Professor Combines His Passions — Economics and Art — in His Books

Posted: April 27, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Amate painting
Economics professor Tyler Cowen has collected hundreds of amate paintings like the one above, and he writes books about the economics of art and culture.

By Robin Herron

Economics professor Tyler Cowen wears his art on his sleeve, so to speak. Having been always interested in economics and always interested in the arts, Cowen says he woke up one day and suddenly realized he could marry his two passions.

Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen

The marriage has produced five books dealing with economics and culture, beginning with the 1998 “In Praise of Commercial Culture” in which Cowen lays out his manifesto for the symbiosis of economics and the arts.

Not that Cowen is a one-dimensional economist. A self-described “translator of economic ideas,” he has also written about welfare economics and risk and business cycles, and has a new book coming out this summer titled “Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.” Cowen also directs Mason’s highly respected economics research and outreach group, the Mercatus Center.

But his deep love of the arts, which drew him to the remote Mexican town San Agustín Oapan in 1997 to seek out folk artists, permeates his work, and he uses numerous examples from the world of music, art and literature to illustrate economic principles.

He still goes to Mexico at least once a year to collect amate paintings (named for the paper made from tree bark favored by the artists), and he even helped one artist obtain commissions from the Smithsonian Institution for work that now hangs in the National Museum of the American Indian.

What are three important points about economics and culture that you have made?

Commerce is better for the arts than most people think; also, human creativity depends on context and environment. Creators are not autonomous beings. They need the right environment, the right incentives, the right support networks. The third point would be that incentives really matter for the arts. I don’t just mean money, but things like fame, reputation and rivalry. The artist needs the audience. You don’t usually have good artists without good audiences and vice versa.

You wrote “Markets and Cultural Voices: Liberty vs. Power in the Lives of the Mexican Amate Painters ” (2005), and you’ve since collected hundreds of these paintings. How did you get interested in amates?

I saw some in the house of an art dealer. I wanted to buy them, and he didn’t want to sell them, which is unusual for an art dealer. I asked him how I could get some and he said, “You have to go to the village.” And I went. I got to know the painters, and it became an ongoing relationship, so to speak. In their way, everyone there is an artist, although some are better than others. Every child learns at a young age, and the ones who are good, that’s what they do. They are very much indigenous; Spanish is their second language, not the first. They wear traditional dress. People sometimes think it’s some kind of artists’ colony. It’s really not. It’s a bunch of indigenous corn farmers who, if they have spare time, will paint.

You wrote about the arts and government funding in “Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding” (2006). What were your general conclusions?

That the American system works pretty well. There’s no one ministry of culture here, but there are a lot of different groups, private and public, that work together in a decentralized way. Through that pure kind of muddling through rather than central planning, we’ve evolved a very healthy artistic life in this country.

You also wrote about the globalization of culture in “Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures” (2002). Why did you conclude that cross-cultural trade is a good thing?

I think if we look at the products we enjoy — music, painting, sculptures or textiles — most of them are based in trade. Like my amate paintings, they’re from Mexico. They can’t sell that many to other Mexicans. So if they do it by selling to Americans, it’s not that America overwhelms their culture, America helps them realize what they are. It’s not like they like painting in an American style. It’s like they found a new voice through trade. And the main point of my book is if you go through different examples, you find there’s a more positive role for globalization than most people think. The typical story is that with McDonald’s everywhere, local culture disappears. There are McDonald’s everywhere, but there’s also plenty of ethnic food, niche food, new recipes and grandmas who cook for profit.

Other than your writing, do you have any artistic talents?

None whatsoever. I wish. My talent is as a buyer.

This article originally appeared in Mason Research 2009 in a slightly different form.

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