Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Tragedy of the art commons

Posted by Daniel Hall on October 13, 2007

I recently read Tyler Cowen‘s new book Discover Your Inner Economist. (Short review: Thought provoking, life affirming, and funny. Read it.) In a chapter on appreciating culture, he notes the dangers that overexposure poses to our appreciation for great art:

…honestly I don’t know how good the Mona Lisa is, and I don’t even know how I could know.

I am not invoking postmodern skepticism about the arbitrariness of objective value standards. … When it comes to the Mona Lisa, it is hard for any American or European today to look at the picture with fresh eyes. …

Economists call this phenomenon “the tragedy of the commons.” A tragedy of the commons occurs when individual actions, taken together, destroy the value of an asset or resource.

Tragedy of the commons problems arise among common pool resources, whose defining characteristics are that they are non-excludable (everyone has access to them) and rivalrous (my use of the resource diminishes everyone else’s ability to use it). Fisheries are a classic example: they are an open-access resource which anyone can take from, but the more fish I take, the less there are left for you to take (and, what’s worse, the less there are left for everyone (both you and me) next year when the now-reduced population can’t produce as many offspring).

It struck me that historically art had exactly the opposite characteristics from a common pool resource: art was excludable (only wealthy patrons had art, and smelly peasants weren’t getting in to see it) and non-rivalrous (which is traditionally how we would think of a piece of artwork — it’s like a sunset which can continue to provide enjoyment no matter how many people see it). This made it what economists call a club good. (I suppose the name implies that you have to be in the club — art patrons and their friends in this case — in order to get the good.)

The rise of public museums as repositories for art changed this somewhat, by making art far less excludable — you still might have to travel to go see it, but at least you could get in for a look. This effectively made art a public good, both non-rival and non-excludable.

So, what changed? My interpretation of Tyler’s view is that technology made art so easy to reproduce and made its distribution so effortless that art became radically non-excludable. This is a good thing on a certain level; it implies, after all, that it’s far easier to learn about, view, and appreciate (at least in a manner) much of history’s greatest art. But technology also made it possible for a few “great” pieces to capture enormous audiences, as their popularity reinforced their dissemination, generating a positive feedback loop that made certain art pieces overexposed. This overexposure gave art some amount of rivalness. Everyone else’s use of that art — their constant flashing it in my face — impinged on my ability to fully appreciate it.

Now, clearly, Tyler is using a slightly different sense of a good being “rival” in this case than in the case with the fishes. It’s not like constant dissemination is actually destroying the artwork itself. I think intrinsic in Tyler’s view is the sense that much of the power of art comes from its ability to produce a reaction or change in us, and that power is much impaired by constant exposure to shadowy copies.

I experienced this earlier this year when I saw the painting American Gothic in Chicago. It was a cool experience getting to see it. But at the same time, I didn’t know what to feel when I saw it, and thinking back on the day later it wasn’t even among the top 5 most impactful or memorable things I saw at the Art Institute that day — rather, they were mostly things that snuck up on me, that I hadn’t seen before and impressed or moved me.

So, in the spirit of not destroying the surprise and power of personal experience, this is all I’m going to say about Tyler’s book on this blog. I trust that you’ll go out and read it. You’ll be glad you did.

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