Troppa avanguardia?

Molti amanti della musica lamentano da sempre la presenza ingombrante di avanguardie artistiche astruse e incomprensibili. Si puo’ liquidare questa posizione come retrograda, oppure si puo’ giustificarne il senso. Oggi provo a simpatizzare con questa seconda opzione.


Il mondo dell’ arte è davvero strano, difficilmente inquadrabile negli schemi tradizionali:

… Artists both produce and consume their own work… artists seek not only profit, but also fame, critical praise, the satisfaction of creating works that speak to them personally and the enjoyment which flows from artistic labor. Most generally, artists produce works of a type which pleases themselves, in addition to pleasing the market…

Per un qualche motivo capita che l’ artista cessi di rivolgersi al pubblico per concentrarsi unicamente sulla sua musa:

… Beethoven wrote his late string quartets to satisfy his creative urges, knowing the works were too complex to satisfy a wide public audience at the time. Donatello and Michelangelo, perhaps the best-known sculptors from the Italian Renaissance, would walk away from commissions if they could not determine the content of the project… James Joyce chose a level  of esoterica for his Finnegans Wake that excluded most of the world’s readers, even intellectually inclined ones…

Cominciamo innanzitutto a capire come mai artisti e intellettuali in genere odino l mercato:

The trade-off between pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits may help to explain the notorious antipathy of many artists towards the market. The market “disciplines” the artist and forces him to pay a price for producing the art he most desires. Artists typically feel that market incentives lower the quality of art… and forces him to pay a price for producing the art he most desires. Artists typically feel that market incentives lower the quality of art…  Intuitively, the more the artist works in the art sector the more income he loses from a shift to higher satisfaction, but less saleable, art. An amateur artist who receives most of his income from labor in the manufacturing sector can afford to produce his own brand of art at little loss in income….

Ora è chiaro perché gli artisti più significativi – almeno un tempo – fossero ricchi di famiglia: l’ arte pura è una melodiosa sirena soprattutto per l’ ereditiere:

French cultural activity, for instance, relied heavily upon family funds and bequests. French painters who lived from family wealth include Delacroix, Corot, Courbet, Seurat, Degas, Manet, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Moreau; the list of writers includes Baudelaire, Verlaine, Flaubert, and Proust…

Capiamo anche perché certe avanguardie un po’ cervellotiche siano possibili soprattutto in presenza di sussidio governativo; il fatto è che tutto cio’ crea una spirale perversa:

… The dependence of artistic satisfaction on government support introduces a possible bias into decision making. As government support increases, artists turn away from market sales and art wages fall. Thus, as government support increases, the market appears to become more philistine and the argument for government funding appears stronger…

Ma cos’ è esattamente l’ avanguardia?

…Art is typically considered avant-garde if the style is offbeat and the product appeals to a select few. John Cage’s compositions or James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake provide paradigmatic examples of avant-garde art. We can hypothesize that artists prefer these styles for their artistic complexity and novelty, the same factors that make them inaccessible to the public and popular with high-brow critics…

Si ha sempre la sensazione che le arti visive guidino lo sviluppo delle arti in generale. I pittori son sempre più “avanti”, seguono i musicisti, poi arriva il teatro e buoni ultimi i cineasti. La spiegazione è abbastanza semplice:

… When creative labor accounts for only one percent of total cost, however, an offer to lower artistic wages to zero will probably not induce the shareholders to move in less popular directions. Thus, artistic products tend to fit into money-making popular culture genres when shareholders have a strong influence on the final product, and tend more towards the avant-garde when shareholders are absent or have little influence…

Film is a more capital intensive medium than theatre and theatre is a more capital intensive medium than painting.

Si noti anche che l’ avanguardia è un fenomeno tipico dei paesi ricchi:

avant-garde art have flourished to such a considerable degree in wealthy capitalist countries.

High art in general has flourished in relatively prosperous societies. The high art of the Renaissance came from Florence and the Italian city-states, the richest part of the Western world in their day. Periclean Athens was a relatively wealthy trading city. Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, and the French Impressionists all relied upon growing propserity to sustain their activities…

Avant-garde art, a product of recent times, tends to flourish only in extremely wealthy societies. Avant-garde artists such as John Cage or Nam June Paik can earn a living in wealthy capitalist societies; we cannot imagine such artists having managed to support themselves in Colonial America, for instance.

Il motivo è abbastanza semplice:

… In 1875 it required 1800 hours of labor to earn enough income to feed oneself, today it requires just 260 hours (Fogel, 1999). This effective increase in income is used to purchase “leisure time,” time to do what we like rather than what we must. One application of this general result is that as the wealth of society increases the number of market sales required to support an artist decreases. Thus, the wealthier the society the more liberated the artist…

Un altro fenomeno dell’ arte contemporanea è la forte divergenza tra cultura alta e cultura bassa (cultural split):

Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven were very successful with public audiences, both in the concert arena and with their sheet music. Today we have many renowned composers – Carter, Boulez, Babbitt, and many others – who receive high critical plaudits but have virtually no public audience. At the same time many popular artists – George Michael, Michael Bolton, Paula Abdul – sell millions of recordings but may not pass into the history books or receive critical praise. We observe similar phenomena in painting and literature. The most renowned painters of the Italian Renaissance created styles that appealed to a broad public, whereas the most renowned painters today have moved in a less popular direction.  Similarly, John Grisham sells more copies than Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Claude Simon does. In earlier times, renowned writers, such as Dickens, Balzac, or Hugo were the bestselling authors of their day but this phenomena appears to become progressively rarer. An examination of modern best-seller lists also illustrates this tendency…


The divergence between high and low culture over time follows from several factors… as an artist’s income increases, whether from general economic growth or an increase in the demand for art, the artist becomes more willing to sacrifice income in return for the non-pecuniary benefits of higher satisfaction art. Economic growth also tends to lower capital costs and so… the preferences of artists come to play a larger and larger… role in genres once considered purely popular. For the artist, economic growth brings liberation from the market…

But not all artists are motivated by non-pecuniary benefits. As the size of the market increases, many artists become more avant-garde but the number of “crowd pleaser” artists will increase as well. Mass culture will attain greater size and scope. As both popular and avant-garde sectors grow, we will observe an apparent divergence of high and low culture. The avant-garde artists have a smaller chance of taking the greatest market share, and the crowd pleaser artists have a smaller chance of winning critical acclaim…

Come colmare lo iato? Estendere i mercati e rendere l’ arte “riproducibile” puo’ aiutare

… A uniform increase in the size of market will therefore tend to homogenize the choices of artists. Artist’s previously focused on market sales will take some of their higher wages in the form of aesthetic satisfaction while artist’s who previously focused only on satisfying their own tastes will be induced to conform more closley to market demands…

Un’ ultima osservazione: le tasse incrementano la qualità dell’ arte prodotta:

Taxes can increase the number of artists and the quality of art because taxation increases non-pecuniary returns relative to pecuniary returns… The intuition behind proposition 3.2 is straightforward – a tax on money income leaves the non-pecuniary return to labor in the arts untaxed… Consider, for example, a wage tax of 100%; in such a case every artist would produce only to satisfy their own aesthetic demands.

Modern governments, therefore, provide very considerable incentives for avant-garde and high art, to the extent that creators pursue non-pecuniary benefits. High marginal rates of income taxation encourage artists to increase the supply of avant-garde and high art. This indirect support of high art and the avant-garde may be far greater than the direct effects of government support.

Insomma, un paese ad alta tassazione e con una cultura in buona parte sussidiata produce un eccesso di avanguardie e di qualità artistica: la lamentazione di molti musicofili sarebbe quindi giustificata.

Tyler Cowen Alexander Tabarrok – An Economic Theory of Avant-Garde and Popular Art, or High and Low Culture



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