Culture in hard times: Cowen and Westbury

Hannah Arendt once wrote a fine book of essays called Men in Dark Times. As the economic storm clouds gather, we appear to be entering a similarly difficult time (though let us hope it is not as bleak as inter-war Europe). 

Two items of interest in this sphere of thinking:

1) Tyler Cowen’s early February article in the New York Times on the cultural and social effects of recessions:

In today’s recession, we can also expect to turn to less expensive activities — and maybe to keep those habits for years. They may take the form of greater interest in free content on the Internet and the simple pleasures of a daily walk, instead of expensive vacations and N.B.A. box seats.

In any recession, the poor suffer the most pain. But in cultural influence, it may well be the rich who lose the most in the current crisis. This downturn is bringing a larger-than-usual decline in consumption by the wealthy.

The shift has been documented by Jonathan A. Parker and Annette Vissing-Jorgenson, finance professors at Northwestern University, in their recent paper, “Who Bears Aggregate Fluctuations and How? Estimates and Implications for Consumption Inequality.” Of course, people who held much wealth in real estate or stocks have taken heavy losses. But most important, the paper says, the labor incomes of high earners have declined more than in past recessions, as seen in the financial sector.

Popular culture’s catering to the wealthy may also decline in this downturn. We can expect a shift away from the lionizing of fancy restaurants, for example, and toward more use of public libraries. Such changes tend to occur in downturns, but this time they may be especially pronounced.

2) Marcus Westbury on the culture of hard times:

It is probably a good time to remind myself just how much of the culture that i find interesting is the product not of the big budget top end of town but of the unique possibilities of the down side of the economic cycle. It seems obvious to me that in cultural policy – as with almost everything else – changing times call for changing approaches.

Yet the impending new realities have not gained much traction in our cultural debates. Over the last few months, I’ve been travelling up and down the east coast and dealing with arts agencies and organisations at various levels. I’ve been a little surprised at how little recognition there is that cultural policy – like most forms of government policy – can and must adapt and respond to economic conditions.