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March 06, 2009


That's a good point, Stuart. Could we generalize to say that those who favor the arts, but who don't favor the wealthy philanthropists who fund the arts, are also revealing status seeking? Can we go even further and say the same of those who celebrate the arts but scorn the business enterprises that create wealth and make the arts possible?

I'm a philistine fan of capitalism, but I'll play devil's advocate. One may admire medieval Cathedrals, Battleship Potemkin or Triumph of the Will without admiring the feudal nobles/churchmen, bolsheviks and Nazis that sponsored their creation. Patrons are not simply qua patrons but engage in other activities that may lower their status to a degree greater than their gift to the arts raised it.

Also, your dog does not own your house.

Stuart's argument is left partly implicit, which makes some (important) bits of it difficult to argue against. Let me begin by trying to make it explicit; bits in italics are ones Stuart omitted and I've guessed at.

"The only reason for regarding an activity as high-status is for the sake of the useful or pleasing things it brings about. Therefore, if someone does something useful or pleasing, and depends on resources from someone else, they should regard the other person's contribution as equally high-status because how directly someone's activity is involved in the production of utility or delight should be irrelevant to the status they get from it. Therefore, if someone is in that situation and regards himself as high-status but the resource-provider as low-status, obviously those status judgements transfer to the work itself and therefore the person is being inconsistent. Therefore that person is just trying to prop up his own status, since no one is ever inconsistent for any other reason."

I don't find this argument convincing. Perhaps I guessed wrongly at how to fill in the gaps?

Also: My reading of the Huxley quotation isn't that he's saying that people who fund the arts are necessarily low-status, but that many of them do so out of intellectual snobbery. I don't know how right he is, but it hardly seems a more audacious claim than Stuart's claim -- a very similar sort of claim -- that people who try to assign high status to the arts are doing so to bolster up their own status.


Culture wars are actually serious business; our culture and its exports are powerful weapons. Does anyone here besides me remember what it meant when Baryshnikov defected? We won't even discuss the power of rock-n-roll, Andy Warhol, or Kurt Vonnegut.

If anything we should take this whole arts business much more seriously. This "soft power" is probably more effective than most military interventions - we should probably fund a lot more art & culture through the State Department.

"the patron then makes himself equal to the artist"

Not equal. Consider the following ad hoc case: thirty possible patrons exist. One sponsors an amazing artist. It happens that there is only one artist worth sponsoring, and that any of the other 29 would jump in if the lucky patron stepped down. Who gets the credit for supporting the artist? Something like the Shapely value? That gives the artist nearly all the credit by virtue of the fact that her necessary contribution has no substitute, while the patron's has many substitutes.

It seems to me there are more patrons available than genius artists. But when we get down to "mere" good art, that may not be true... In any case whichever contribution is actually more rare should receive more credit.

we should probably fund a lot more art & culture through the State Department.
If we want crappy art & culture. Japan's industrial policy supported losers. Plenty of countries give cultural subsidies, generally to no return.


"If we want crappy art & culture."

Obviously Ansel Adams (yes he photographed more than Half Dome), Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Norman Rockwell are "crappy?" (That Rockwell piece is one of the best-known and surely best-loved American images ever, altho' not to the contemporary taste.)

The WPA, FSA and other government arts initiatives have actually funded efforts of stunning artistic merit that are now understood to be essential Americana and defining moments in 20th cent. American image-making.

It's not altogether clear that government funding of culture would produce a quality any lower than what we already suffer through. Turned on a television lately?

I'm starting to develop greater affinity for Robin's ideas on this matter.

I think it's fair to say that a major component of my becoming a physicist was status-seeking: growing up I thought scientists were very high status -- the great thinkers of the world -- and I viewed physicists as the highest of scientists -- they thought about the most fundamental questions.

I find have to resist the urge to view other professions with disdain -- my temptation to be critical of other professions increases with the positive attention they receive (this could be media attention or pay). This can be seen as jealousy or a sense of competition over status.

More in line with the present topic: I think university philanthropy is another good example of status seeking. I actually once heard a wealthy donor basically say this: he said how he started in science, but he (as he modestly put it) wasn't smart enough to succeed, so he went into business. He described his gift to the institute as a way of "being a part of science" like was his dream.

It's not altogether clear that government funding of culture would produce a quality any lower than what we already suffer through. Turned on a television lately?

For that matter, I'll add that the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is about a thousand times better than any other news program I've seen.

... and Norman Rockwell are "crappy?"

Anybody who throws enough money around will of course manage to hit some worthwhile endeavors. It does not follow that the government funding was needed, or does more good than harm - it does not follow, even, that government funding fails to do much more harm than good. The low quality of government-funded art is an overall assessment, and is not refuted by cherry-picked exceptions, especially when it hasn't even been demonstrated that the artists could not have succeeded in the private sector. In fact, the example of Norman Rockwell appears to show otherwise.

It's not altogether clear that government funding of culture would produce a quality any lower than what we already suffer through. Turned on a television lately?

While we do import some shows produced by government-funded artists (e.g. some things from the BBC), the rest of the world watches a tremendous amount of privately-funded American television, much as it watches a tremendous number of privately-funded American movies and listens to a tremendous amount of privately-funded American music. Google "best tv shows" if you need a reminder that there is a lot of quality television. Sure, 90% of everything is crap (not just TV but books etc.), but nobody's forcing you to watch it. Buy a Tivo if you've been in the habit of channel-surfing to find something good that just happens to be airing at the moment you're sitting in front of the TV.

I'll add that the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is about a thousand times better than any other news program I've seen.

Declaring that one is a fan of certain TV shows, particularly TV shows that are not watched by many people, is often a form of status-seeking. Public television is frequently cited as "favorite" or "best" in this context. Government funding is almost a guarantee of a certain quality that repels the masses - a quality we find manifested in government buildings such as the local DMV (which no one visits except when they absolutely have to), the prose of legislation, and the food served in public schools - and therefore virtually guarantees a degree of exclusivity that has the potential to raise one's status.



This has always been a puzzle to me. Why are art & news different than other work? It seems clear the government hinders most work - but art & news are demonstrably enhanced by government support.

The private art market lets Van Gogh starve, while Damien Hirst is rewarded for cow carcasses. The private news market gives us infotainment and Money Hunnies while PBS got us, as you note, Jim Lehrer and Louis Rukeyser.

So much of the great Italian art we consider the foundation of Western tradition was paid for by Italian princes - the government - to display their wealth & taste vs. their rivals. Instead of having wars, the Italian princes competed often via art, music & other splendors. (The Palio is another example of this, but among the contrada - have a horserace instead of a civil war. Do it every year to diffuse tensions.)

Clearly much of the culture once funded by the US was a similar effort against the Soviet Union. I wonder if Robin would weigh in on this anomaly.


The Brits here - who frankly don't know how good they have it in this regard - can whinge all they want but seriously: which is better at informing the public as citizens on important events, CBS or the BBC?

Which does the majority of the planet listen to with trust? Which do people in oppressed countries around the world huddle in secret around radios to hear? Which is widely regarded as more truthful?

The government-supported BBC is clearly the news of the world. That's hardly status-seeking.

TGGP: The "your dog does not own your house" argument (which is not in the blog you link to, but the blog that blog links to) would say that the patron deserves all the credit, and the artist none, because the artist has been paid.

Frelkins - I don't think it's an anomaly. I think it's the usual case that market-driven art is crappy.

The market's music: Christine Aguilera
The market's literature: Stephanie Meyers and
The market's art: Thomas Kinkade, "painter of light"

The anomaly is, How did all that great music get made in the 1960s and 1970s? And the other anomaly is, How did elitist art die out in the 20th century, so that the elite now favor crappy aharmonic atonal music by John Cage, crappy meaningless boring books by Thomas Pynchon, crappy modernist architecture like every school built since 1960, and crappy modern and postmodern art of which Picasso and Jackson Pollock represent the very best?

Raivo Pommer


Der mutmaßliche Milliarden-Betrüger Bernard Madoff will sich laut US-Medienberichten schuldig bekennen. Damit sei zu rechnen, wenn die New Yorker Staatsanwaltschaft am kommenden Donnerstag ihre formellen Vorwürfe gegen den Finanzjongleur präsentiere.

Dies berichteten die «New York Times» und das «Wall Street Journal» am Samstag. Madoff hatte am Freitag offiziell auf das Recht verzichtet, seinen Fall vor Gericht vor den Geschworenen einer Großen Jury verhandeln zu lassen. Auch das weise meist auf ein bevorstehendes Schuldeingeständnis hin, hieß es.

Die Staatsanwaltschaft wolle sich auch bei einem Schuldeingeständnis Madoffs nicht auf eine Abmachung über eine Abschwächung der Vorwürfe oder ein niedrigeres Strafmaß einlassen, schrieb das «Wall Street Journal» unter Berufung auf Informierte Personen. Die Ermittler hätten im Gegenteil vor, am Donnerstag weitere Vorwürfe zu erheben. Laut Medienberichten könnten dem 70- jährigen Madoff 20 bis 30 Jahre Gefängnis drohen.

There could be a folk paternal restraint in a norm of artists disdaining patrons. It would be interesting to examine empirically (in an experimental social science lab) if in the absence of such disdain, do artists tend to deform their work to fit the input of patrons, to the detriment of that artist-patron team in comparison with teams of other cultures.

Substitute artist with immortality innovationist and this thought experiment becomes interesting to me personally.

Also, this could possibly be generalized to experts and financiers, not just artists and patrons.

Incidentally, to the other commentors in this space, I think y'all don't beat the "empiricism" drum enough. We need lots, lots, lots more experiments, and we the unruly masses should be demanding them (along with demanding more searches and analyses of the natural experiments all around us and throughout our history).

If this is so shouldn't the virtue also trickle up to whoever funded the funder?

Where does this meme come from that Jim Lehrer is a great newsman?
What's extraordinary about this resume?
I lean towards agreement with those that're suggesting his comparative advantage is a boring style that serves as a status-signalling barrier aesthetic.
Unfortunately all video news seems to me to be too middle brow compared to print, with the lone exception of about 50% of the bloggingheads commentors.

Let me begin by trying to make it explicit; bits in italics are ones Stuart omitted and I've guessed at.

Not precisely the argument I had in mind, but close (thanks for pointing out the argument was unclear). My argument was: If people seek high status jobs simply because they are high status, this is bad. However, high status may be correlated with other factors. So to judge if status seeking is the main reason someone seeks out a job, we need to control for other variables, as much as we can.

One possible correlated variable to status is the possibility that a job is seen to be useful/worthwhile/contributing something positive. If this fact is indeed a major consideration, then all those who actually contribute to the job happening should be equally valued.

Then if there is a mismatch between status accorded to different categories of contributors, there must be other reasons causing preference for being in one category. These reasons could include status seeking, enjoyment of the job, remuneration, etc... Anyway, they must be selfish reasons, and status seeking seems a good candidate in the art world.

Which does the majority of the planet listen to with trust?

I'm not sure, but if I were to guess, I would first ask, has there been a world-spanning empire recently - an empire on which the sun never sets? And is there a news organization associated with this empire? If I were to guess, I would guess that this news organization was the most widely listened to.

"The market's literature" encompasses quite a lot. For example, the best selling fiction author of all time is, supposedly, Agatha Christie.

"The market's literature" encompasses quite a lot.

Indeed - potentially so much that anyone who wants to define a category opposed to it had probably better artificially narrow his definition. Starting with Shakespeare: Shakespeare wrote plays which were performed to paying audiences. What about that other height of English literature, Charles Dickens? He sold his novels in serialized form to a paying audience. What great English-language novels were commissioned by the state?

Raivo Pommer

Teuer Geld

Er beruft sich hierbei auf ein Urteil des Landgerichts Coburg (Az.: 23 O 426/08). In dem Fall hatten der Beklagte und seine Ehefrau zusammen einen Kredit über 21 000 Euro aufgenommen. Als sie sich scheiden ließen, vereinbarten sie, dass die Frau den Kredit zurückzahlen werde. Im Gegenzug verpflichtete sich der Mann, zwei weitere Darlehen zu begleichen.

Diese Absprache teilten sie auch der Bank mit. Als die Frau die Tilgungen nicht leistete, kündigte die Bank das Darlehen und verlangte vom früheren Ehemann den offenen Schuldbetrag von 16 400 Euro. Zu recht, urteilte das Gericht: Denn die Absprache zwischen den früheren Eheleuten schütze den Beklagten nicht. Maßgeblich sei allein das Vertragsverhältnis zwischen der Bank und dem Mann. Der Beklagte sei durch die Scheidung oder die Abmachung der Eheleute untereinander nicht von seiner Schuld gegenüber der Bank befreit.

Do people actually enjoy Shakespeare and Dickens? I think "liking" old literature is the most horrible and masochistic case of status seeking by association.
Want to bet that if someone wrote like Shakespeare/Dickens today he would get neither market success nor critical acclaim?

Tomasz, yes people do actually enjoy Shakespeare and Dickens, and I see no grounds for thinking it's always (or even usually) because of status-seeking. Dickens enjoyed plenty of market success in his lifetime; what do you think has changed that would make it impossible for people to like his work sincerely now?


I absolutely do love Shakespeare. If I didn't genuinely love his plays and just wanted to signal status, I'd read summaries of the plays and memorize a witty line or two from the most well-known plays (while of course lying and saying that I read him regularly).

You seem to suffer from a form of "inverse snobbery," assuming that your literary taste is somehow "standard" and that since you do not like Shakespeare and since there are some benefits in some circles to pretending to like Shakespeare, it must be the case anybody who says they do like Shakespeare is lying in order to impress others.

Do you really think it would be so easy for somebody today to "write like Shakespeare"? What does that mean? Mindless imitation? Running their writings through a search-and-replace program that inserts prithees, 'sbloods, and other common Shakespearean terms? How do you "write like" the person who shaped the English language more than any other?

It's very frustrating not being able to mention Shakespeare or Bach or certain other artists in public due to rampant inverse snobbery. It's okay to say that you're currently reading Harry Potter, but if you happen to be reading The Tempest and admit it in public, you're a liar and an elitist snob.

“How did elitist art die out in the 20th century, so that the elite now favor crappy aharmonic atonal music by John Cage, crappy meaningless boring books by Thomas Pynchon, crappy modernist architecture like every school built since 1960, and crappy modern and postmodern art of which Picasso and Jackson Pollock represent the very best?”

That’s a good question. I think the decline of the elitist art may be tied to the social decline of the elite. The XVIIth century art patrons (kings and rich nobles) felt very confident about their status, and so even the greatest artists of the time had to cater to their unenlightened tastes. This situation continued even when the patronage of art shifted to bourgeoisie in XIX century. However, with the advent of socialism in XXth century the social elites began to feel increasingly insecure. They could no longer openly claim higher status based on their elevated income or better education. Instead their rather discreet pretensions to higher status began to be based on belonging to higher culture that is associated with “enlightened” political views and avant-garde art.

In this situation one of the main functions of “elitist” art is to set a boundary between the “elite” who likes or pretends to like it and the uneducated crowds that don’t. Contrast it with the music or paintings of XVIII century which may impress even a child.

Raivo Pommer

Österreich Krise

Österreichs Ruf als Schuldner steht auf dem Prüfstand. Die Alpenrepublik will in dieser Woche ihre bis 2014 laufende und 2 Milliarden Euro schwere Staatsanleihe um eine halbe Milliarde Euro aufstocken. Dieser Betrag sollte leicht auf dem Anleihemarkt einzusammeln sein. Allerdings ist Österreich ins Gerede gekommen. Das liegt an der tiefen Rezession in weiten Teilen Osteuropas. Dort haben österreichische Banken Forderungen von 280 Milliarden Dollar - eine Zahl, die dem österreichischen Bruttoinlandsprodukts nahekommt. Wegen der wachsenden Schwierigkeiten osteuropäischer Schuldner, ihre Kredite zurückzuzahlen, sind die Bedenken der Anleger mit Blick auf die Kreditwürdigkeit Österreichs und seiner Banken in den vergangenen Tagen gewachsen.

Ein Indiz für die Skepsis ist die Renditedifferenz zwischen österreichischen Staatsanleihen und deutschen Bundesanleihen. Noch nie war sie so groß wie derzeit. Für zehnjährige Laufzeiten zum Beispiel beträgt die Differenz fast 1,4 Prozentpunkte. Bundesanleihen rentieren mit 2,9 Prozent, österreichische mit immerhin 4,3 Prozent. Auf dem zu Übertreibungen neigenden Markt für Kreditausfallversicherungen (CDS) ist die Diskrepanz zwischen Österreich und Deutschland sogar noch größer. Die Aufstockung der österreichischen Staatsanleihe ist daher keinesfalls Routine.

Weird sort of comment spam we're getting these days. No links; text appears to be cut-and-paste from German newspaper articles (so, in particular, doesn't seem like the maximally-unobtrusive sort of thing you'd use if you were just trying to get some accounts in place for later spamming). Is "Raivo Pommer" just hoping to harvest email addresses from people who send angry responses? Or is this some incredibly stupid attempt at spreading some message he (presumably crankily) thinks is important? I suppose we'll never know.

If someone wrote using absurdly anachronistic style, then yes, their success would likely be limited.

Dickens and Shakespeare both enjoyed great popular success in their day; if they aren't as accessible today it is because the language's standards have changed, creating an artificial barrier to appreciating their work. Either one, writing today, would likely enjoy massive success, though Shakespeare might have to tone down some of the off-color innuendo a bit.

Imagine someone in 150 years reading Harry Potter novels or, say, Stephen King's work and getting accussed (probably by status-seeking pseudo-populist "common man" type folks) of being an elitist snob for "liking" stuffy old literature that noone actually enjoys. That'd be about the same level of absurdity.

"Constant" accused me of status-seeking by declaring my preference for a particular TV show. I'll go along with that.

Actually I'm a HUGE status seeker. It would take far too long for me to count the ways. Perhaps I freely admit to this shortcoming as a means to seek status (because honesty might be seen as a greater virtue).

But we must be careful here: I think the interesting paradigm that Robin is describing is status-seeking by affiliation. We shouldn't be surprised to find huge swaths of human behavior explained by status seeking (after all, status is important for increasing reproduction opportunity); but status seeking by affiliation is just a subset of that (I would say it's an interesting subset because of the question of merit).

It's hard for me to sort out my deeper motivations, but I suspect I expressed my preference for the NewsHour not so much because I thought affiliating myself with it improved my status, but because I thought disparaging all of the other television news programs did so. This is a different form of status seeking: making oneself look superior by criticizing others.

It seems to me that the status of the artist is mostly determinable from the quality of the art.

The status of the patron, on the other hand, is more complex. It's tied up with some question about whether her choice of that artist is scattershot versus discerning, and with how she has made the money to support it.

I believe we have a cultural bias to be overly morally suspicious of great wealth, because it is only within the last 3-400 years that it has become feasible to amass a great fortune without arbitrary appropriation being at the heart of it.

Even under modern capitalism, the kind of market where it would be impossible to make an immoral dollar without breaking the law is hard to imagine being feasible. All negative externalities accounted for in the market price of every good and service? Transaction costs and barriers to entry low enough for more than negligible rent-seeking to be ineffective?

That kind of marketplace is certainly not in existence in any country today.

If I am a hit man who uses my money to fund the arts? Do I get credit for my culture?

@ M. Sullivan

"If I am a hit man who uses my money to fund the arts? Do I get credit for my culture?"

Yes, why yes you do. Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, offed his rivals the Medicis during a high mass in the cathedral in Florence in 1478. Now that's class. And he has a most excellent rep as patron of the arts. . .notably sponsoring the great Italian painter Piero della Francesca, one of the greatest Renaissance painters. The Duke commissioned many portraits and church altarpieces as well as notable devotional paintings. A pious humanist, indeed.

Note however that the Medicis got their revenge in the end however, effectively seizing control of Urbino by 1516.

Hello Stuart,

I was quite surprised to find out that you were one of the contributors for this site, which was given to me to on a list of "model" blogging websites... Well, actually, it's not that surprising, it fits you well. The surprise was that I knew one of the contributors of the website.

As a matter of coincidence, in the same session on internet, I also found out about this website, which I think you would enjoy:


I hope you have a look at it, and that you'll let me if you like it :)
(probably not on this website, but maybe on Facebook?)

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