You know what else I realized by the end of The Art Instinct? It isn’t terribly important whether you accept Dutton’s thesis or whether you think I’m on the right track with my own thoughts. Dutton proved that, not only is art a very much cross-cultural concept, but that tastes in art may also be cross-cultural. This last point isn’t really evidence for an art instinct, but it is evidence that biology matters for culture and that the counter-revolution Dutton fights on a daily basis, and with relish in The Art Instinct (never have “Dadaist experiments” been so scorned) and on Arts & Letters Daily, will ultimately prevail. Indeed, it seems to me that the animating purpose of the book is to cut down the cultural relativists who held away in the humanities and anthropologists beginning in the 1950s. I suspect that, although they already are in retreat, this book will make searching for refuge all the more difficult.
But a difference that does matter is how we define art. As exhaustively chronicled in my first few posts in this pathetically self-aggrandizing book review series, Dutton has a “cluster criteria” for categorizing art. These criteria exist both to set standards on how to judge particularly extraordinary art and to say what is not art at all. It’s an odd thing to me. I recognize the value in fighting the extremist postmodernists, but this does not seem to me to be the best way. We could cede that everything is art, yet categorize based on its relative utility for us, as I argued in Art Instinct Thoughts, Part II, or on any other categories. But the postmodernist experiment would not have been possible without the change in the costs of production and information transmission and we must now address what these changes reveal both for our concept of art as well as for aesthetics in general.
Reducing the cost of information transmission, which is the fundamental purpose of language, fiction-making, or art (even if it is to be an end in itself), means that all kinds of new art can arise. Where there were once epic poems, novels and other broad texts arose. “Non-fiction” took a piece of their pie, and now new media, such as blogs, come on the scene. Where there were once radio shows, television shows abound. Although each new form may cut into the old form a bit, the pie of information transmission itself is growing ever larger, meaning we humans are ever better educated.
It might be worth explaining the importance of these fictions in the context of information transmission a bit more. In the case of novels, it has been argued that they are dying an ignominious death. It is true, they are increasingly less popular, but there will always be a niche market for them as Mario Vargas Llosa argued:
In effect, novels lie — they can do nothing else — but that is only part of the story. The other part is that, by lying, they express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, disguised as something that it is not. […] Men are not content with their lot and almost all of the — rich and poor, brilliant and ordinary, famous and unknown — would like a life different from the one that they are leading. Novels were born to placate this hunger, albeit in a distorted way. They are written and read so that human beings may have the lives that they are not prepared to do without. Within each novel, there stirs a rebellion, there beats a desire. Fiction enriches their existence, completes them and, fleetingly, compensates them for this tragic condition which is their lot: always to desire and dream more than we can actually achieve.
How many emotions do we experience, through simulation, for the first time by reading a novel? The more important question: how many are best expressed given current technology by a novel? I can tell you that I can find no other medium would allow me such a full nostalgia for Hong Kong as a novel. Only a novel would adequately give me the heightened sense of drama, the sense of triumphal capitalism, tying together many seemingly unrelated cultural, personal, and financial strands. No new media, such as a blog, could replace Noble House.
The same human race that cross-culturally loves art is the same human race that must always act and never stands still. Through its infinite wants, and its inability to tangibly achieve these wants, sometimes simulacrums will do. And yet, the prevalence of various types of fiction has changed in the past several hundred years and is changing more still. But in order to explain some of the shift, in terms of information transmission costs, from novel to non-fiction, I wrote in “The Death of Angels” the following:
Simply, there are two related problems for novels. One, other media (journalism, non-fiction, television, etc.) now tell the tales once told by novels more succinctly, which appeals to the West, a world in which the opportunity cost of time has quickly risen just as surely as information costs have precipitously dropped. The value of a tale as long and convoluted as War and Peace no longer seems as great as the value of reading three books on completely different subjects or more relevant NYT bestsellers or learning three foreign languages (which is probably what I could have done in the time it took me to deal with Tolstoy). And are we really that interested in realist fiction? No. What does it do for me that these new media don’t do better? [Edited: Precious little, though there is that niche.] Two, the subject matter of novels that may best belong to novels — long tales of love, heroism, adventure, tragedy, romance, and even science fiction — can only be done so many times in so many ways before the demand in the market decreases. Now, of course the novel is not going anywhere and it is not really dead. This is what I meant by the exaggeration of the claim in terms of scope. However, as a percentage of the total fiction being created, the percentage must have waned over the past few years. There is nothing to suggest it will stop.
And yet, as the pie of total information transmitted expands, more and more different needs become supplied. The terrain for the most important story types is saturated with artists trying to supply the demand: romance, adventure (sci-fi/western/Dan Brown), or even using the Booker list from The Art Instinct: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth stories. These markets are saturated. Economics suggests that artists should find new markets. In order to do that, artists must assess where there are demands not being met. You would expect lots of different types of stories to come about, and I’d argue that boring existentialist stories were one of the first key indicators of this. But God bless the French, they love em! Now we have all kinds of anti-heroes, anti-stories, and off-kilter narratives like the Watchmen that you don’t know what to make of. This is all perfectly understandable.
But now you also factor in the decreasing costs of production. Although many continue to argue that real wages have stayed merely constant since the 1980s, we could accept this (though I do not) but proceed to explain, yes, but most goods are much cheaper now so the actual purchasing power, and therefore the standard of living of everyone, has risen enormously. Consider this post from Carpe Diem. Now let us remember that certain terrains (landscape and portrait painting, for example) will be in a condition of extreme competition already. Given the assumptions (1) decreasing cost of info transmission and (2) decreasing cost of production, what are the consequences? We would expect the following, in roughly this order:
- With lower barriers to entry, more artists enter the market.
- When one type of art market is saturated, new markets arise. Some new markets will exist because decreasing production costs makes new art forms feasible.
- Competition heats up in traditional art markets, fostering innovation with old forms.
- New art forms become accepted as they cater to niche demands that cannot be fulfilled by old art forms.
One graphical way to look at this is to consider a very traditional microeconomics style supply and demand graph. First, we will look at a very much simplified hypothetical market for art in 1800, then the same for 2009, and discuss the differences. The change that occurs between the two is the decreasing production costs (which includes, in reality, the decreased info transmission costs).
Hypothetical (and totally fictional) prices are on the vertical axis, while equally fictional quantity is on the horizontal axis. In 1800, about 1000 art objects are created and sold for $5 a piece. This hypothetical market is a composite of the wide bazaar type markets, where goods are much cheaper and plentiful, and the insanely expensive market populated by rich patrons and their supremely talented artists. As technology improves, production costs decrease, and the supply curve shifts rightward. Assuming that the same demand for art exists (art is a cross-cultural universal, the demand for which may lie dormant within) two hundred years later, more art is now produced and for a cheaper cost to the buyer. Notice that this extra 100 objects sold in 2009 would, according to my argument, include both innovative art in the old forms as well as art in the new forms. Whether counterrevolutionaries like Professor Dutton appreciate it or not, much of the Dadaist experiments and postmodern drama making have been in these new forms.
These innovations should be appreciated as works of art, but seen for what they are: less popular and less useful to humans. Due to Dutton’s contribution in The Art Instinct, we finally understand why they are also less meaningful on many levels.