Tyler Cowen talks to Emily Moore

Tyler Cowen doesn’t make art – in fact, he claims to “feel liberated by a total absence of creativity” – but he writes a great deal about the circumstances in which others do. The Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University in Washington, DC, Cowen is the author of books including The Great Stagnation: How America Ate the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better and An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, and, alongside fellow economist Alexander Tabarrok, co-founded the blog marginalrevolution.com. His deadpan analysis of the art market’s increasing excess and vulgarity is always illuminating. Emily Moore runs an artist-management agency, Southern Bird, whose efficacy Cowen has yet to assess. Here they talk about success, failure and why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Emily Moore In your essay “An Economic Theory of Avant-Garde and Popular Art, or High and Low Culture”, you point out that the nature of the work is as shaped by its position in the market as its market position is determined by its nature. How does that understanding affect the way you approach art? How do you think it is useful to artists?
Tyler Cowen The economics of art is one good way to better find the art you will enjoy. For instance, I find I often like very popular art and very niche art, yet with some degree of allergy to what falls in between. What goes under the name “indie music” I usually find pretentious or just flat-out mediocre. I’d rather listen to Michael Jackson, or even Taylor Swift for that matter. That said, I’m even more game for some of the more obscure corners of Indian classical music or polyphonic Pygmy chants. I tend to be suspicious of “that which is aimed at being different”, perhaps because it too often caters to a feeling of superiority or trendiness and sidesteps its loyalty to a true artistic vision. Very popular art is often a more pure art in the aesthetic sense, even if some sides of it repulse us. I thought Titanic was a splendid movie, with all of its imperfections, but I like Béla Tarr too. I don’t know whether this same analysis is useful to artists who wish to stick with their personal visions, but it is telling them they will always face a trade-off, and they will always be somewhat unhappy with what the market rewards them for. Maybe they should simply get used to that idea and get on with things.

EM You go into detail about the relative mass-market earning power of various art forms, with film roughly at the top of the list and painting at the bottom. It must be discomfiting for an artist to see choices he probably believes are pure and perhaps even unconscious dissected in terms of economic incentive. Does your approach leave space for any kind of romance?
TC One point of my piece is that the romance of art comes at a price. You can indeed try to make movies and sell them to only a small number of rich people, rather than to a mass market. That’s called video art and Matthew Barney has done quite well with it. But you will face some rather daunting constraints along the way and most likely you will fail. You will not fail in the way that wannabe directors who move to Hollywood fail but, rather, your likely failure will be dictated, from start to finish, by the economic nature of the sector you are trying to conquer. Some would argue that by laying out the price of artistic romance we are increasing its allure and, ultimately, making it all the more romantic. That’s not my personal view, because I see the reductionism as somewhat disconcerting or alienating. But if you are intent on trying to save that romance, you might try this strand of argumentation.

EM Walter Benjamin haunts sections of the essay; to what extent did he influence you?
TC I’ve never been much influenced by the Frankfurt School or by Benjamin, except as thinkers to react against. And parts of this essay are a reaction against Benjamin: I am asking whether we really need the notion of “aura” to get very far in understanding reproducible art. I am not so sure that we do, and in this sense I am questioning whether Benjamin is getting at the most fundamental categories.

EM Your essay contains one of the most interesting footnotes I’ve ever read: “The interactions between the quantity and subjective quality of art are similar to the interactions analysed by Becker and Lewis (1973) between the quantity and quality 
of children.”
TC Becker’s work considered how families might regard “more investment in each child” as a replacement for “having lots of children”, and that is indeed a common substitution as economic development proceeds. Analytically, we can think of artworks as similar to children in this regard. Quality, in the sense of an artist pleasing himself or herself, can substitute for quantity. Syd Barrett perhaps knew he had nowhere left to go, aesthetically. Proust and Cervantes didn’t need to write so many other works, perhaps because they felt satisfied with how thoroughly they expressed their visions through what they did. Balzac took a different course and achieved a different kind of creative satisfaction, yet precisely for that reason he may resonate less with people today than the more idiosyncratic visions of Proust or Cervantes.

EM Another footnote I found very poignant reads: “The limited evidence collected indicates that the income of artists is low relative to their human capital.” If we acknowledge this to be true, where does it leave us in discussions about value of any kind?
TC I view that point as emphasising the precariousness of it all. It also reflects the dedication of artists and the lack of marketplace buffers for what many of them are trying to do. Economics is often pretty good at offering diagnoses of failure, and it gives you some vivid language toward that end.

EM You don’t really address two things that I encounter daily in working with artists: first, their powerful antipathy towards their day job, which you present simply as an art-enabling economic factor, and second, their genuine struggle to achieve personal satisfaction in their art. Could the inclusion of those variables allow you to map out a point at which it’s arguably time for the artist to pack it in, move back to Omaha and get a real job?
TC If the day job is damaging to the art, that is just another one of those trade-offs and another possible diagnosis of failure. And plenty of artists simply get stuck, perhaps forever. There is such a thing as an aesthetic dead end and it is remarkable how few artists avoid it. Stanley Kubrick kept all of his movies quite interesting, but that is the exception rather than the rule. For contrast, consider Francis Ford Coppola, among many others. Is Terrence Malick going anywhere with his current methods? I tend to doubt it.

EM It's wonderful that the essay recognises the economic factors behind the creative explosion of rap and hip hop – it’s not all Mozart and Shakespeare. Marginal Revolution goes further: it takes the same thoughtful approach to interest rates, health care, the Norwegian diaper market and what you call “The Great Canadian Sperm Shortage”. How did it begin?
TC Over 10 years ago Alex Tabarrok, my co-blogger, walked into my office and told me we should write a textbook together.
I said: “Let’s start a blog instead. We’ll do a text much later” – which we did. A blog, of course, gives much more freedom and is a delicious environment for creating a kind of controlled intellectual chaos. New yet enduring literary media are not that common, so if you have the chance to work in one you ought to seize it and not let it go. I think of Boswell’s diary, or perhaps Swift and Borges, as good inspirations for blogging.

EM This magazine’s founder once said to me over breakfast at a Beijing hotel: “The modern international hotel breakfast buffet is like the deck of the Starship Enterprise. From it all universes look identical.” You’re as voracious a traveller and eater as we are – what do you think?
TC In so many cultures breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It should not be wasted on hotel food unless you are in Germany or Switzerland or perhaps the Nordic countries, where a good hotel breakfast duly reflects the quality of the local traditions. In Asia or Latin America, get out and eat breakfast on the street. In the United States or Canada you are mostly stuck, but perhaps that reflects something of the local tradition, too. §

  • Tyler Cowen Talks to Emily Moore