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The joy of thinking globally

Style & Culture

Art and commerce enrich each other, says an economist happily obsessed with what he sees as the virtues of modern culture.

February 07, 2003|Daniel Akst | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — To those obsessed with the authenticity of native cultures, it will come as dispiriting news that Canada's Inuit did not begin carving soapstone until 1948. Or that Tuvan throat-singing was stagnant until Western record sales helped revive it. Or that the theme song chosen by Saddam Hussein, on the occasion of his 54th birthday, was Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

Tyler Cowen is not discouraged by these facts. On the contrary, the slightly impish academic revels in them. A Harvard-trained economist steeped in mathematics, Cowen is nevertheless primarily concerned with music, art, literature, film and food, and he pursues them all with rare passion. This is a man who can talk about Haitian voodoo flags, Iranian cinema, Hong Kong cuisine, Abstract Expressionism, Zairian music and Mexican folk art seemingly with equal facility, and he does just that in three provocative books about culture, markets and the pessimists who plague them.

A professor at George Mason University in Virginia, Cowen decided some years ago to merge his professional interests with his cultural obsessions. That led him away from monetary policy and the like -- bread and butter for your garden-variety economist -- to such big picture questions as: Are art and commerce really in opposition? How does technology affect art? Is globalization good or bad for artists? And what do we mean by "authenticity" and "diversity" in matters of culture?

In his latest book, "Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures" (Princeton University Press), Cowen continues to offer answers. This time he tackles globalization, arguing that despite such tragedies as lost languages and cultural submersion, international trade accounts for much of the planet's cultural vitality -- and always has.

"If we consider the book," he writes, "paper comes from the Chinese, the Western alphabet comes from the Phoenicians, the page numbers come from the Arabs and, ultimately, the Indians, and printing has a heritage through Gutenberg, a German, as well as through the Chinese and Koreans."

In fact, Cowen believes that commerce and art are allies. And he contends that because commerce is driving technology, ideas, goods, services and people across borders more freely than ever before, we are in the midst of an unprecedented boom in artistic creativity all over the world. The quality, quantity and variety of cultural output is greater than ever; if there is more dreck, there is also more genius. And more people have more access to it than ever, at lower prices, regardless of where they live

Cowen's cheerful notion -- that the market-driven glass of culture isn't merely half full, it's brimming over -- puts him in a small minority among cultural commentators, many of whom take a much bleaker view of change. Critics of globalization fret that dumbed-down American TV, movies, music and even food are sweeping away rich local cultures.

Benjamin R. Barber, in his book "Jihad vs. McWorld," portrays the world as caught between the "bloody politics of identity" and the "bloodless economics of profit." John Elster, a Columbia University political scientist, says: "My hunch is that globalization will be bad for the production of high-quality art, which typically requires sustained, focused work that thrives best in a limited setting."

But to Cowen, these critics merely embody a cultural pessimism that has become the prevailing orthodoxy of our age at both ends of the political spectrum. Conservatives lament the decline of "cultural literacy" and the classics, while liberals bemoan the homogenizing spread of American commercial culture. Cowen is having none of it, and his books constitute a full-blown assault on this worldview.

"Western culture has been on a general upswing since at least the year 1000," he says flatly, "a fact neglected by many cultural pessimists. We should view the 21st century with anticipation, not dread."

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Eminem for the ages

At lunch in a Peruvian Chinese restaurant -- the maddeningly worldly Cowen pronounces the house specialty "not Peruvian enough" -- I ask the economist what will endure in the arts. "Eminem," he says. "As a lyricist, he's close to unparalleled." "Seinfeld" too. "Read 18th century Restoration comedy and see an episode of 'Seinfeld.' 'Seinfeld' is much better." John Updike and Philip Roth, of course, but also Stephen King and "the early movies of John Woo." He goes on to name Frank Gehry, Pedro Almodovar, Robert Gober and Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

"Real multiculturalism I'm a fan of," he says and, in fact, his cultural tastes couldn't be more catholic. But "a lot of it is people wanting to attack the West," and Cowen unashamedly exalts Western technology, political and social values and free markets.

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