I was recently reminded of a formulation about culture in free societies, which I have used in the past but have perhaps not commited to print. To wit, what I call Karnick’s Law of Culture:
Bad art drives out the good.
The idea is analogous, of course, to Gresham’s Law, which states that in a free economy, bad currency drives out the good.
I think that Karnick’s Law helps explain why contemporary American culture has so often seemed to appeal to the worst impulses of human beings and to downplay or even deny the very existence of our higher and better impulses. It is easier for artists (of any level of talent, from the very lowest to the highest) to create a deep and widespread reaction in audiences by appealing to sensations, which are nearly universally understood, than to the intellect, which fewer people can access at its highest levels. This is true regardless of the personal morality and intentions of the artist; it is an obsevation about human psychology, not morality.
Obviously, the best and healthiest art will appeal to both the sensations and the intellect, and will be accessible to a wide range of people. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, Dickens, T. S. Eliot, and David Lean, to provide just a few examples, demonstrate this achievement beautifully. On the other hand, a preponderance of sensation over intellect, or of intellect over sensation, will create a work of degrading baseness in the first case and of unnourishing aridity in the second instance.
In the economy, government intervention overcomes the perils of Gresham’s Law. This is done through coercion, although such government intervention is a measure which most people would agree is salutary.
In society, the church and government seem to be the natural repositories of response to the problems identified by Karnick’s Law. There is, however, much less agreement on this, and in particular on who should decide these matters even if we can agree that something should be done collectively, than is the case with our protection of the value of our currency
The question that naturally arises to the liberal mind is this: Is there a way in which society can overcome the perils defined in Karnick’s Law by means of voluntary cooperation rather than coercion?