Tyler Cowen talks to Emily Moore

by on October 25, 2013 at 12:37 pm in Economics, The Arts | Permalink

Here I am interviewed in Tank magazine about my article “An Economic Theory of Avant-Garde and Popular Art, or High and Low Culture,” co-authored with Alex.  Excerpt:

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.

The original article you will find here.

1 FredR October 25, 2013 at 1:17 pm

“Is Terrence Malick going anywhere with his current methods? I tend to doubt it.”

Come on. Malick’s beautiful.

2 Anon. October 25, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Personally, I draw the line at Christian dinosaurs. That’s a bit too much.

Also, I feel that making a movie in the editing room is the wrong way to go about things.

3 FredR October 25, 2013 at 5:13 pm

The only thing I didn’t like about tree of life was that heaven looked super boring.

4 Steve Sailer October 25, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Waco looked awesome.

5 vetr October 25, 2013 at 10:48 pm

the movie was silly but watchable (not silly, of course, to those poor souls who consider wondering-about- Heideggerian-style to be a useful expenditure of one’s limited wondering-about-style-time), and especially watchable were the Waco scenes (with the exception of the sibling and parental cruelty moments, which I guess were the director’s delayed payback for insults and mistreatment from the 50s and early 60s) which were (the Waco scenes), to this average American, what the whole dreamtime thing must have been to the average Australian 400 years ago…

6 Dangerman October 25, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Full credit would also have been given to “Anthony Trollope” as the example of a prolific writer.

7 Roy October 25, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Trollope wrote so many novels because of his desire for income. Proust had no need for that income, and Cervantes was not writing in a modern marketplace. Also he wrote quite a bit more than most people think.

I can’t think of many modern writers, we can all admit Sallinger is a freak, who write only a couple books.

Unless of course you think intricate fantasy/science fiction series are like Rememberance of Things Past or A Dance to the Music of Time. Actually maybe they are, how is Cao Xueqin spent his whole life producing Hongloumeng, how is that any different from Fannie Flagg?

8 Steve Sailer October 25, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Proust published novels totaling 3200 pages in his 51 years of life. That’s the equivalent of 16 novels of 200 pages. That’s a reasonable quantity.

John Updike would be an example of a writer who may have published too much even for his astonishing talents. He hit a tremendous peak in his late 40s with The Coup and Rabbit Is Rich. (Often out of print today, The Coup tops even Evelyn Waugh’s two African novels.)

After that, Updike kept publishing at a tremendous clip but the results were less impressive as age took its inevitable toll.

Woody Allen’s career is similar, with an early 40s peak with Annie Hall and Manhattan, followed by an insistence to churn out a movie per year, despite an inevitable decline.

9 FredR October 25, 2013 at 1:38 pm

With the regard to the quote, isn’t most of the variance in artistic quality (or along the highbrow/lowbrow scale) between artists, not within them (even potentially)?

10 dirk October 25, 2013 at 2:58 pm

That’s my thinking. Whether low or highbrow, successful artists seem to make the best art they can according to their abilities. Could Michael Jackson have made higher quality art if he had wanted to? Could Pierre Boulez have written a pop hit if he wanted to? No way.

I heard that after the Grateful Dead hit the charts in the 80’s with “Touch of Grey” Jerry Garcia quipped that if they had known how much money could be made on one hit: “We may have done things differently a long time ago.” But one suspects that was merely a quip, as TGD continued to tour for another decade (the decade they made the most money in) without releasing another single.

Perhaps Miles Davis “sold out” in the 80’s, but it’s not clear he had any other creative options left. Faulkner wrote for Hollywood for money, but if anything that demonstrates that writing more popular novels wasn’t an option. The Beatles popularity didn’t decline when they released The White Album.

It’s not clear that there are artists who sacrifice money for art or art for money. The example in the paper of movie stars choosing to work on prestige flicks for less isn’t clearly a monetary sacrifice, as the prestige itself can be a long term strategy for more bank. Didn’t Bill Murray aid his career by making good artistic choices at the right time?

11 Steve Sailer October 25, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Quantity v. quality is a difficult optimization problem, and it’s reasonable to second-guess artists’ choices (they often do so themselves).

It’s not uncommon, for example, for successful artists to give themselves too much time to create another masterpiece. Nabokov’s 1970 novel “Ada,” which came out 8 years after his superb “Pale Fire,” is too much of a good thing.

In the other direction, Leonard Bernstein froze up trying to top “West Side Story.”

Or, artists get an inflated sense of their abilities. The Clash’s 1979 double album “London Calling” was terrific, so they assumed that if they could make a great double album, they could make a great triple album. But 1980’s “Sandinista” turned out to be a mess, although it had the raw materials scattered about for a great single album.

12 dirk October 25, 2013 at 10:11 pm

The academic paper Tyler and Alex wrote has more to do with the trade off artists make between commercial art and less commercial _Art_ than quantity vs. quality. My argument above is that actual artists rarely make a choice between making commercial vs. serious art, even though it is common to speak as if they make those choices. As I say above, could Michael Jackson be anything other, at best, than Michael Jackson, could Boulez be anything but Boulez?

Put another way: where’s an actual example of an artist who truly “sold out” their talent? Perhaps there are a few cases that seem that way. ZZ Top made much less interesting music after they figured out they could make more money making fun MTV videos, something they were also very talented at. But after a decade of blues albums, did they really have anything else to say? Same for The Red Hot Chili Peppers or Metallica. They expressed what they were best capable of expressing.

This idea of “selling out” is just something envious artists say about other artists who happen to, due to whatever quirk of fashion, make big money.

13 Steve Sailer October 25, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Good point.

For example, Shakespeare sold out by writing plays for the paying public instead of more long poems for connoisseurs like “Venus and Adonis,” but that seems to have worked out well.

“Barton Fink” is about a critically acclaimed playwright selling out to Hollywood, but the implication is that he was never any good.

14 rae October 26, 2013 at 7:15 am

“They expressed what they were best capable of expressing.” Well that’s a rich (revealed) artistic environment you inhabit then.

“This idea of ‘selling out’ is just something envious artists say about other artists who happen to, due to whatever quirk of fashion, make big money.” but taking fewer risks, failing less, meeting rather than creating demand is often a symptom that part of the artists’ potential output is being left unexplored. It’s their choice and may be completely reasonable, but who really admires a reasonable artist?

And back in the frame of the footnote: does every set of parents create the family they were best capable of creating? even the “best” parents make plenty of mistakes on both quantity and quality dimension of children … and as with artists there is an immense amount of luck and serendipity, not to mention larger trends like the fall in child and maternal mortality, that shape the final assessment of family outcomes.

15 Steve Sailer October 25, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Fred R rightly asks:

“isn’t most of the variance in artistic quality (or along the highbrow/lowbrow scale) between artists, not within them (even potentially)?”

Sure. On the other hand, there’s not as much inherent interest in how untalented artists approach the quantity v. quality tradeoff. In contrast, should Stanley Kubrick have made more movies or Ridley Scott fewer movies are pretty interesting questions.

16 Therapsid October 26, 2013 at 12:09 am

You ever consider what your reputation would be if you wrote less material of higher quality?

17 Steve Sailer October 26, 2013 at 1:06 am

But then who would Tyler get the ideas from for his Time cover story on Texas?


18 Brian Donohue October 25, 2013 at 2:43 pm

David Foster Wallace belongs in the same grouping as Syd Barrett. He wrote his opus before age 35. Where to go from there?

19 Colin October 25, 2013 at 3:45 pm

“The Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University in Washington, DC…”

So I see right off the bat the magazine doesn’t even know where GMU is located.

20 mike October 26, 2013 at 9:12 am

Fair-f’ing-fax County, Virginia, for those who don’t know.

21 mike October 26, 2013 at 9:14 am

Home of the great TJHSST I might add, which Tyler’s stepkid is probably too dumb to attend because her genes came from some deadbeat loser, even though if he had biological kids they would almost certainly have the requisite IQ.

22 Anon. October 25, 2013 at 4:32 pm

>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.

What about Shakespeare? Hell, to make it more interesting: what about Nietsche? In general I find the stories of these geniuses who suddenly stopped producing fascinating.

>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.

That’s a good sentence.

23 Brian Timoney October 25, 2013 at 7:27 pm

Balzac’s “creative satIsfaction”, as it is for so many of us, was staying one step ahead of his creditors.

24 Steve Sailer October 25, 2013 at 8:37 pm

So, you are saying there can be a tradeoff between quantity and quality?

25 vetr October 25, 2013 at 11:13 pm

Using the semi-stale term of “selling out” as a place-holder for the quantity v. quality debate, it is worth pointing out that Tolstoy sold out, according to Nabokov (War and Peace was merely a historical novel). Burgess wrote at length about Cervantes selling out by creating two characters rather than a world. Beethoven sold out by producing music of his individual struggles and triumph where he had the gifts to produce universal music as good as Bach’s. Picasso sold out to hedonism in his early twenties, and James Joyce didn’t start writing what he wanted to write until a third of the way through Ulysses, when he must have known he only had a decade or two left. Shakespeare could have done much better by abandoning his aristocratic pretentions and his SMV obsessions somewhere before his late forties, but he couldn’t be bothered. Bach was, outside of his natural abilities, lazy. Berlioz was lazy. Verdi was lazy, too. That leaves, at the highest levels of modern musicians and poets, Mozart, Proust, Dickens, Chaucer, Dante, and a very few others beyond the quantity versus quality criticism. It’s a hard world for musicians and poets.

26 Benny Lava October 26, 2013 at 9:33 am

Didn’t Proust die shortly before the publication of his last book at the ripe old age of 51? Kind of a daft comparison isn’t it?

27 David! October 27, 2013 at 5:42 am

As one jazz musician (but not limited to jazz musicians) said, and most or all feel: “where do I sign up to sell out?”
Making the music you like and making the music people (the mass market) want to hear (or will pay for) often don’t coincide. As another commented, the best job for a jazz man is a studio gig, with steady hours and no traveling, with enough time off to play the sort of music that you can’t make a living at.

No doubt there are exceptions, just not a lot. Good musicians don’t want to play “inexecrable crap” as one said, but if they need money enough, they will do it, just like everyone will do things they don’t want to if they need money enough.

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