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December 02, 2002

Economics and Art Appreciation

Friedrich --

This is a culture blog (generally, anyway), so it might seem strange for me to write about economics, and God knows Iím barely competent to talk on the subject at all. But a few years ago something funny happened: I got econ. It suddenly made sense: hey, itís a way of seeing the world! But the really funny thing is that getting econ has enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation of the arts.

To back up for a second: finally learning how to see and interpret behavior in the light of such forces as ďlimited resourcesĒ and ďincentivesĒ has been a tremendous help. (Worth, it occurs to me, many years of therapy.) The world seemed to open up; it seems much less mystifying these days than it once did. So thatís what people are up to! So thatís why so much behavior takes on the forms it does!

This is all very basic, Iím sure, and Iím happy to be laughed at for my former naivete. But back in college I tried econ and never got it, despite OK grades in Econ 101 and 102. I wonder why. Because of the JFK-era Keynesianism that was still in vogue in the mid-í70s at our Lousy Ivy College? It seemed to make no sense. Or was it simply because I donít have a math brain, and the damn textbooks were full of equations and charts? Not a challenge for engineering-brain you, but anything resembling a math symbol puts English-major me straight to sleep.

What enabled me to get econ in recent years was finding a handful of resources that present the subject in plain English. No math, no charts -- just crystal-clear explanations and examples. (Plain, clear English: one of my favorite things.) Even better, especially at the outset, was discovering works that explained not econ itself so much as the history of economic thought. Quick explanations and examples; personalities; a sense of the field growing and evolving over time ....

How did getting economics help me enjoy the arts even more than I generally tend to? Itís had a variety of effects. Itís helped me put the arts in context. Living an arts life can be like getting lost in a dream -- this is what Schnabelís movie ďBasquiatĒ is so good at suggesting. That kind of dreamlife has its erotic upside, but it can also feel like going insane. What getting econ did for me was set the dreamlife in perspective. The arts are many things, of course, but one of them is ďa worldly activity like any otherĒ -- and getting econ has helped me see that side of them for what it is.

Artsies, of course, have a notoriously strong aversion to thinking sensibly about economics. I find when I talk to arts people that the subject of econ is so misunderstood itís almost comic. Isn't it all about predicting stock prices? And look how bad they are at that! And whatís this awful ďself-interestĒ thatís always being referred to? Artsies demonize the subject without knowing anything about it. If I could -- and I never will be able to, but indulge my fantasy -- Iíd get my arts friends to see that econ is akin to philosophy and psychology. Or meteorology, in fact: as a predictor of an exact future it may not be much good. But it would be silly to assert that meteorologists donít know much thatís interesting and enlightening.

Why are artsies so averse to econ? The easy answers would seem to be: aversion to math; aversion to the kind of logic economic thinking requires (letís face it: in the case of many artsies, an aversion to logical thinking of any kind); and aversion to any kind of practical thinking whatsoever.

My hunch, though, is that it goes a little deeper than all that. My hunch is that the real reason artsies resist econ is that theyíre afraid that getting econ will kill the old arts magic.

And it does, of course. Itís a Niagara of cold water, and thereís no way to stay comfy-snug in dreamland once youíve been hit by it. I donít have much of my old religious fervor about the arts, for example. (This might be due to other things too -- age, my cancer scare, simply learning bit more about life ... But getting econ has certainly played a role.) And there are moments when I miss the old fervor.

But generally speaking Iím glad to be rid of it. It has been like getting over a fever; I once had some extraordinary visions, but they came at a terrible cost, and I much prefer being healthy. Art still works for me, too. It doesnít consume or exalt me as often as it once did, but in some ways I find the arts more poignant, and feel more deeply engaged with the subject, than ever.

Did you get economics in college? Did it click for you at some other point? And how has it affected your involvement with the arts?



[If any of our readers are interested in giving econ a try, may I suggest an easy way into the subject? Iíve read a number of good books that can get the non-math person started. But Iíd suggest beginning with some really superb audiotaped lecture series given by Timothy Taylor for the Teaching Company. I suggest starting with his Legacies of Great Economists, and then moving on to his series, Economics. He has a couple of other series too, just as good but best gone through after these two introductory sets. Taylor has a wonderful and unusual gift for organizing and presenting this material, as well as a boyish enthusiasm for it that I found engaging and winning. You can browse what the Teaching Company offers here. Taylorís Legacies of Great Economists can be ordered here; his Economics set can be ordered here.]

posted by Michael at December 2, 2002


Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt, is the first book on the subject for neophytes and math-phobes, hands-down. Several of my friends never got economics until they read Hazlitt.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on December 2, 2002 10:41 AM

Thanks for reminding me of Hazlitt, Aaron. I didn't get that much out of him, but you're absolutely right -- he seems to help many people turn the corner.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 2, 2002 5:41 PM

I think you need to be more specific when you say "economics" Do you mean Keynsian? Austrian? Chicago? I went to the University of Chicago and dated an economist, so I guess I got "econ" many years ago, but it was the Chicago variety. No math, just human resources type thing. And I don't think it changed the way I viewed art at all. Art has value if you give it value. That's a very simple equation. Now, if you want to talk about the Art Market, that's a whole different thing.

Posted by: Alexandra on December 3, 2002 12:28 PM

I suspect -- no, I know -- that you're 'way out of my league as someone familiar with economics, Alexandra. The schools that speak most to me are neoclassical, Chicago and Austrian. But I wouldn't claim for myself anything more than the ability to follow economic arguments so long as they're presented in plain English with no jargon. A very limited ability, but still one that I've found very helpful.

I think we feel pretty much the same way about art -- it's something that you love and respond to or you don't.

I'd add only that being able to view and think about art in the context of the art market ("market" in a broad sense) -- as a market itself , and as a function of a market, etc -- that being able to do this is something I've found very useful, and not at all destructive of my enjoyment and appreciation of art. I could well be wrong, but I suspect a lot of arts fans would find it useful too -- it helps situate the arts. Money and markets don't explain everything, by a long shot. But they sure explain some things.

I'm surprised that there hasn't been more work done on art and economics. The books I've read on the topic have been amazingly interesting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 3, 2002 2:08 PM

I'm interested, as someone who considers himself to be both a conservative and a Keynesian, what it was about the JFK-era Keynsianism that vexed you so?

Posted by: jimbo on December 3, 2002 10:10 PM

Hi Jimbo

For all I know, Keynes made immense and helpful contributions. But the kind of "Keynesianism" (and I put that in quotes deliberately) that was being taught in intro-to-econ classes in the early/mid-'70s was something I didn't find helpful -- "helpful" in the sense of helping an interested young person get the hang of thinking about things in economic terms.

Perhaps tons of kids did find it helpful. But nothing about that approach helped make econ seem to make sense to me. Econ didn't click for me until very recently, after I found other kinds of sources -- histories of economic thought, for instance. The Hazlitt that Aaron mentions above is something many people have found helpful. Milton Friedman's popular-econ books ("Free to Choose," etc)are resources I found instantly helpful. There were others too.

There was another matter that griped me about Ivy Keynesianism of the era, which is something that may have nothing to do with Keynesianism itself -- I'm not competent to judge. It's that (and I was a long way from being able to articulate this at the time)it seemed like little more than a rationale for Ivy Leaguers to take over the world. All the tinkering, the fine-tuning, the multipliers -- they were all, it seemed to me, being presented as tools for people like "us" to use to direct society. A JFK/Camelot/we-are-the-natural-born-rulers attitude was being sold.

I think I temperamentally found this offensive. It also created severe cognitive dissonance, because at the same time we were being sold this approach, the bad consequences of JFK-style Keynesianism (ie., '70s stagflation, etc) were becoming more clear by the day. It was bizarre to watch and listen to these beaming profs, then go back to the dorm and stare at the business headlines. Not a situation that made a kid like me think, Hey, these profs are really onto something here!

Thanks for stopping by. Any tips for reading or researching that'll help me "get" the good side of Keynes?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 4, 2002 11:24 AM

Well, it's (obviously) a bit too involved to get into here, but I guess what really attracts me to Keynes is that he was the first economist to really start to get a handle on money. Strange as it sounds, the classical economists really had no place for money in their models (you see prices, but money is just a numerical value - the models would work just as well in a theortical barter economy). As a result, the microeconomic models - firms, households, etc. - work ok, but they have real problems trying to model the economy as a whole, since you can't make sense of it without money. Why this is so is a bit involved, but suffice it to say that "money" is not a commodity, as the classicals treated it, but a social relation, that precedes market exchange and makes it possible. The classicals (and the neoclassicals, today) were creating a world without money, and then trying to fit money back into it (unsuccessfully).

Unfortunatly, the "keynesians" who followed him didn't seem to get this, and created a much ballyooed "keynesian-classical" synthesis. This took a few of Keynes's ideas about "mulitpliers", and fed them right back into the old models. It worked for awhile, but eventually (about the time you were studying econ) the models broke down. (After the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, not cooincidentally designed by Keynes).

Into this came Milton Freidman. The ironic thing is, even though he was wrong (as was proven when several central banks tried to implement his ideas in the early 80's), Friedman was much more of a Keynesian than the "Keynesians" of the time. He understood about the role of money, he just didn't understand how it was created.

The important thing (from my perspective, at least) is that a Keynesian understanding of money and the relationship of the monetary authority to the rest of the economy does NOT imply that the government should micromanange the economy - the "Keynesians" seemed to get this message, but I don't beleive it's something Keynes himself would ever have agreed with.

The best place to go for some real Keynesian stuff is the Levy institute (, home of the post-Keynesians) Especially look out for papers by L. Randall Wray, who is a pretty clear writer about this topic.

Posted by: jimbo on December 5, 2002 6:46 PM

Many thanks for the very patient explanation -- the only kind a brain like mine seems to respond to where this topic is concerned. I'll head right over to the Levy Institute and check it out.

Wow, money as commodity, money as social exchange ... Econ can be cool.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 5, 2002 7:43 PM

Glad to help - I've enjoyed the site immensely. It's becoming rare, these days, to find people with a deep knowledge of the arts who aren't complete buffoons on other subjects. Keep up the good work.

Also, I found a pretty good summary of the PK approach:

Hope it helps...

Posted by: Jimbo on December 5, 2002 8:47 PM

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