The Commodification of Everything   /   Summer 2003   /    Reviews

Commodification and Creativity

A Review of Tyler Cowen’s Creative Destruction

Dustin Kidd

Tyler Cowen reading at Politics and Prose (2011). Via Wikimedia Commons.

If the “commodification of everything” invokes the question of the limits of capitalism, then surely we must include an examination of the cultural marketplace. The question has been gaining considerable attention in the academic world, as seen in the publication of such studies as Victoria Alexander’s Museums and Money and Chin-tao Wu’s Privatising Culture.11xVictoria D Alexander, Museums and Money: The Impact of Funding on Exhibitions, Scholarship, and Management (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996); and Chin-tao Wu, Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980s (London: Verso, 2002). Tyler Cowen’s Creative Destruction offers one of the few perspectives that celebrate the market while also taking culture seriously. He defends the cross-cultural market by arguing that it actually encourages and generates creativity and has historically produced new, and now celebrated, cultural forms. Creative Destruction moves the discussion of cultural globalization away from the hypothetical “what might happen to the world’s cultures on the marketplace?” to the empirical “what has happened in practice?” Cowen’s case studies are carefully documented and empirically sound. They are also fascinating to read about, making this a book that even Cowen’s strongest critics will value.

While the book opens with a series of vignettes illustrating the cultural conflicts that result from global markets (including Haiti’s perceived musical imperialism in the Caribbean and French fears of American cinema) and while Cowen acknowledges the harmful potential of global markets, such as the cultural devastation that resulted from Western intervention in Polynesia, he emphasizes that global markets have produced a great surge of liberty for those who participate in them. Our cultural participation is no longer limited to local music and arts; indeed, we increasingly participate in cultural forms that originate in far-distant areas of the world. To make this “gains from trade” (12) argument, Cowen highlights three crucial but overlooked points about global markets. First, he identifies two contradictory meanings of the concept “cultural diversity”: diversity within a society and diversity across societies. The former, Cowen says, often comes at the price of the latter. A global market increases diversity within participating countries while producing a relative homogeneity across the market. Second, this homogenization goes hand in hand with heterogenization. Mass markets have had the surprising effect of producing niche markets. Third, global markets spark creativity and produce innovation, even in the face of their destructive capacities. As Cowen says, “the ‘creative destruction’ of the market is, in surprising ways, artistic in the most literal sense” (18).

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