Econ Art

Econ Art

by Richard Szostak, Richard Szostak



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745314426
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 02/20/1999
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.51(w) x 8.66(h) x (d)

About the Author

Paul Barry Clarke is the co-editor of the Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society (Routledge, 1995) and the editor of Citizenship: A Reader (Pluto Press, 1994). He teaches in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.

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Art and Science

1.1 Unveiling Econ-Art

The task of criticism is to improve opinion into knowledge.

Samuel Johnson

Society has been done a great disservice by existing studies of the evolution of economics which treat it as if it were (entirely) a scientific discipline. Our purpose here is to right this wrong, and highlight the evolution of economics as an art form. It is, to be sure, a complex art form, but any student of art will tell you that a true appreciation of painting or music or literature only comes after lengthy study of underlying principles. So it is with econ-art. Some pieces have an easily comprehended aesthetic effect, while others will to the novice appear to have no artistic merit whatsoever. This is perhaps why society, and even the practitioners of the art themselves, have been largely unaware of the existence of econ-art. This situation should be remedied at once, for just as music is able to evoke elements of the human spirit which the sculptor cannot touch, econ-art explores territories into which none of the traditional art forms can venture. And econ-art is only beginning to show its great potential. Music, painting and literature can all uplift the soul of humanity and transport it far away from the grime and toil of everyday existence. But such journeys are only temporary. The soul inevitably snaps back to earth. Econ-art is capable of so much more than mere momentary refreshment. The true aficionado can be carried permanently away from the cares of this earth, to run carefree through a world far more well-behaved than our own. The beatific smiles of the foremost practitioners can be observed at conferences. Despite – or perhaps because of – their lack of recognition as an artistic elite, they seem untroubled by the legendary traumas of the artist. It is the most peaceful of arts, the most contemplative, the most sublime (moreover, it does not require lengthy residence in a garret, at least if one ignores graduate school). Having long pursued recognition as queen of the social sciences, it may soon recognize a higher role as the queen of the arts.

One advantage econ-art possesses is its use of multiple media. Rooted in a literary tradition, its use of diagrams (which, while only rarely featured in formal works, play a crucial role in undergraduate education and thus the shaping of the economist's world-view) renders it also a visual art. More novel is the use of mathematic formulation to achieve purity of both insight and expression; this, we shall see, has emerged as the key element in modern econ-art.

'There is not a generally recognized definition of art' (Kung 1981, p. 10). We might all think we know what art is, but cannot agree on a verbal formulation of the concept. This could provide a huge stumbling block to an attempt such as this to establish the existence of a heretofore unrecognized art form. Walk through any modern gallery, and you can hear people looking at works of art and sniffing, 'That's not art.' Anger may rise in your throat – say, if your brother had splattered the paint across the offending canvas – but there is no easy answer: one simply can't say 'It is art, and I can prove it.' There will be many who object to the very existence of econ-art. Indeed even the artists themselves in their ignorance may object to such a classification, having so much of their self-image dependent on the accolade of 'scientist' (though we will try to show in what follows that art is a loftier aim than science). I have long thought that the most useful – if tautological – definition of art is that which someone perceives as being art. As long as there is a group of people who perceive random paint splotches on canvas to be art, as long as it moves their souls, then art it is, even if the rest of society looks askance at such work (we could, as economists, impose a somewhat tougher definition: 'as long as some people are willing to pay for random paint splotches', but the result is the same). The conundrum of whether econ-art exists is thus solved; the very perception (by me alone, in the first instance) of artistic value in the work of economists makes it art, and no amount of denigration by others can make it otherwise.

The ongoing debate about pornography highlights the difficulty with this sort of definition. It has proven exceedingly difficult (impossible?) to define pornography precisely. When public figures attempt to use the 'I know it when I see it' standard, they are scorned by their opponents. Even if the public were to accept the logic of our definition of art, then, this would not lead them in any practical sense to an appreciation of this new art form. At some level of consciousness, they would still rebel against the concept of economics as art.

Greater evidence is clearly desirable if econ-art is to gain the full light of society's understanding and criticism. The obvious path to follow is to draw comparisons with the traditional arts (if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, you can't be entirely sure that it isn't a carefully crafted imitation, but chances are it's a duck). We are aided here by advances in the discipline of art history. While the field of art history once focused almost exclusively on the personality of the artist, there is now a large body of work which describes the evolution of art forms as resulting from changes in society at large. We will draw heavily on this body in the next chapters.

We form a simple hypothesis: if econ-art is art, its evolution will have been shaped by the same forces which have shaped the evolution of painting, sculpture, film, literature and music. Clear parallels should exist.

Ideally, we would be able to draw on the work of historians of economic thought; we could then juxtapose their words with those of art historians to show that the same forces have been perceived to have been at work in both areas. With a couple of notable exceptions, though, such works have eschewed the placement of the evolution of economic ideas in any sort of socio-cultural context. Fortunately, the parallels are generally quite obvious. Indeed, we cannot list them all; many more connections will leap to the minds of readers familiar with economic theory and practice.

Even those who reject the sobriquet of econ-art may still recognize the value in first reprising the cultural influences which art historians have identified as having conditioned the evolution of modern art, and then discerning the effects these forces have had upon the evolution of economics. This alone fills a notable gap in the literature. That is, even if one remains wedded to the belief that economics is primarily a science, one should recognize the cultural influences on the evolution of that science. Only if one has the truest faith – and doubts that anything but the highest of scientific principles has ever motivated economists – could one casually dismiss this line of analysis.

1.2 The Question of Purpose

But surely art must be purposeful; the artist self-aware of their role as artist? If thousands of economists believe themselves to be pursuing solely the goals of science, then surely this must be so? We need not pause here to note that many have in fact recognized non-scientific motives – we will have cause to discuss this later – for even if the whole discipline revelled in the mistaken self-perception of scientist, it would not mean that they could not be artists. We do, after all, admire the beauty of, and display in museums, many artefacts of the past which were designed primarily for their utility. Pottery and textiles are the clearest examples. While the art of the potter (or weaver) is tied up with the question of use, it can still be hailed as 'art freed from any imitative intuition' (Read 1968, pp. 41–2). Few of these distant artisans would even have been conscious of the aesthetic sensibilities which their craft serves. Likewise, the modern draftsperson would spurn the artist title, but Klingender has argued that technical drawings went through the same sequence of styles in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries as the other graphic arts (1947, p. 63). The modern economist, then, would be in good company if they were to unknowingly produce works of art.

Indeed, Meakin (1976, pp. 135–41) has forcefully argued that the dichotomy the modern mind draws between works of utility and art is mistaken (and elitist). While some have viewed art as the expression of humanity's playful nature, it is more apposite to see it as both reflecting and providing an input into work. Thus, Morris, inspired by Ruskin, could conclude that 'A true artist is only a beautiful development of tailor or carpenter.' He defines real art as the expression of joy in labour. Meakin continues, 'Far from being separate domains, art and labour belong together, and only an unnatural state of affairs has thrust them asunder.' In the words of Gill, 'the artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist' (in Meakin, p. 141). These writers see it as only natural that people would express their artistic sensitivity while working, that this should in fact be a major focus of their work and a major determinant therefore of the form their achievements take.

Historians of technology have come to recognize the interplay between the practical and the aesthetic in architectural structures as diverse as Gothic cathedrals and modern suspension bridges. Rather than engineering and art being separable, they were often combined in the same person (da Vinci, for example). Recognition of technical possibilities created the Gothic architectural vocabulary; its refinement influenced the direction of technical experiment. Appreciation of the aesthetic appeal of suspension bridges drove engineers to improve their technical capabilities. Historians who attempt to trace either technical or artistic evolution in isolation miss half the story (Billington and Mark 1991).

Economists have the good fortune to have the latitude – not available to most of modern humanity – to integrate art and work. It is perhaps ironic that a discipline which has for the most part ignored the characteristic alienation of the modern worker should yet strive for such an integration in its own activities. Art satisfies our aesthetic impulses, 'impulses that exist at the deepest levels of personality'; our modern world gives most people insufficient opportunity to exercise their aesthetic capabilities to the fullest (Feldman 1992). Economists are only human and should be expected to extract the pleasure from their work that the mere pursuit of truth could not provide. One can still regret the lack of recognition of this fact.

We should be clear that econ-art is no accident, unlike a brilliant sunset that pleases our aesthetic sense without having been deliberately created (at least by humans). Our subconscious minds are the source of our artistry. And econ-art is far from the first art form to be produced subconsciously. But if Meakin is right, we would be happier if we were conscious of our art. We would likely be better artists too.

Read (1968, p. 25) believes that Art expresses the intuitive rather than the intellectual – its message is implicit rather than explicit – and thus it is hardly necessary that the artist be conscious of his art. While the intellect can never dominate, Read (p. 135) feels that modern art is characterized by the reintegration of the intellect, though Feldman (1992, p. 38) argues that it is in modern art especially that 'The artist becomes a kind of intuitive investigator of forms that are somehow appealing, or unexpected, or both.' If we accept a role for the intellect, the lack of self-awareness of the econ-artist must bequeath a certain roughness to the work. Chinese scholar-painters have for centuries shown the role the intellect can play in art; econ-artists cannot follow this path to its fullest potential if they do not recognize their artistic motives (just as architects who deny the artistic side of their endeavours are unlikely to produce great works). We can hope our present study goes some way towards rectifying this situation.

It might be thought odd that the economists' pursuit of art could for so long be misinterpreted as the pursuit of science. As we shall see, recent developments in the philosophy of science tell us that we cannot know with certainty whether we are right or wrong. This does not mean that inquiry is useless. It does mean that knowledge advances through the collective evaluation of new information. Therein lies the danger. With no criteria by which we can prove a theory true or false, it is quite possible that subjective decision making may serve goals unrecognized. Thus art may be rewarded, even though both rewarder and rewarded never use the word.

The work of Meakin above implies that the goals of art and science need not be incompatible. This point, at least, has recently been recognized by economists Dasgupta and Stoneman: 'Knowledge, all too frequently, is both a consumption and a capital good. A mathematical theorem is often valued for its beauty, as well as for its potential for the generation of other theorems' (1987, p. 2). Art, after all, is a different medium for understanding the world we live in; it could well be imagined that a symbiotic relationship could emerge between the pursuit of artistic and scientific understanding. However, a problem still arises when the artistic motive is not recognized, for while the two goals may not be incompatible they are hardly similar (see below). Both art and science must suffer in such a state of conscious denial, though we can well imagine that the intellectual and explicit goals of science will fare worse than the intuitive implicit goals of art.

1.3 The Purpose of Art

If art involved the realistic portrayal of the world around us, there would be no reason why the cause of econ-science could not be served by the pursuit of art. Like pottery or architecture or draftsmanship, we could create an economics which served both aesthetic and utilitarian desires. To be sure, the pursuit of the former might tip the focus of economic inquiry away from matters of greatest real-world importance, but this could only slow rather than derail the pursuit of Truth.

Art, though, is anything but realism. Even those works of art which seem at first glance to be realistic portrayals of the world around us in fact capture our hearts through subtle misrepresentation:

Distortion of some kind is present in a very general and perhaps paradoxical way in all art. Even classical Greek sculpture was distorted in the interests of the ideal. The line of brow and nose was never in reality so straight, the face so oval, the breasts so round. ... (Read 1968, p. 29)

To comprehend art at all we must recognize that people derive pleasure (or insight or inspiration; some recognized works of art hardly provide pleasure) from certain sensory stimuli. Even without knowing exactly what these preferences are, we can see that the purpose of art is to transform the world about us into a form which appeals to our soul in some fashion. It is not that Greek sculptors were incapable of providing exact representations of their models – truth does not necessarily mean perfect replication – but that they intuitively pursued distortion. Such works should be seen not as definitions but as 'infinitions', meant to bring out the viewer's own enlightenment. Art exemplifies and expresses, rather than describing and depicting (Goodman 1978).

We must be careful to distinguish this purposeful 'misrepresentation' from the model building which is an essential practice in any science. Models of necessity are not exact replicas of the reality they describe. Thus, for the scientist, distortion is a necessary evil as they focus in on some aspects of reality. The scientist does not value distortion for its own sake. Indeed the scientist carefully tests models against the real world to ensure that the distortions are not so great as to invalidate (all of) the results produced by the model (only a very misguided science would casually forget the simplifying assumptions it had originally made). The scientist's models are intended to reveal reality, the artist's works to take us away from our humdrum reality.

The artist often adds additional elements to their image: splashes of colour that were not there; the Cubist representation of figures from many angles at once; the novelist's juxtaposition of unrelated events. Read's description of a Chinese horse carving is helpful here:

The carver might without much trouble have made his horse more realistic; but he was not interested in the anatomy of the horse, for the horse had suggested to him a certain pattern of curved masses, and the twist of the neck, the curls of the mane, the curves of the haunches and legs had to be distorted in the interests of this pattern. The result was not very much like a horse – in fact this horse is often mistaken for a lion – but it is a very impressive work of art. (1968, p. 32)


Excerpted from "Econ-Art"
by .
Copyright © 1999 Rick Szostak.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, ix,
Preface, xi,
Chapter One Art and Science, 1,
Chapter Two Surrealism, 24,
Chapter Three Cubism and More, 51,
Chapter Four Mathematics as Art, 71,
Chapter Five Ideology, 102,
Chapter Six Econ-Art/Econ-Science, 118,
Chapter Seven Improving Econ-Science, 131,
Chapter Eight The Future of Econ-Science, 171,
Notes, 203,
References, 235,
Index, 249,

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