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Economic Engagements with Art

Author(s):De Marchi, Neil
Goodwin, Craufurd D.W.
Reviewer(s):Santos-Redondo, Manuel

Published by EH.NET (January 2002)


De Marchi, Neil and Craufurd D.W. Goodwin, editors, Economic Engagements with Art. Durham, NC and London, Duke University Press, 1999. vii + 506 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8223-2489-X. (Originally published as a supplement to volume 31 of the journal History of Political Economy.)

Reviewed for EH.NET by Manuel Santos-Redondo, History of Economic Thought and Business History, University Complutense, Madrid.

Cultural economics, or the Economics of the Arts, is generally thought to have been created de novo in the last four decades. The essays included in this volume show that both economists and artists were doing “cultural economics” for centuries, in the same way that Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme had been speaking prose without knowing it. To be precise, artists were practicing much better economics than economists themselves were able to understand.

This volume is the result of the Conference on “Economists and Art, Historically Considered” held in 1998 and sponsored by Duke University’s Departments of Economics and Art and Art History. The idea of tracing back “Cultural Economics,” was well worth the effort of organizing the conference and editing this book. As Neil De Marchi points out in his Introduction, “the valuation of art has generally been considered problematic for economic analysis.” The book addresses this problem and others related to art and economics from a historical perspective, measured not in decades, but centuries.

But this volume is more ambitious. It brings together economists and art historians; and includes economists such as Adam Smith, W.S. Jevons and Lionel Robbins and topics such as the valuation of works of art and tariffs on international trade of works of art. It includes artists such as the painter Joshua Reynolds, James Cox (the producer of highly sophisticated “automatons” in eighteenth century London), John Boydell (the famous “engraver-painter-entrepreneur”), Francisco Pacheco, the teacher of Francisco de Goya, and art critics like John Ruskin, Leo Tolstoy, or Roger Fry. The attempt is certainly risky, because both disciplines have their own standards of scholarship, and, some might think, totally different subjects and different ways of approaching them.

The result shows that the attempt was worth the risk. One of the most striking features of this book is that, although heterogeneous in theme and epoch, all the chapters share a different type of homogeneity: the reader cannot tell which authors are economists and which are “pure” art historians. The scholar can check the professional background of the authors in the short paragraph provided at the end of the book, but in each chapter what determines whether the work has been done in one or another field is the subject matter studied, rather than the author’s affiliation. This is a rule of thumb which shows that this “economic engagement with art” has been successful.

Let me highlight one particularly interesting discussion in the book, between Harro Maas and coauthors Ernest Mathijs and Bert Mosselmans on Jevons and Ruskin. Jevons’ ideas on music make the reader think of “Thomas Gradgrind. A man of realities. A man of fact and calculations,” the strictly rational teacher, in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, who wishes to take imagination out of children as part of the process of education. Jevons’ manuscript tries to find a moral justification for the time he dedicated to playing music! Jevons’ intellectual engagement with art was, according to Mathijs and Mosselmans, that of Mr. Gradgrind: to play music is OK as far as one can prove that it helps to use the mind in a rational-utilitarian way (if the person is upper-class or an intellectual) or helps to peacefully integrate someone into a factory system, if he is a worker. Mathijs and Mosselmans are benevolent to Jevons and consider that the “civilization of people” is his objective. Maas, much more sympathetic to Ruskin, argues that he had the much more limited objective of keeping the labor force pacified.

Another surprise thrown up by this book is how “politically correct” economists can be when art is being discussed. When we come to economic policy, William Barber on federal government patronage of arts or Robbins on tariffs on art works, for example, both conclude that fine arts are worth deviating from orthodox economics. The reader gets the impression that this comes from a moral and aesthetic valuation of art; that is, from feelings, not from cold economic analysis.

Perhaps the weakest link in this attempt to use the professional knowledge of economists and art historians is the lack of visual language, that is, images, in many chapters. Most of the book deals with the visual arts (there are two chapters on music and one on architecture), but there are very few images in the book. The chapter on architecture is an example of an excellent text accompanied by a complementary selection of pictures of hotels, necessary for a complete understanding of this text. The same is true of Robert Leonard on Otto Neurath. Nine articles and the introduction, however, have no accompanying images at all, and, even including diagrams; the eight other chapters have a total of thirty-three images in a volume that totals 506 pages. Surprisingly, then there are very few illustrations in this book, which deals primarily with painting. If we are studying “economic engagements with art,” we need to use the language, at least minimally, of both fields — and painting uses primarily a visual language, not a written one. If literature had been the art form under consideration, then clearly no visual illustration would have been necessary. Let me give an example. The front cover of the book includes an engraving made of Salvator Rosa’s painting “La fortune.” Is this just a beautiful picture? It is indeed; but the story of the painting is itself a highly relevant case of “economic engagement with arts.” The painting represents symbolically the relationship of papal patronage of artists and its difficulties. I am sure the editors carefully chose the painting; but there is no explanation in the text of this relationship.

The book deals primarily with painting, and is formally divided into three sections, dealing with economic theory, economic policy, and the business of art. However, the division is not that clear-cut; the main common feature of these articles is serious scholarship. Readers will find what they are interested in the different chapters according to their research interests. Anyone lucky enough to have one of these essays directly related to his or her research interest, should read it.

Perhaps therefore given the wide variety of texts included in the volume it would be of use to the reader to conclude with some information about each chapter, with my specific, personal comments.

Part 1: Art and Economic Theory

Negr?n, Zarin?s, “Francisco Pacheco: Economist for the Art World” (pp. 33-40). Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), a Spanish painter, wrote a treatise about painting, which includes an explanation (addressed to the buyer) of the valuation of paintings. He is “an artist writing about the art market.” This valuation utilizes the same general economic principles as the Scholastics.

Frid?n, Bertil, “Problem of Unique Goods as Factors of Production: Rousseau on Art and the Economy” (pp. 41-56). According to Rousseau, art is overpriced (related to what is socially desirable) because it is the conspicuous consumption (with “envy value”) of “the idle and the rich.” So, although art is for Rousseau “true riches” (dance, music, poetry, painting, architecture, gardening and other forms of art are included by Rousseau in what is “necessary for life,” of high moral consideration) it happens that “the most useful arts are the worst paid.”

White, Michael V., “Obscure Objects of Desire? Nineteenth-century British Economists and the Price of ‘Rare Art'” (pp. 57-84). Includes a wonderful description of Degas’ painting A Cotton Office of New Orleans, which Penguin chose as front cover for their edition of Jevons’ The Theory of Political Economy. (The discussion is a very good example of “economic engagement with arts.”) Both for the economists studied (David Ricardo, Thomas de Quincey, Leon Walras, W.S. Jevons, Alfred Marshall) and for the author, this question of the “anomalous value” of works of art is just a difficult case to show the potency of each value theory.

Maas, Harro, “Pacifying the Workman: Ruskin and Jevons on Labor and Popular Culture” (pp. 85-120). Jevons’ concerns with the cultural and moral elevation of the working class are mainly about how to make the workforce more productive, and so the function of music consists of “a general removal of the mind from its ordinary courses of duties … causing it to forget ordinary affairs and thoughts.” Ruskin, the Romantic, criticizes the industrial system because there was no enjoyment to be had from products made under modern factory conditions. The use of one’s imagination, says Ruskin, should not be reserved for the rich, but was equally necessary for workmen.

Mosselmans, Bert and Mathijs, Ernest, “Jevons’ Music Manuscript and the Political Economy of Music” (pp. 121-156). It is an intellectual joy to read this essay together with Maas’s paper. The authors work on an unpublished Jevons manuscript on music, the art he used to perform (with pangs of conscience, so it appears from this article). Impressive in its scholarship, the reader (or at least this reader) gets the impression that the writers have “fallen in love with the personage.” Jevons seems to an “impartial observer” far more odd than modern, even more odd than Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind.

Goodwin, Craufurd D. W., “Economics of Art through Art Critics Eyes” (pp. 157-184). During the twentieth century, in explaining the circumstances that surrounded the production and consumption of art, art critics attempted to answer questions very similar to those that had captivated the marginalist economists (p. 157). They were not scholars in the traditional sense, but journalists, museum directors, or entrepreneurs. The British art critics Roger Fry, Clive Bell and Kenneth Clark “came to understand development in that segment of the economy that economists call the market for art.” Goodwin’s conclusion is that “the critics’ model was considerably more complex than that of the economists,” and that they turned to the heretical part of economics: the American Institutionalism of Thorstein Veblen and the “emulation” motive. Art critics saw the neoclassical and institutionalist explanations as complementary.

Part 2: Art and Economic Policy

Rees, Helen, “Art Expos and the Construction of National Heritage in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Great Britain” (pp. 187-208). This is a wonderful “conventional” study of the reasons provided by those who opposed the British export of important (non-British) paintings to America. The history of major paintings and their British aristocratic owners, and also rich American collectors like J. Pierpont Morgan, make up a mixture of fine economic analysis and policy, and the popular ideas behind them: all discussion ends up considering how much money the British government or British art lovers could raise to avoid the paintings travelling to America.

Barber, William J., “International Commerce in the Fine Arts and American Political Economy, 1789-1913″ (pp. 209-234). The American federal government imposed tariff duties on imported works of art, from independence to 1913. This chapter carefully discusses the legal situation and the reasons argued by policy makers, namely to “enable our men and women art-workers to live while they produce true American art and rival or excel the famous workers of the Old World.” Paradoxically, the art community thought of this protection as a way of depreciating culture by politics.

Barber, William J., “‘Sweet Are the Uses of Adversity': Federal Patronage of the Arts in the Great Depression” (pp. 235-255). During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) included a program for painters and sculptors, which cost more money, measured as a proportion of GNP, than in any other earlier or subsequent moments of American history. The criterion was not poverty, but excellence, and the result was more than 2.250 murals, 100.000 paintings and 13.000 pieces of sculpture. Barber’s conclusion is that this government patronage of the arts meant that some of America’s greatest artists “kept going through some dark days.”

Balisciano, M?rcia L., and Medema, Steven G., “Positive Science, Normative Man: Lionel Robbins and the Political Economy of Art” (pp. 256-284). Robbins was extensively involved in the arts (trustee of the National Gallery and Tate Gallery). In this role, he defended National Culture, preventing art work from being exported: “Although he was a staunch proponent of free trade, he noted already in the 30s that nations might wish to forgo some of the efficiency advantages of free trade.”

Wharton, Annabel, “Economy, Architecture, and Politics: Colonialist and Cold War Hotels” (pp. 285-299). The old colonial “grand hotels” in Athens, Cairo and Istanbul reflected the British Empire, socially and economically, as did the later American Hilton hotels with American capitalism.

Part 3: The Business of Art

Van Houdt, Toon, “The Economics of Art in Early Modern Times: Some Humanist and Scholastic Approaches” (pages 303-31). In sixteenth-century Antwerp, painters, sculptors and engravers were regarded (by humanists) as craftsmen, but more “liberal” (more noble) than common craftsmen, because their trade involved a much higher degree of intellectual activity. That is, they occupied a middle position between craftsmen and men of letters. Also, in terms of the valuation of their work, they were regarded as entrepreneurs, not mere craftsmen. (Van Houdt calls them “artist-businessmen.”) Scholastic doctors didn’t agree about the just price of art works, but in fact a well-developed art market did exist in Antwerp in the sixteenth century, far beyond the explanations of any of the Scholastic doctors.

Guerzoni, Guido “Liberalitas, Magnificentia, Splendor: The Classic Origins of Italian Renaissance Lifestyles” (pp. 332-378). Liberality, according to Italian Renaissance humanists, was a moral virtue “lying between the two extreme vices of avarice and prodigality.” So, the moral element was removed from the notion of luxury and superfluity, and the quality of people was linked to the quality of the things around them. Popes and princes could go even further, they could show magnificence. Guerzoni traces the intellectual background of the idea to Aristotle and follows its evolution, pointing at the crucial difference of liberality of the aristocrats and bourgeois liberality, “that could be exercised by anyone.”

De Marchi, Neil, and Van Miegroet, Hans J., “Ingenuity, Preference, and the Pricing of Pictures: The Smith-Reynolds Connection” (pp. 379-412). De Marchi and Van Miegroet, an economist and an art historian working together, show how Smith’s ideas (ingenuity being the result of labor, and of the careful revealing of hidden means-ends relationships in a scientific way, and not of inspiration) fit with the procedures of his contemporary, the famous portraitist Joshua Reynolds.

Zablotney, Sara: “Production and Reproduction: Commerce in Images in Late Eighteenth-century London” (pp. 413-422). Painters, engravers and entrepreneurs had a clear idea of the value of a picture as a capital asset. Consequently, “the economic relationships that exist[ed] among producers of fine art in late eighteen century London are easily understood using modern economic analysis.”

Pointon, Marcia, “Dealer in Magic: James Cox’s Jewelry Museum and the Economics of Luxurious Spectacle in Late-eighteenth-century London” (pp. 423-451). Cox was a jeweler and toy maker who produced luxury “automatons” for trade with the Far East. These captured the interest of the English public, who visited (paying the entrance fee) his London museum. Cox was an entrepreneur who dealt with employees and subcontractors, with a huge expenditure in precious metals, jewels and craftsmanship.

Leonard, Robert J., “‘Seeing Is Believing': Otto Neurath, Graphic Art, and the Social Order” (pp. 452-476). For Neurath, visualization does not merely act as illustration; visual aids are “part of the explanation themselves.” From this point of departure, his “pictorial statistics” and economic and social “silhouettes” are not only an efficient way to communicate knowledge to the less cultured, but a way of shaping knowledge as well. They are much more relevant as economics than they are as art; but without them, no study of Neurath can be complete.

Manuel Santos-Redondo teaches History of Economic Thought and Business History in University Complutense, Madrid (Spain). Apart from his work in the history of the theory of the entrepreneur and the biography of Spanish carmaker Barreiros, he has published several studies dealing with art and images and their economic meaning.


Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative