Get our free newsletter

Jesse Helms and Karen Finley: Take note of Tyler Cowen. The George Mason University economist is an avid arts warrior, but one who rises above the reactionary postures that have come to define the debate over arts funding. But that doesn’t mean his ideas are easy to swallow. Cowen’s new book, In Praise of Commercial Culture (Harvard, $27.95), argues that free markets, unbridled by government, produce the best environments for creative expression. The conclusion should cheer devotees of The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the National Review, and sicken their adversaries.

Yet, unlike Helms and his minions, Cowen, 36, admits to liking the controversial work of artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Andrés Serrano. And unlike, say, the muddy-eared moralist Bill Bennett, Cowen writes freely about the varied pleasures of Andy Warhol, David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Smashing Pumpkins, the Geto Boys, and Dr. Dre without sounding like a total idiot.

Trying to look cultured but cool, Cowen explicitly models himself on the bombastic gender warrior Camille Paglia. He shares Paglia’s sense of humility, congratulating himself for his “omnivorous” appetite for art, music, and literature. “Even before I did the book, it was really a full-time occupation to consume as much art as I have,” he says.

Must be nice. Between bites of art, Cowen has also been able to spend time studying the government arts policies of the U.S. and Europe. He finds this country’s atrophied support for the arts to be largely satisfactory: The National Endowment for the Arts, he contends, is not worth killing because it doles out so little money in the first place. Its small budget makes it far less effective than the federal tax code at supporting the arts: Tax breaks, he points out, help feed nonprofit arts groups as well as colleges and universities, which allow many artists (and Cowen himself) to make a living through teaching.

By contrast, the Europeans’ approach to government arts support tends to be patronizing and paralyzing, Cowen argues. “France has everything, including a ministry of rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “It has ruined French rock. French pop culture has stagnated. America’s hasn’t.”

Capitalism, Cowen claims, is art’s best friend, from the superstores of Borders and Tower Records to the long-outlawed practice of “payola.” The practice of paying radio stations for airtime, he says, allowed marginalized performers like Chuck Berry to break through to the mainstream radio market with hits like “Maybelline.” He is, however, a bit concerned by Hollywood’s predilection for chasing blockbuster profits at the expense of producing brainy movies. “Ninety percent of what is released is usually junk,” he observes, “but junk is just a symptom of the riches we enjoy.”—Louis Jacobson