Acton Institute Powerblog

Can Capitalism Save the Arts?

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Capitalism is routinely castigated as an enemy of the arts, with much of the finger-pointing bent toward monsters of profit and efficiency. Other critiques take aim at more systemic features, fearing that the type of industrialization that markets sometimes tend toward will inevitably detach artists from healthy social contexts, sucking dry any potential for flourishing as a result.

But what if the opposite is true? I offer the argument over at The Federalist.

Free economies introduce their own unique challenges for artists and consumers alike. We are justified in cringing at the array of bottom-dollar record-company execs and merchandising-obsessed Hollywood crackpots (though I will always prefer their ilk to your run-of-the-mill Commissar of the Arts). But the increases in economic empowerment that have led to these many marketing machines have also led to plenty of artistic empowerment in turn.

In an article for New York Times Magazine, Steven Johnson reinforces this very point, observing that the many apocalyptic prophecies about arts in the digital age have not quite manifested. “In the digital economy, it was supposed to be impossible to make money by making art,” he writes. “Instead, creative careers are thriving — but in complicated and unexpected ways.”

Rather than being disempowered, artists actually have more opportunity to thrive than ever before, whether through access to instruments and equipment, channels for marketing and distribution (hello, Spotify and Netflix), or the mass amounts of leisure(/creativity) time that come with a prosperous age.

The shape of what it means to be a successful artist may indeed be shifting, but rather than complain about these new challenges, we’d do better to relish in the risk and seize these new avenues, cultivating new artifacts of beauty and sharing them in turn:

As we’ve seen with the Golden Age of television, such forces are not limited to the hearts and hands of the tasteless and trite. Indeed, despite the best efforts of the powerful and privileged, many artists are now finding themselves equipped and empowered to bypass the big shots altogether, taking their art and their audiences with them, from the production of their albums to the purchase of their paintbrushes to the publication of their portraits.

Thus, despite the critiques about capitalism, this larger shift from record companies as investment banks to individual artists as rogue capitalists is actually an apt illustration of the beauty of markets, demonstrating how the deleterious effects of distant and detached industrialization are checked no better than by the market itself.

Artists are only beginning to realize the ways in which those Big Art capitalists of yore are becoming less and less necessary in the twenty-first century. As those roles continue to shrink, artists and patrons alike need not fret about a future where artists need to beg for their bread. On the contrary, we should continue to embrace the power of trade and pursue new ways of creating and sharing the beauty they’ve been called to cultivate.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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