An Economic Theory of Avant-Garde and Popular Art, or High and Low Culture

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Citation: Tyler Cowen, Alexander Tabarrok (2000) An Economic Theory of Avant-Garde and Popular Art, or High and Low Culture. Southern Economic Journal (RSS)


Tagged: Economics (RSS)


To some extent artists choose between market and self-satisfaction.

What is the effect of reproducibility on catering to connoisseurs or mass market?

Why do some artistic media cater more to connoisseurs or mass market (cf painters and filmmakers)?

Why is today gulf between critical and popular favorites is great (cf Mozart and Shakespeare, were popular and critically acclaimed in their time)?

Artist utility modeled as U(c) + V(L,s): utility of consuming other goods + utility of units of work on art at a given satisfaction level.

Vs(L,s) is the non-pecuniary change in artist utility given a change in characteristics of art work. Consumers also have preferences about art work consumption, usually differing from artist production preference.

Artist wishing to maximize utility is subject to budget constraint: consumption of other goods = income from art + income from other work + lump-sum (eg grants, family; increase in real wages has similar effects)

the more an artist works in the art sector the more income he loses from a shift to higher satisfaction, but less saleable,art.


the more avant-garde the artist, the higher the price for being a professional.

Authors show increase in lump-sum income increases art labor and/or direction of art labor to satisfying work: marginal value of pecuniary income decreases with lump-sum increase, while utility from art labor is constant.

Authors show that supply of artists, and preference for working on satisfying rather than saleable work, will increase with lump-sum income if change in relative price of satisfying work does not fall so rapidly that artist over "consumers" satisfaction and can no longer afford to do art labor, and change in art income with satisfying work is not excessively negative, respectively.

Resulting predictions: Satisfying art labor (and non-pecuniary generally) labor increases with family wealth (study of dutch artistic guilds found wealthy apprentice more as painters, others in more practical arts eg earthenware). Artistic labor and direction toward satisfying work should increase with government and spousal support.


When work is reproducible may pay to sell to large audience (appeal to masses) rather than seek out consumers most willing to pay. Forms hard to reproduce increase incentive for artists to produce to own tastes.

Reproducible forms also lead to greater concentration (superstars) assuming consumers agree on work/artist they prefer. Potential superstar earnings can shift production to mass appeal.

When form is reproducible increase in market size increases price of (consumer preferred) quality.

Consider when market size is only the artist: only satisfies themselves.

Size effect may explain perception some genres better in their early years: smaller market, less incentive to appeal to masses.

Large outside market size and small non-art opportunities can create artistic concentrations and innovations (eg Inuit carvers, Persian carpet weavers, African American rappers).

High/avant-garde art

Artists seeking approval of high status critics, and assumption artists and critics have similar preferences, produce equivalent predictions.

Artists reap non-pecuniary rewards, capitalists do not. Forms requiring capital will be dominated by mass appeal.

Considering reproducibility and capital, film doubly dominated by mass appeal, painting doubly dominated by avant-garde.

High/avant-garde art has thrived in wealthy societies due to much lower necessary work requirements to feed oneself. Effective increase in income can be used to "purchase" non-pecuniary activities, including both more artists and more artists producing not for sale.

Wealthy society and lower capital cost-enabled avant garde artists have less chance of mass appeal the more they satisfy themselves, while artists seeking large market size pecuniary rewards have less chance of critical appeal, explaining pulling apart of high and low art. New genres often start with high capital costs (else would have been discovered earlier), thus start popular.

Taxes increase supply and satisfaction-seeking of artists because reward for pecuniary activity decreased, possibly a much bigger subsidy to arts than direct grants.

Others that get non-pecuniary utility from work behave like artists. Including economists.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

Interview/blog post