Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ozymandias at the Art Gallery

Peaceful lookin’, ain’t it?
Henri Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1914
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

— T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land

Economist-überblogger Tyler Cowen slips a bizarre digression into his recent critique of The Book Which Everybody Intends to Read Once They Stop Reading All the Reviews Everybody Else Is Writing About It,1 a.k.a. Thomas Piketty’s Capital:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.
Now, I am no economist, and I have not yet read the book either, but my impression so far is that Piketty, if he is criticizing anything, is criticizing the economic stasis and sluggishness he posits attaches to rentier society, as well as deleterious socioeconomic effects he claims significant economic inequality has on politics and society. For what it is worth, economics certainly seems to be the focus of the rest of Professor Cowen’s essay as well, or I am no reader of English prose.

But in medias res Cowen takes a detour to praise the cultural dynamism and productivity of 19th Century France, which he claims results from the substantial socioeconomic inequality of the period. This is a pivot too far.

* * *

It is a pivot too far for several reasons. First, it completely begs the question posed by Henry Farrell:

If you want to argue that Piketty (and other critics of inequality) fail to appreciate how inequality fosters the “dynamic productivity” of culture, you really need to show how culture is more dynamic under high inequality than it is under conditions of low inequality. Otherwise, your argument is beside the point (if all that you’re saying is that high inequality has some cultural payoffs while admitting that low inequality has greater payoffs, your criticism is probably not worth articulating in the first place).

Second, it completely begs the question of comparative cultural dynamism. How “dynamic” was European (French, whatever) culture in the bad old days of inequality in the 18th Century or indeed the modernist period of cultural upheaval, capital destruction, and wholesale collapse of entrenched socioeconomic inequality during the 20th? Was the 19th Century anything special, or was it in fact just another arbitrary division of the calendar superimposed over a self-referential process of cultural development which had endogenous and exogenous sources of extraordinary complexity and diversity? Do we really want to stack transitionalists like Corot, Courbet, and Monet up against innovators like Braque, Picasso, Matisse, the Abstract Expressionists, or even Andy Warhol and start discussing dynamism? Perhaps Professor Cowen better toddle on down to the GMU Art History Department for a short tutorial on Modern Western Art History before he embarrasses himself further.2

Third, I think a careful survey of fine arts and literature for, oh, say the last thirty gazillion centuries would establish that most artists (or culture workers, as Herr Doktor Cowen might like to deem them), have always lived at the edge of personal insolvency and economic irrelevance for most of their productive lives. Artists who have been rich and economically independent during their lifetimes have generally been as rare as hens’ teeth, and often as aesthetically pleasing. (Peter Paul Rubens, banker manqué and factory artist, Jeff Koons, bond trader manqué and factory artist, and Damien Hirst, artist manqué and factory artist, come easily to mind.) In other words, most artists and writers have been scraping by on whatever they can beg, borrow, or steal for millennia. If family bequests or wealthy relations were not at hand, they relied on rich patrons or, failing everything else, garden variety employment. (T.S. Eliot was a schoolteacher, book reviewer, and publishing executive, for example.) The point is, art of almost any stripe is not a profession at which the average schmo (or even average globe-straddling genius) can earn a decent living: somebody needs to support you. For most of recorded history, it has been rich patrons, like the Egyptian pharaohs, the Borgias, or Stevie Cohen. The fact that for some intermittent periods some artists’ patrons happened to share the same DNA is largely irrelevant.

* * *

Lastly, and most importantly, one needs to acknowledge that cultural achievement, dynamism, or meaningfulness—however you want to label or measure it—takes place in a space largely orthogonal to the socioeconomic arrangements, income and wealth distribution, and justice inherent in any particular society. Great art, literature, music, and intellectual argument has often been produced in what most of us nowadays, from the comfortable vantage point of our liberal capitalist democracies, would consider absolute shitholes of society. Ancient Egypt (slavery), Athenian democracy (slavery), Renaissance Italy (everything but slavery, as far as I know), and 20th Century Western civilization (which killed more people through violence and starvation than ever before in history) are shining examples of cultures which produced rich, enduring, dynamic, and productive cultural, artistic, and intellectual legacies. The artists and thinkers who created those legacies often did so with the support and cash of patrons whom progressive thinkers nowadays would like to throw into prisons and lose the keys, if not execute outright.

This makes complete sense, by the way, if you think about it for even a moment. Art and intellectual argument is almost universally a complete luxury, from a societal point of view. People and societies do not want to spend scarce and valuable resources penning poems, composing concertos, painting frescoes, or developing reasoned arguments when they are struggling to avoid starvation, disease, or the cutting edge of their enemy’s sword. Most people don’t even want to think about consuming such cultural delicacies until they have achieved some sort of socioeconomic security and comfort. No wonder artists and intellectuals have starved through the ages: most people don’t give a shit about what they are trying to produce. The ones who do are the people with the resources, leisure time, and egos to satisfy by employing scribblers and daubers to enliven their idle hours. In other words, the very rich.

Now whether our society (or any society) can reach a point of growth and surplus such that more than a tiny minority of driven, obsessive, narcissistic personalities can and want to make a living contributing to the cultural patrimony of their civilization is a question well beyond this writer’s pay grade. But I think it is absolutely irrefutable that great cultural achievement can go hand in hand with staggering social inequality and injustice. From a historical point of view, that is the normal state of affairs.

There is an argument to be made—which I would not make, by the way—that great cultural achievement requires great social inequality to thrive and survive. I think we have had enough recent evidence that this is not true to refute it. But I also think the apologists for increased economic inequality, like Professor Cowen, have a very steep hill to climb in arguing that such cultural achievement justifies the social and economic misery and stagnation which are the primary outcomes of massive economic inequality.

And that, I am reliably led to believe, is the ill Thomas Piketty seeks to cure.

Related reading:
Tyler Cowen, Capital Punishment: Why a Global Tax on Wealth Won’t End Inequality (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2014)
Henry Farrell, Inequality and the arts (Crooked Timber, April 30, 2014)
A Painting Is Not a Refrigerator (October 6, 2012)
Luxe, Calme et Volupté (April 16, 2011)

1 Yes, I am one of them.
2 I mean, I know the guy’s supposed to be a brilliant polymath and all, but Jesus, what ill-informed idiocy. Related: how does an economist define (relative) cultural dynamism, anyway? I’m waiting…

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