A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG... ANTI-CAPITALIST (Print Version)
by Francis Dumouchel*
Le Québécois Libre, February 15, 2009, No 264.
It's an open secret that in intellectual circles, economic liberty is not held in very high esteem. Whether from the media, academia, or the cultural realm, intellectuals seem to harbour a passionate hatred for "the laws of the market." This observation is far from being limited to Quebec or even to European society; one need only read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck or Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller to understand that the greatest American authors are willing members of this anti-capitalist choir.
The pages of Le Québécois Libre contain numerous articles lamenting this state of affairs, notably those written by Gilles Guénette; here, I will try rather to understand the causes of this seemingly worldwide phenomenon and briefly to explain why economic liberty, contrary to popular belief, is a veritable Garden of Eden for artistic creativity.
The Great Schism between Art and Liberty
In response to the charge of anti-capitalist prejudice, the intellectual elite will intuitively answer that "the masses" do not have the intellectual capacity needed to grasp the obvious rightness of the socialist dream, and that they are manipulated by the advertising of private corporations. On the contrary, F. A. Hayek remarks: "the higher the education and intelligence of individuals become, the more their views and tastes are differentiated and the less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values. It is a corollary of this that if we wish to find a high degree of uniformity and similarity of outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and 'common' instincts and tastes prevail."(1) But if the elite's allegedly superior intelligence cannot explain its political allegiance, what can?
In his pamphlet The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality(2), Ludwig von Mises states his theory according to which most of the arguments against capitalism are not economic in nature, but sociological. Indeed, a notorious effect of economic liberty is to favour above all else the entrepreneurs (that is to say, those whose goal is to make a profit by meeting the needs of their fellow men and women). Before capitalism, under the feudal system, artists enjoyed a comfortable financial independence as long as their works pleased some rich, noble patron. The transition to an industrial economy transformed this requirement into a need to please a panoply of consumers, which proved difficult for certain artists who were less productive or whose ideas were more obscure and impenetrable. To put it simply, the resentment these artists feel toward capitalism stems from the jealousy they feel when they observe the privileged place held by entrepreneurs, and then compare it to their less enviable social position, which flies in the face of their profound conviction of their own moral superiority.
If objections to capitalism are rarely grounded in economic principles, these principles can nevertheless help us understand the motivations behind the unfailing support of artists for government authority. Let us adopt a perspective similar to Public Choice Theory(3), merely substituting artists for politicians and bureaucrats. Artists, just like "ordinary" people, are rational beings acting in their own interest. This particular interest being to receive remuneration in order to produce and distribute their works, two choices present themselves: marketing works that please a large enough public to make it worth their while, or attempting to short-circuit the free market by begging for government subsidies. Once the governmental structure is in place, it would be stupid (if admirable) to renounce this privilege by calling for its abolition. On the contrary, it becomes advantageous to encourage the accelerating growth of the State in order to protect one's established privileges (by raising the bogeyman of cultural decline).
Consequently, it is not surprising to observe, as researcher Todd Porterfield did, that historically, art has always been at the service of politics: "We like to think that the artist is motivated solely by the pleasure of creating freely. But we forget that this perception of an artist's work is itself the product of a social and political context."(4) Despite their seemingly critical and anti-establishment ideas, it appears that the message of "engaged" artists unfortunately amounts to an ode to the power of Leviathan. As this expression has always seemed dubious to me, allow me to poke a little fun by supposing that these artists are implicitly "engaged" (i.e., "hired") by governments to spread their propaganda.
Capitalism, For Authentically Free Art
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is generally recognized that capitalism is the most economically efficient system, even if many hasten to specify that it is necessary to limit its "untamed" nature. One of the most serious accusations levelled against capitalism is that it encourages materialism, to the detriment of spiritual disciplines like art.
The Soviet propaganda poster opposite illustrates this prejudice. An approximate translation of the text would be: on the left, "In capitalist countries, here is what those with talent can expect"; on the right, "In socialist countries, the way is cleared for those with talent." What this propaganda leaves out in the image on the right are the peasants starving to death to pay for the violinist's concerts, the only function of which is to feed the glory of the nation. This poster also leaves out those artists rotting in the Siberian gulags for having dared to question the Party's authority.
The relative happiness of a country's population is certainly not gauged by observing which country sent the first astronaut to the moon, or which one possesses the most destructive nuclear weapons. In capitalist countries, everyone is free to be an artist or not, whether or not he or she demonstrates any talent for art. Obviously, there are natural incentives for the least talented to switch professions, but no coercion will prevent an Ed Wood from pursuing his work, however dubious its merit.
Capitalism, by favouring the division of labour and increased productivity, frees up resources for the artistic sector. At no time in history has art been more accessible to ordinary individuals than it is today. If capitalist society is so materialist, how can we explain the omnipresence of foreign cinema, of video games, of alternative music? Better yet, technological advances made possible by competition and the pursuit of profit allow anyone and everyone to own sufficient creative tools to become an artist in his own living room. Let us not forget that the personal camcorder, the DVD player, and the MP3 player are not the result of government subsidies, but of private enterprise.
No aspect of the classical libertarian attitude is opposed to the artistic mentality. Individualism, tolerance, and optimism are qualities that apply equally well to the libertarian and to the honest artist. This is why libertarians must not limit themselves to the social sciences, but must invade the artistic fields. It is not Human Action by Mises or The Ethics of Liberty by Murray Rothbard that will convert the greatest number to libertarianism; it is rather Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, or Trey Parker's and Matt Stone's South Park.
Without wanting to expound here an aesthetic manifesto, the principals of classical liberalism could also help redefine or at least refocus the role of artists. Embellishing the world in which we live, making us reflect on the meaning of life, and moving us by presenting the human condition in an original manner; these are the legitimate objectives of art. In the meantime, let us attempt to put an end to the state support of nihilism and the destruction of Western civilization.
1. Friedrich August von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994 (1944), p. 152.
2. Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Grove City (PA), Libertarian Press, 1994.
3. See James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 2004.
4. Daniel Baril, "L'art est au service de la politique," (March 14, 2005) 39 Forum 1.
* Francis Dumouchel holds a law degree from Université de Montréal.