Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Should the state found art ?: Tyler Cowen's view.

After so much time “wasted” on criticizing welfarist values and the way welfarists sees facts about values, I found myself having little time to add in my dissertation some analysis of perfectionist values, their role in shaping institutions, and their power of justification.

Anyway, as you may have noticed, I am finally starting to put the issue of perfectionist values on the table at least in my own blog, in a very random and disorganized fashion, as it is typical of my way of thinking.

Today I would like to present you and to write my own reflections about a very interesting paper I've been reading lately, namely the introduction to “Symbolic Goods:The Liberal State in Pursuit of Art and Beauty” by Tyler Cowen, which you can download from the net at this address http://www.gmu.edu/jbc/Tyler/pewintro.pdf or by clicking here. Tyler is a professor of economics at George Mason University. By the way, Tyler Cowen is a blogger too, and I recommend you to visit his blog. Following a custom in the blogger's community, I will refer to him as “Tyler” instead than as prof. Cowen. I hope he will not get offended.

The introduction to his book sounds quite interesting and near to my research interests. So I'm probably going to buy the book. I got the distinctive feeling that its writing is guided by philosophical ideas, rather than economic ones, or rather, economic ideas in the service of philosophical ones, as it should be.

1. What is symbolic value?

Let me sum up the idea that stroke me the most in his approach. Tyler wants to deal with the idea of art as a symbolic good. To my eyes, he puts together two different conceptions of what is a symbolic good, one coming from a roughly empiricist tradition (esp. Hume, Hayek, etc.) and another one coming from a tradition that Tyler himself identifies as the aesthetic tradition in political theory. This tradition includes, as we discover at p. 17:
Plato's Republic,
Giambattista Vico’s New Science,
Kant’s Critique of Judgment,
the British Hegelians,
John Dewey’s Experience and Art,
Eric Voegelin,
Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method.

An immediately odd thing, from my point of view, is that Tyler adds Adam Smith to the names in this very tradition, even he realizes that this would strike some readers as an oddity. Tyler has in mind a different type of dichotomy from mine: he opposes the “aesthetic tradition” in political theory to the “Hobbesian tradition”, centred on issues of stability. This is somewhat different from the opposition between an empiricist tradition which tends to deny the fact that symbolic goods have a sort of “irreducible” importance, and the idea of politics based on “aesthetic” ideas, which has, as Tyler realizes, a clear “perfectionist”, and latu sensu “romantic” ring of it (which maybe explains why “economist are reluctant to to admit the independent relevance of aesthetic matters” as Tyler himself writes at p. 18).

As said, Tyler, on the contrary, tries to put together a notion of symbolic good which derives from the empiricist tradition (I will try to explain what I mean by this in a moment), with the idea of symbolic value which is more “continental” and “romantic”, and is usually connected to a different type of anthropology. Notice that I am not laying forward this consideration as a criticism, but only as a remarkable fact: it is probably one of Tyler's aspirations that the two interpretation of symbolic goods be put to work together and synthesized rather than opposed to each other, so that the real opposition turns to be the one between “Hobbesian” models of politics and “non-Hobbesian” ones. (Notice that a somewhat similar operation has been attempted in the past by one of my favorite philosophers: J.S. Mill.)

Tyler's “empiricist” understanding of symbolic goods emerges clearly from these lines:
“I define a symbolic good as offering a feeling or perception of affiliation. An individual may affiliate by donating money to a university, charity, or artistic program, thereby associating with a particular cause. A teenager may go to a Madonna concert to express her solidarity for feminism. Rich yuppie lawyers collect contemporary art to look “cool.” Many people buy fancy looking books to put them on the coffee table, while others go to the opera to project a cultured image, hoping to enter the appropriate social circles.” (p. 3)
Notice all these typical elements of the empiricist interpretation, included in the quoted passage:
  1. The symbolic nature of the good is defined in terms of the “attitudes” of its user (“a feeling or perception of affiliation”. Items with an alleged high aesthetic values (contemporary art, fancy looking books, opera) are placed at the same level as what is normally considered to be “low” art, such as Madonna concert. Even more striking than that, the attitudes which “explain”, “create”, or “prove the existence of” the symbolic value of a valuable good (yuppies buying art to look cool, etc.) do not seem to derive or reflect in any meaningful sense the aesthetic value of the object in question, the properties – one may think – which give the object its symbolic value. (Such as, in the case of the book, the ideas written in it.) All these examples all strike us as somewhat “deviant” cases of artistic and cultural fruition, and do not seem to point to the most important aspect of the phenomenon.
  2. In this picture, there does seems to be at most an extrinsic connection between aesthetic value, which we may conceive as a form of intrinsic value, and symbolic value, which, as defined, appears to be a form of “extrinsic value”. Symbolic value, in other words, does not correlate with the intrinsic value of the object, but with its usability or utility, understood in very general terms. (A book may be useful to me as a symbol of status.) This is of course a logical consequence of (1) differences in the intrinsic value of things tend to disappear, or to appear “distorted” when looked at through an empiricist lens.
  3. This approach fits well with the way economists typically analyze social phenomena. What gives things symbolic value is (roughly) the ability to provoke motivational responses. Thus, we must ascribe symbolic value to things that have no apparent “utility”, such as books or works of art, in order to explain the fact that people desire them and are willing to pay for having them. From an empiricist perspective, Tyler's move is the recognition of the fact that symbolic goods have some sort, maybe a distinctive sort, of utility. But I am not sure whether the distinctive sort of utility which symbolic value has is really captured by those examples in the quote. In this perspective, placing a book on a coffee table, or reading it count both as aspects of a book's utility. Since symbolic value is connected to utility, understood in this way, it is connected to every possible way of using the good in question. But there is clearly as sense in which we would intuitively regard the first as a deviant and the second as an appropriate, type of use.

In other passages, Tyler seems to be understand the nature symbolic value in a less reductionist fashion, and to recognize its intrinsic importance as a fundamental way of understanding human beings, a way of being irreducible to utilitarian values and explanations:
“Man is not just a thinking being, he is also an imagining being and a creating being. Man loves symbols.” (15)

“The best-known political theorists of the Anglo-American tradition – Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Madison, to name a few -- are concerned primarily with the practical dimension of politics, rather than with the aesthetic or the imaginative. They ask how political order is possible, how property rights should be defined, and how the general welfare can be secured. [...] These theories have a Hobbesian slant, by focusing on how to protect individuals against “the perennial evils of human life – physical suffering, the destructions and mutilations of war, poverty and starvation, enslavement and humiliation. They do not start by asking how our capacities to imagine and manipulate symbols should shape political institutions.[...] I shift my focus to the aesthetic and symbolic dimensions. When I use the word aesthetic I refer to the arts, as they stimulate the imagination, show beauty, and entertain us. By the symbolic dimension, I refer to the demand for representations, images, and symbols, independent of their immediate practical benefits.” (16)
Notice the clause “independent of their immediate practical benefits” in the closing line: it does not fit that well with the idea that the symbolic value of a book may consist in its instrumental use in terms of augmenting social status, hence esteem, hence pleasure or satisfaction.
“Economists in particular are reluctant to admit the independent relevance of aesthetic matters, which they try to reduce to preferences. [...] I nonetheless seek to reclaim an emphasis on the aesthetic and the symbolic as starting points for liberal philosophy and indeed classical liberal philosophy, which favors a limited role for the state. I take beauty to be one of the strongest justifications for a free, open, diverse, and decentralized society. A free society not only allows individuals to pursue their own notions of beauty, but it arguably leads to an overall beauty, relative to the alternatives.” 18
Such quotes are really striking from a scholar trained in economics; and moreover, they seem to me to be in a certain tension with the “empiricist” approach towards values laid forward in the explication of symbolic value.

2. The book's main normative question:

Let us come back to the main interests of Tyler's books, as they emerge from the introduction. The object of the book, it seems to me, is not mainly that of giving an abstract characterization of symbolic value, or a good empirical description of the American Art Policy (§1), but the practical, normative, ethical, moral question “what should art policies be?” (§2). Hence it is clearly a book in political theory or political philosophy in its widest connotation.

Tyler recognizes that this is a controversial issue, and writes that it ought to be even more controversial and publicly discussed that it tends to be now. Correctly, I believe, Tyler identifies the issue of the public founding of art as one which is able to short-circuit the most established self-representation of our selves and our states as liberal ones. The reason for this is clear: the issue of the founding of the art raises the problem of liberal neutrality towards the good, and it does not fit well with the utilitarian self-understanding of economic science, the idea that institutions are valuable and “to be promoted” only in so far they are can be shown to lead to more human welfare or well-being; which clearly are the two most widespread modes of self-representation of liberal thinking. He puts this idea in words much better than I can:

“The issue of arts funding, more than any other, forces the aesthetic dimension of politics and economics onto the table. How should government policy treat goods that are both commercial products and public symbols? How are we to weigh aesthetic ends against non-aesthetic values? What role should the government play in supporting or defining matters aesthetic? How much should we care about "art" as opposed to "the status aura of art," and must those two ideas always arrive tied together in a bundle? [...] Arts policy forces us to confront our views, sometimes inchoate, on how aesthetics and symbolic values fit into a larger political and economic picture.” (16-17)
The importance and the absence of a clear direction in our self-undertanding as liberal or libertarians about this issue is discussed at different levels: from the empirical point of view, Tyler tries to show that no community organized in a state can avoid the question of the support of art, culture, and other symbolic goods, and that as a matter of fact, even US, which may be in the imagination of a lot of us the paradigm of a state which leaves the market take care of itself, currently subsidizes the arts more than it could be thought:
“A government will endure only if it provides a credible set of symbols to its citizens, and arts policy has become part of the symbolic package of the modern state.” (4) “No matter how strong markets and the profit motive may be, government influences the terms of artistic production and thus the content of art. The United States, the focus of this book, is no exception to this claim.” (p. 5) “I seek to rebut the common belief that America has no cultural policy, or that the American regime is fundamentally laissez-faire in culture. While the American government has never adopted an official cultural position, American governments at various levels actively influence and promote the arts.” (p. 5)
This seems a promising beginning for convincing people of the importance of the debate in political theory concerning perfectionist values. Just as a claimed in my post about governments and eating policies, we cannot simply close our eyes towards the fact that value judgments of a perfectionist sort, willingly or unwillingly, are going to have an influence on policies, no matter how liberal, libertarian or neutral a state declares itself to be. So it is better to confront the issue head on: which are the best perfectionist policies and how do perfectionist values enter political justification?

3. Tyler's normative position.

Before concluding this brief presentation of what looks like an interesting book, and certainly as a book facing interesting problems, let me try to summarize Tyler's positions on the central issue, as it emerges from the introduction:

Tyler argues both that a. the government should not try to stay neutral towards the arts and b. the government should not significantly increase the amount of direct subsidies to the arts, in a way akin to the European system. (see p. 10)

This is an interesting position, in so far as most of the people who advocate state neutrality on these issues, seem to assume that their opponent are necessarily going to want the state to put its hands into their pockets in order to found something that they may perceive as having no objective value at all, as the effect of some perverse form of social conditioning and self-deception combined with an elitist attitude (Tyler quotes some funny examples of artists that have been assisted by the National Education Agency, e.g. Karen Finley smeared her naked body with chocolate, to simulate excrement, and howled and shrieked during her one-woman show. The NEA once funded an anthology that contained a one-word poem ("lighght", by Aram Saroyan).)

Subsidizing the art, as Tyler notes, is perceived in a libertarian perspective as an illegitimate form of coercion. (It is interesting to note, from this point of view, that their position does not express a sensibility too different from that of certain liberals who are ready to invoke massive state intervention for purposes of social justice, like John Rawls in “A Theory of Justice”, who is are notoriously skeptical of the possibility for a state to justify the founding of the arts to its citizens, in terms of claims about its value. See esp.§50. Rawls argues that “the public founds for the arts and sciences may be provided through the exchange branch. [...] there are no restrictions on the reasons citizens may have for imposing upon themselves the requisite taxes [...] since the cohercive machinery of government is used in this case only to overcome the problems of isolation and assurance, and one is taxed without its consent.”)

On the contrary, Tyler argues, the state can allow itself to be non-neutral, and have the production of more and better symbolic goods among its goals (see the quotation above about a free society leading to more overall beauty than other alternatives). But it should not enforce these goals through coercion. The real question concern institutions such as copyright laws: their justification may be thrown into doubt.

Tyler's argument, as I could understand it from the introduction, seems to be an instrumental one: drawing from Hayek on the idea that the only duty of institutions is that of support the generation and dissemination of knowledge, the argument seems to be that intervention on the institutions which sustain the market of ideas, which foster the dissemination of knowledge, are going to be more effective in the long run, in terms of production of innovative cultural products, than a centralized institutional approach, in which the decisions about which types of arts and cultural production is going to be financed are in the hands of a group of grey bureaucrats and their advisers. (The empirical proof of this, should derive from the more innovative nature of American art and cultural trends as opposed to the European counterparts.)

(Another interesting remark, Tyler makes in the introduction, is that even “American” type of founding would still be better for US, both the US and Europe gain from the fact that Europe endorses a different policy. Tyler's thesis seems to be that the advantages of specialization in terms of different types of cultural production (tradition oriented vs. innovation oriented), coupled with the mutual advantages of trade, are superior to that of the endorsement of Tyler's favorite model at the world level.)

In conclusion I recommend all of you at least to read the introduction to his book which is available on-line (I cannot recommend the book yet, since I have not read it), which I found already more intellectually stimulating than many other things I happen to read.

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