”, “cultural industries”). In the much-praised cultural space, cultural production and consumption, cultural supply and demand mutualise needs and metabolize resources, but culture also means a vision of social order, which includes empathy, ethics and aesthetics. Therefore, while seen as spiritual in its essence, culture is profoundly material throughout its existence.
Economy (through the reality of scarcity) offers incentives and constraints to culture, and economics (which is the science of scarcity) produces useful explanations and applications for the management of the socio-cultural universe. Thinking economically, culture is irremediably burdened by the scarcity of (material) substance with which (spiritual) symbols are mixed. In their turn, economic ideas are highly tributary to the specific ways in which economic reality is represented culturally because the flesh-and-blood researchers often project various (ideological, political) biases onto the “pure” scientific truths, sometimes in the name of their “acceptance by the public”.
The cultural and the economic speak to each other.
Regardless of its high, elitist, “Humboldtian” vibration, or its common, popular, “Herderian” one, culture seeks to survive, acclaim its value, claim its resources and reclaim its sustainability – these core economic concepts are not foreign to culture. It has no mystical conscience, but lives in its individual members, ultimately depending on the strength of their “reason” in disciplining their “feeling”. Culture cannot escape the elementary dialectic “value - capital - sustainability”, a mark of timeless economic, human civilisation. And civilisation depends critically on the architecture of ownership. This makes the difference between cultural eternal verities and the transient – thus, between the rise and ruin of nations.
A condensed “state of the (economics of) art”
Economics and cultural theory slowly converged over time, although their companionship was ill at ease due to allegations that their vicinity was either too “bohemian” or too “bourgeois”. If we are equating culture to arts only, there is a coincidence in the birth dates of both economics and art history. Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) and Johann Winckelman’s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764) preceded a rather discreet courtship between the fields, with episodes of felicitous marriages in the works of J. Bodin, B. Mandeville, D. Hume, A. Smith, A.R.J. Turgot, F. Galiani, J. Bentham, D. Ricardo, J.S. Mill, W.S. Jevons, A. Marshall, L. Robbins, J.M. Keynes and only a few others.
The modern re-rooting of the economics of culture is considered to stem from the works of J.K. Galbraith (The Liberal Hour, 1960) and of W. Baumol and W. Bowen (Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, 1966), while the contemporary manifesto of this fusion is credited to D. Throsby’s Economics and Culture (2001). The present approach takes a different route than the mainstream “economics of culture”. We argue – in a praxeological, aprioristic, deductive manner, following the fundamental logic of action, as developed by the Misesian Austrian School of economics and political philosophy – that, as a (collectively) shared expression of individual freedom, cultural actions rely on private property rights and markets.
Before introducing the proposed vision, let us make a small detour. In spite of the temptation to consider culture (an enriching activity for human beings) as sufficient in itself to “enrich” economic theory, the economist should beware being lost in translation while over-nuancing concepts. In summary, some arguments follow that adding the “cultural” epithet is not very helpful.
- There is an illusion in emphasizing and decomposing “cultural value” out of/different from “economic value”, while, ironically, giving it monetary expression. Value is ordinal (prices are cardinal). Cultural value is neither “part” of nor “greater” than economic value (i.e., I sell cheaply a heritage asset of which I am fond to a new owner who has the means to preserve it).
- Instead of striving to manufacture a particularized (accounting) logic for “cultural capital”, it is much more relevant to see that capital, in both material and monetary expressions, requires keen evaluation of depreciation, exhaustion, maintenance or replenishment, which is best done in markets, by self-interested owners-entrepreneurs, not by “selfless” public clerks.
- Consequently, the problem of “cultural sustainability” (which is properly paired with ecological concern), is specific to the human species as the only one conscious of and capable of building an institutional infrastructure for its perpetuation. It is best served not through central planning, but through the consolidation of the best institution equipped for cross-generational prosperity: private property.
The “theory of (cultural) value” for laymen…
The assertion that free market (or capitalism) represents the friendliest social arrangement when it comes to culture and art is not a very fashionable one, although economic science continuously offered theoretical reasons and practical proofs supporting the “almost total” superiority of voluntary order in production and exchange. The cultural landscape is often seen as a gap: the residual economic Marxism sees it through the lens of conflict between classes, race, or gender, as a product of power and oppression, while the almighty economic neoclassicism denounces market failures, invoking the reparatory grace of the providential government.
Only for focalisation reasons, in this essay, the creation of beauty will be distilled from the general corpus of culture, where it is otherwise considered in solidarity with the discovery of truth (it is not the time nor the place to speak of the topographies of the “cultural” space, that of affection and affinity, often seen as severely separated or in sharp contrast with the “civilizational” one, of science and technology). And for reasons of eloquence, we will resort, beyond principled pleadings, to discrete evidence on cultural individualities and institutions, instead of statistical syntheses: in culture, “exemplary lives” say more than “aggregated data” (yet the latter is not superfluous).
“The free market capitalism” makes artistic success stem from the ability of people gifted to inspire, amuse, or educate those who come in contact with their work and/or in its possession. Art cannot be created by the use of armed force, or political privileges, simply because human thoughts and emotions can be neither enforced on others, nor expropriated from them. Their expression can only be inhibited and delayed, only by suppressing their means of expression. Art is at home in markets for, through its liberal nature, it cannot mobilise support other than by convincing either “selfish” or “rapacious” art owners or traders of masterpieces of their worth.
The market economy encourages cultural, artistic production in obvious ways. A general increase of wealth facilitates the expansion of art consumption, which translates into the possibility of artists to follow their vocation and, at the same time, be remunerated for this. More than ever, in contemporary times, artistic creation has become professionalized. As well, mankind started to become more and more freed from the burden of physical labour through technological breakthroughs, human intelligence and talent becoming available for the pursuit of a wide range of spiritual adventures. A wealthy and generous society also becomes a more beautiful one.
…Beauty is in the eye of the (paying) beholder
As it can be seen, I did not make any appreciation about the meaning of beauty: we leave to the aesthete what is his, and we give to the economist what is his. The market does not select beauties, it has no algorithm for this. But it allows for its discovery. And once it is discovered, it allows for its multiplication. And everything happens in a constellation of needs where beauty is just one of them, felt with different (utility) intensities among people, all of them impoverished by the scarcity of means of its expression, negotiated in a rival framework where resources follow the law of price, not that of force. A world where “beauty” is imposed by force ends up as an ugly world. Surely, here someone can object that the art market also has “dialectical contradictions”: first, art is supposed to be born in a cathartic manner, while its monetization is devaluing it; second, since the economic criteria are not only counter-aesthetic, but also amoral and self-destructive, it is equally predisposed towards rewarding the grotesque, hideous, infectious. We advance only two ideas on these considerations: human life is a sum of shortcomings and achievements, art is not suffering, but it can also – joyfully – celebrate progress (for instance, through markets, in markets); art fights with its deviant demons, and, educated, “the invisible hand” of the community could “disarm” the messengers of community division – the premise being the granting of the freedom “to change (ourselves)”.
Wealth fertilizes “artistic spirits” (or at least does not poison them all the time), either because it enables them indirectly, or rewards them straightforwardly. For instance, Proust did not write pop bestsellers, and maybe he would not have had the luxury du temps perdu writing masterpieces for a niche that was not able to ensure his comfort, if the family had not entrusted him with resources, believing in his genius; Cezanne lived from family allowances and inheritances; Eliot wrote poetry supporting himself from his job as a bank clerk; Gauguin was originally a broker. Other artists have fiercely dedicated themselves to making money from art: Mozart confessed to his father in a letter that his only purpose was “to make as much money as possible… the best thing in life after health”; the Strauss family (both father and son) were also wringing every penny for every composition and concert; Chaplin recognised that he sought money from the very beginning, and art followed suit. The creation that today we label “classical” was made “with the eyes on the market”: Shakespeare was rejected by critics as a mercantile vulgarian; the modern novel (created by Dickens and Dostoevsky) appeared as a fine-tuning based on readers’ reaction to feuilleton publishing. Paul Johnson (Art: A New History) and Tyler Cowen (In Praise of Commercial Culture) provide inspired accounts on the economic life of arts. So, selling as an artist does not mean selling yourself out as a human.
Capitalism and the cultural wealth of nations
Financial emancipation. While authors from previous centuries were able to support themselves only by writing pieces with truly remarkable sales, now they can earn good money through a diversity of genres and styles, across various media. Today’s artists are not dependent on only one patron or client, a case in which their artistic vision was tailored to fit the caprices of such a “monopsony”. Only a handful of artists could afford to play tough in front of their beneficiaries (like Michelangelo in front of Pope Julius II on the subject of the artistic vision for the Sistine Chapel).
Technical breakthrough. The extended availability of qualitative artistic material involved entrepreneurial innovations courtesy of the market. The Renaissance of Italian cities was possible due to traders that made production factors easy to obtain: colour pigments, marble blocks, bronze alloys; the literary revolution in the 18th century England was helped by the Industrial Revolution that decreased the cost of paper and increased the income of readers; modern and contemporary music grew alongside the physical solutions for recording and transmitting it. Nowadays “classic” novels or symphonies have a daily audience greater than in the entire life of their creators.
Democratized creations. Despite lamentations that minorities or disadvantaged groups (African-Americans, Jews, women etc.) risk to be underrepresented in free artistic markets, history tells us the opposite. African-American blues music, discriminated against by mainstream radios, spread through jukeboxes, a decentralised medium for the propagation of music, beyond its Louisiana birthplace. Jewish immigrants – proverbially endowed with financial capital and commercial spirit – built Hollywood’s film empires, smoothly immersing in the pop American culture. Women-writers conquered wide audiences. Big corporations’ “for-profit-multiculturalism” pays more than the “politically correct” one.
One more brief remark. The ritually lamented separation between “high” culture (creations that receive the highest praise from critics) and “low” culture (the most popular creations) reflects rather the diversity and sophistication of today’s culture, and not its corruption. Today’s artists are entrepreneurial – like it or not. They target large or small audiences and take more or less risks. Without falling into the trap of “artistic ecumenism” – “variety is good, period” –, it is essential to understand the fact that capitalist order is valuable as a premise. State intervention can hinder culture. “Gresham’s law”: politically overrated kitsch drives the aesthetic good out of market.
The not so curious case of Brâncuși’s Wisdom
Brâncuși became popular in his country of origin after the European avantgarde adopted him as its apostle, remaining a symbol of Romanian culture, regardless of whether his symbols were really understood. At odds with the scientific and artistic “socialist realism”, with his urban works from Târgu-Jiu escaping by a hair’s breadth from being toppled for good by the communists’ bulldozers, he was posthumously (and post-Stalin’s death) rehabilitated by a regime severing from Russifying universalism for a renewed Romanian nationalism.
After 1989, instead of the old “movement of values” from glorious showrooms to gloomy storerooms and back, following the whims of the Communist Party’s “cultural police”, a new risk appeared: that “Brâncuși” might leave his country again, suctioned and auctioned by the wealthy and rapacious global markets. Even if the law forbids the selling outside the nation of a work from to the Cultural Treasure of Romania, the possibility that the Wisdom of Earth was to be restored to the rightful owners spurred a vivid emotion and a feeling of emptiness.
“Does the presence of a Brâncuși work in a private collection simply extract this piece from the cultural memory”? It does not follow that Wisdom’s owners will not share the experience of viewing it, in a public museum, for a fair fee. The state spending millions of euros, when there are plenty of other “urgent” social needs (health, education, infrastructure?), is not a wise option – a fact somehow validated by the failed public subscription. “Brâncuși” does not “belong” to the state, or to every Romanian equally; it is a fundamentally “private experience”.
Brâncuși’s universe was never static and stiff. He evaded his cradle for other horizons still without ever losing his home-pointing compass. He breathed in Rodin’s air only to exhale it firmly the moment he felt it “choking” him “artistically”. He had no problem in trading his works, for the commercial act completes the cultural one in a form of free recognition of value. Clear property rights (whether private or explicitly public) are benign for cultural replenishing; and any usurpation (either for private or public motives) distorts the true cultural world and life.
Coming back to the initial general argument
The thesis of this essay goes beyond utilitarian arguments saying that “markets are much more efficient mechanisms”. Culture somehow resembles light: it is a wave, a vibration of spirit, and a particle, a part of the material. Culture makes the spiritual vibrate in physical forms, be they our bodies, with our mind, heart and limbs, or the things we take from the nature and we transform in order to help us give shape to our messages. Culture means the visual drawn in the painted and sculpted stances, towers or monument, the piano and the violin exhausted for their melodies and rhythms, the dance conducted in assorted outfits, the line pronounced in the comedy that hides our dramas, the letter made by ink on the paper of our book and the pixels on the screen of our e-reader, film roll, painted pot. Culture is liberty; and as such it is also property, privately possessed and voluntarily entrusted property.
If every type of economic good and service is better provided in the environment of the freedom of production, trade and consumption (praxeologically speaking, this is the only way in which the utility of everyone in the value chain can be maximised), it seems that when it comes to the cultural ones this reasoning becomes literally non-negotiable. The State’s (cultural) protectionism eventually makes us acquire goods and services that are slightly more expensive and less qualitative than we may get in a context of free trading; the State’s (cultural) providentialism redistributes the cultural purchasing power in society. If it does so for “common”, “ordinary goods”, it does not seem to hinder us as much as when it does so in order to compress, repress or suppress the expression of spiritual values: they do not have a “substitute”, they are either exactly those we freely accept and share, or nothing at all.
No cultural policy or police can take away from us our beliefs and whims. The spiritual domain cannot be conquered; corruption or torture only target their exteriorization, preventing or slowing down their communication or regeneration. Only the “siege” of the material means of expressing assumed, stored values affects the transmission of culture between generations: if grandparents and parents cannot be easily remodelled, the fact that they would not be able to completely and correctly transmit their thoughts, being forced to self-censor by the instinct of preservation (translated in limited or lack of availability of cultural factors of production), will be enough for a cultural distortion. The not so remote communist “cultural revolutions” tragically illustrate this modus operandi and its lasting scars. As in culture-building, in culture-breaking, you do not need to control minds, it suffices to control critical means.
Property rights are critical for the transmission of culture and its goods: the usurpation of their possession, usage, disposition and usufruct destroys the heritage of representations and relations behind the tangible one. Socialism monopolised the material means of culture (by testing the typewriters that remained private not to type dangerous words), and the human production factor, although unable to be collectivised, was subject to socialising therapy through both propaganda and jail. Definitely, capitalism has its cultural sins, surpassed by its strongest asset: being built as an order of private property, it proposes the most coherent competitive-cooperative infrastructure for the creation and transmission of culture. The democratic rule of law only has the major mission of protecting it, above any other “corrections”; the minimal state is nowhere else as much praised as in cultural realms.
Research route: economic freedom of culture
Free market economics is a strong intellectual candidate to became the best friend of culture since this is about “freedom of expression” (for cherished values), about “heritage” (equivalent to capital, as means of re-production for cultural satisfaction), and about “tradition” (equivalent to sustainability targets). A property analysis will clarify this view. A research project in this spirit needs to relate cultural development to the societal (economic, political) system which governs a community and to observe the phenomena that emerge at the boundaries between the cultural “kinships”. It may address both the internal / domestic economic metabolism of one culture and the external / international / intercultural relations. Both conceptual and casuistic objectives can be set in such an endeavour, which currently is not explicitly present in the literature of the economics of culture.
Conceptual objectives. This may materialize in refining a tool for assessing the proprietary profile of a culture:
- a) the degree to which laws protect the jus naturalis sense of ownership;
- b) the proportion of the private / public property within the total means of cultural production;
- c) the ratios of private / public cultural expenditures within GDP;
- d) the protection of the intellectual property rights.
“The market for goods and services”, although it cannot be conflated with the “market for scientific or artistic ideas”, is the best infrastructure for the production and distribution of cultural expressions. Even if sometimes indiscernible, even blindfolded with respect to sound values (often validating in monetary terms hypocrisy and imposture), the free market remains the true avatar of free will.
Casuistic objectives. This category refers to illustrative case studies for observing the cultural ownership patterns. The cases may cover cultural communities of varying scale and scope (from local to regional, national, and transnational / from religious to ethnic, and politico-ideological), scrutinizing their internal sustainability and external resilience in relation to their reliance on private property and free markets. Possible paths: the problem of “cultural revolutions” and the control over the critical means of expression; the problem of “multiculturalism”, with the adverse incentives that redistribution establishes; the problem of “high vs. low culture” and the questioning of moral and material “authority”; the problem of “globalization assault” and the role of (“social”) media etc.
The present essay drew attention to some apparent cultural paradoxes: private property rights are the proper institution in the public space of culture; independent cultural entrepreneurship is better equipped than centrally planned cultural policies; individualism is key to the flourishing of communities. Culture is about “freedom of expression” (for cherished values), “heritage” (capital, as means of re-production for cultural satisfaction), and “tradition” (sustainability). It is, praxeologically and proprietarily, “at home” in free markets.
As a space of dialogue, culture is a social interplay of perception and reasoning, therefore this research route is about investigating how real people understand the workings of markets in the cultural field, whether they are ready to (re)define the critical terms (the culture as “is” and “ought” problem) and to whom they entrust the task of cultural discernment (spontaneous market order elites or democratically elected, but fundamentally politically designated, tutors). It seems a common-sense truth, still not always simple to accept. Quod esset demonstrandum.
Nota bene: The argument of the present essay summarizes ideas presented in Jora, O.D., Spiritualitate, materialitate și proprietate. Cultura mea, cultura ta, cultura noastră, cultura lor [Spirituality, Materiality and Property. My Culture, Your Culture, Our Culture, Their Culture], Editura ASE, 2016.
The cultural landscape is often seen as a gap: the residual economic Marxism sees it through the lens of conflict between classes, race, or gender, as a product of power and oppression, while the almighty economic neoclassicism denounces market failures, invoking the reparatory grace of the providential government.
We leave to the aesthete what is his, and we give to the economist what is his. The market does not select beauties, but it allows for its discovery. And once it is discovered, it allows for its multiplication.
Today’s artists are entrepreneurial – like it or not.
“Gresham’s law” in art: politically overrated kitsch drives the aesthetic good out of market.
Brâncuși breathed in Rodin’s air only to exhale it firmly the moment he felt it “choking” him “artistically”. He had no problem in trading his works, for the commercial act completes the cultural one in a form of free recognition of value. Clear property rights (whether private or explicitly public) are benign for cultural replenishing; and any usurpation (either for private or public motives) distorts the true cultural world and life.
Capitalism has its cultural sins, surpassed by its strongest asset: being built as an order of private property, it proposes the most coherent competitive-cooperative infrastructure for the creation and transmission of culture.
Culture is about “freedom of expression” (for cherished values), “heritage” (capital, as means of re-production for cultural satisfaction), and “tradition” (sustainability).
Even if sometimes indiscernible, even blindfolded with respect to sound values (often validating in money terms hypocrisy and imposture), the free market remains the true avatar of free will.
“1. It is not possible to separate the superior creative culture from the culture of the people.
- Culture cannot be imposed top-down; being a personal matter, it must therefore exist in an atmosphere of freedom, spontaneity and national specificity.
- Culture should be built on national specificity, that must be examined by sociological monographic method.
- State institutions which assume the responsibility for organizing the national culture will have to hold as much autonomy as possible.
- Such institutions cannot aim at creating culture, but only at creating favourable conditions for its development, discovering, stimulating and organizing the collaboration of all the cultural elements of the country […]!”
Dimitrie Gusti, Politica culturii și Statul cultural, June 10 1928, Institutul Social Român
“Dictators can torture the body: they can deprive it from the light of day and throw it in the darkness of a cell; they can impose suffering through sadistic practices and exhaust it through the reduction of food; they can humiliate it by using it as an object and can shake it through cutting family or friendship links. But they will always stop helpless in front of the meditative link of nerves, which they cannot control and distort. There, in the cerebral cortex, a human is still free, and can plan the future, and can hope for freedom. And if dictators crucify, to be sure about extirpation, then the spirit transcends, through invisible vibrations, from the crucified one to the one in chains and the miracle of resurrection can be possible, the resurrection of liberty, without which humanity will vanish.”
Grigore T. Popa, Tensiunea nervoasă și boala secolului, March 14 1947, Academia Română
“[W]ealth alone would not have produced the phenomenon we call the Renaissance. Money can command art, but it commands in vain if there are no craftsmen to produce it. Happily, there is evidence everywhere that Europe, in the later Middle Ages, was entering a period of what modern economists call intermediate technology. Especially in the Low Countries, Germany and Italy, thousands of workshops of all kinds emerged, specializing in stone, leather, metal, wood, plaster, chemicals and fabrics, producing a growing variety of luxury goods and machinery. It was chiefly the families of those who worked in these shops that produced the painters and carvers, the sculptors and architects, the writers and decorators, the teachers and scholars responsible for the huge expansion of culture that marked the beginnings of the early modern age.”
Paul Johnson, The Renaissance. A Short History, New York: Modern Library, 2000
“«To have great poets, there must be great audiences too», Walt Whitman once observed, and great audiences are precisely what large markets provide. … in the new global marketplace, because they’ve been able to find so many new patrons. Although the mass audience may be «dumbed down», over time consumers in the new niche markets sharpen their tastes and perceptions. Why does New York City have a lively, varied theater scene while the sedate small town upstate does not? For two reasons: because New York can provide an audience large and affluent enough to sustain the playhouses, and because, through long exposure, those audiences have developed sufficient discernment and taste to patronize quirky off-off Broadway productions as well as blockbuster musicals and revivals. In similar fashion, consumers in the global marketplace come to support all manner of once-obscure art forms.”
Tyler Cowen, The Fate of Culture, Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2002