Friday, January 21, 2011

The Viewer/Reader/Listener as Entrepreneur

In the last posting, a reader asks:

The process of valuation of profit and loss is subjective from person to person. So based on this, should a work of art make its viewer into an entrepreneur so that he may speculate and find what it is that gives him the psychic satisfaction of a seemingly simple piece of art?
Indeed, the process of valuation of profit and loss is subjective from person to person. Especially when one doesn't have money to make things a bit more objective in that matter (I can think my business is profitable all I want, but if I lose money and go bankrupt, that's a pretty objective determiner of loss). So his statement that a work of art "makes its viewer into an entrepreneur so that he may speculate and find what it is that gives him the psychic satisfaction" is an excellent description of what happens. The valuation of each person for a given work of art -- be it literature, a work of visual art, music, etc. -- is of course subjective. We have plenty of cliches that cover that: there's no accounting for taste; beauty is in the eye of the beholder; etc. We lovers of great art like to think that if we educate people, they will learn to see how wonderful, deep, and complex great art is, and learn to love it too. The reality is that we can only reach so many people; the rest, well, there's no acocunting for taste.

But let us get back to this idea that a work of art makes its viewer into an entrepreneur so that he may speculate and find what gives him the psychic satisfaction of a piece of art. Let us look at what Mises says of the entrepreneur:

Economics, in speaking of entrepreneurs, has in view not men, but a definite function. This function is not the particular feature of a special group or class of men; it is inherent in every action and burdens every actor. (Human Action, 252-3)
So each person is in fact an entrepreneur. Mises goes on to say that

The term entrepreneur, as used by catallactic theory means: acting man exclusively seen from the aspect of the uncertainty inherent in every action. In using this term one must never forget that every action is embedded in the flux of time and therefore involves a speculation. (Human Action, 253)
Of course, this is the catallactic definition, as Mises says. What about the literary order entrepreneur? About what is a person speculating when choosing to engage with a work of art, or when engaging in a work of art? The person is seeking to profit, but in what way? After all, "the entrepreneur earns profit and suffers loss" (Mises, Human Action, 254). What gives him this "psychic satisfaction"? What would give him psychic dissatisfaction? These sorts of questions bring us to questions which may be more readily answered by such theories as literary Darwinism. The economics of the arts allows us to ask the questions, but not necessarily answer them -- in the same way that economics is concerned with values from the perspective of achieving your goals, but not from that of understanding where your values come from, or even why you're choosing to rank them one way or another at a given time. The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson argues that beauty is unity in variety and variety in unity. One can make the same arguments about values: there are a variety of values, but we all seem to share the same set of values, even if we are each ranking them differently at different times. There are no doubt a few values which few share -- but the exceptions, at the extremes, do not negate the rule. The same can be said of our perception of what is beautiful in a work of art. There is likely to be widespread agreement on what is beautiful, but different rankings. Also, it is true that learning how to see something new can help you to learn to see it as beautiful. Van Gogh was unpopular during his lifetime, and the Impressionists (named by their critics) were widely reviled when their works first came out. Yet, who doesn't think van Gogh or the Impressionsts' works aren't beautiful? We have learned how to see them. Thus can judgments and values change.

Yet clearly, these works have to create some sort of psychic satisfaction. We have to find profit in them. And people obviously do. Impressionist exhibits at museums draw some of the largest crowds. Yet, at the same time, it is not necessarily high art that creates psychic satisfaction for everyone. Romance novels clearly do just this, as they would dominate the best seller list if they were in fact included in such lists. Clearly someone reading a romance novel is looking for a different kind of psychic satisfaction than someone reading Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. You may have one reader who profits from each, another who profits from the romance novel and experiences loss with Faulkner, and yet another who experiences loss with the romance novel and profits from Faulkner. What goes into these valuations? Again, this is a question for psychological theories, not economic ones. Yet this kind of economic approach does raise some interesting questions.

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