Q & A

What is art in the internet age?

Technology and globalization have radically changed the way many people do business, but do such concrete considerations also drive creative undertakings? Economist Tyler Cowen discusses the brave new world of cultural production and the increasingly demanding consumer on the receiving end.


Q: What's the relationship between artists and their audience around the world today?

I think we're seeing the triumph of global art, global customers, and global markets. We're seeing creativity spreading to more parts of the world and more parts of daily life than ever before.

The debate about globalization in the 1990s was about destroying diversity. That seems to have been soundly refuted by what's before our eyes. There's a rush of creativity and it's often supported by foreign buyers or foreign capital. You could say some of it is bland, homogenous, sellout garbage, maybe, but a lot of it's pretty excellent.

There's innovative work happening in the visual arts, classical music, world music, graphic novels. Foreign cinema is tremendous. Writing in general is thriving: blogs, Twitter, but also fiction. Nonfiction is way better than it was even 20 years ago. There's now a well-written popular science book on almost everything.

Q: Does this affect how art is being defined?

I think no one knows what art is anymore. Part of that's the internet. There's a lot of stuff out there. A lot of it's free. The audience insists on choice. They're used to Google. You watch a YouTube video and ask, is that art? Food and interior design are arguably growing more popular, more influential. Are they art? At some point it's a waste of time to define it. They're creative. They're interesting. They can be philosophical. They can be just fun. They're entertaining. The case for a very rigid, formalized approach to art is much weaker. It's a completely different landscape. I would say mostly for the better.

Q: What are the down sides?

If everything is at your fingertips through the World Wide Web, you can imagine that some long, patience-requiring artistic projects may find it harder to make their way in the marketplace.

Q: To what degree is art explicitly an economic activity now?

I think it's very often less an economic activity. It's a hobby or something you do out of inspiration because in a lot of genres you can deliver the product for either free or very low cost. That's been a big, big shift.

Q: Is that hurting people trying to make it a profession?

Well, it helps one group of people and it hurts another. If you're a traditional newspaper journalist—say, a music critic for the Washington Post—you might be worse off because you compete against free bloggers online. But if you're just a great writer, a fan of music, and you know a lot, you can build a career by starting with blogging. That person is much better off. Again, the audience decides, on that I think it's a positive, but clearly not everyone is better off.

Q: What are the incentives you think artists are responding to?

Money and fame and sex—the same as always—but now there's a difference. You can't perfect your masterwork for 20 years. There's a bit of a hurry. There's a sense that things are changing. You can end up obsolete.

Q: How about from the audience perspective? How different is consuming art versus other consumption?

I think it's changed enormously in the last 10 years. You see it in movie theaters, but it's everywhere: people text or tweet and don't pay full attention. They're in some ways quite fussy. The attitude is, I'm already in control of my own informational life and entertainment. What else can you bring to the table? Not in a hostile way, but in an entirely legitimate "what have you got for me?" way. A lot of creators aren't really up to it.

Q: What are the key factors leading to the change?

I think it's almost all been technology. The rest has followed from that. You have everything at your fingertips. So much art being free has changed everything. Good stuff has to be more spectacular. People are potentially more distracted or distractible, but still they're looking for something which is different than and in some ways better than sitting on their sofa with the internet. They're open, but art has to in some way give them something that sofa time doesn't.

Live entertainment offers something different than reading. So I think the future will be a lot more spectacular live entertainment, like Cirque de Soleil or the opening of the Beijing Olympics, but in a lot of different settings. That also has to do with piracy. You don't have to worry about piracy if you have a live show.

Sports is another area which is quasi-artistic and not always seen as such. People love sports. They do well with new media, and there's a lot of stickiness, like with music. Sports cannot time shift and that's huge. The live value will never go away. You can shrink a lot of stuff down watching on an iPhone, but a lot of sports you can't or won't. I really look to sports as a big future area for continued growth.

Q: Are artists reaching out to niche audiences?

I see the super-popular and the niches growing and the middle being a little hollowed out. The bestselling movies and books, they take in way more money. They become truly global in a way they weren't a few decades ago.

Then the niches also proliferate. Mid-ground is expensive enough that you have to worry about how to pay for it, but not so popular that it takes in millions or billions. The mid-list fiction author living in New York depending on an advance every two years to put out the next book—that is falling away. There's too much competition.

It's the same with recording contracts. There's more risk put on the performers. There's not this expectation that we'll find a supergroup like the Rolling Stones or Beatles. There are a lot of performers with great songs and much shorter careers.

That's a little disorienting for my generation. I'm used to there being a group you follow for 20 years. The new album comes out, you all talk about it, you see the tour, you await the next album, but that's not really how things are. You have a super-speedy popping out of individual songs, which people hear on YouTube, iPods, Spotify, or by trading with their friends. It gets processed by the world in hours or days and then you're on to the next thing.

Q: Artistic influences have probably always flowed back and forth among cultures, but globalization and technology seem to have amplified it.

It goes in all directions and super fast. Look at the "Gangnam Style" video from South Korea. You may not get the highest artistic peaks—the John Lennons. A lot of what people listen to comes from the factory mode, like Motown was, but more sophisticated, more based on data analysis.

Q: Does this suggest anything about the U.S.'s future as a center of cultural production?

I don't think we have to be too worried. The overall interest in culture is going up, and we're still a leader. The market as a whole is becoming larger. We may have a smaller share of it, but you can do just fine with a smaller share of a larger market.

Q: Where do you see cultural production going from here?

We again live in communities where everyone talks about each other. That seemed to go away while we had decentralized, semi-anonymous mass media outlets with oligopolistic power and strong financial basis. Historically, that was the extreme outlier. We've gone back to village culture and local creation at low cost. We've returned to the medieval broadsheet and gossip with a layer of extreme globalization put on top.

That means Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code are bestsellers everywhere; people in all countries watched the "Gangnam Style" video, and so on. If you do really well, you reach billions. Others play this more medieval game. It's really exciting. I know a lot of people hate it, but there's something new and great every day.


For more from Tyler Cowen, see Marginal Revolution, the blog he co-authors with Alex Tabarrok.

Interview conducted and edited by Ted O'Callahan.

Professor of Economics, George Mason University