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Reseña cultura

The arts and the advancement of the economy and society

David Throsby, Professor of Economics, Macquarie University, Australia

Is there a relationship between art and economics? At one level the response to this question seems obvious – even though works of art may be produced for purely aesthetic reasons, they are bought and sold on markets, they have a price, and in many other ways there is an economic dimension to their existence. But interactions between the economy and the world of the arts can have far wider implications, derived particularly from notions of value. Can the cultural significance of the arts for society be rationalised against their undoubted commercial value? And how does the practice of the arts, with its unique engagement of creativity and imagination, generate innovation that can in turn lead to economic growth?

The work of artists contributes to the advancement of the economy and society

The subtitles of these two books indicate how both occupy some part of this wide-ranging territory. The question explored in Patrick Kabanda’s book is “Can the arts advance development?”, whilst Michael Hutter’s volume is subtitled “Artistic invention and economic growth”. Both books are concerned with the ways in which the work of artists contributes to the advancement of the economy and society, and both deal with people’s experience of the arts as consumers in their everyday lives. But they approach these issues from very different standpoints. Kabanda’s agenda is the contribution that art and culture can make to economic development, particularly in the global South. Hutter, on the other hand, constructs a comprehensive theoretical framework for interpreting how artistic ideas have, throughout history, generated commercial production, and how the opposite may occur when economic growth has an impact on artistic invention.

The Creative Wealth of Nations is located within the extensive debate of recent years surrounding the role of culture in sustainable development, a debate which has paid particular attention to the creative and/or cultural industries as the arena in which the practice of culture is transformed into economic benefit. Indeed, the cultural industries have been portrayed as a potential driver of development in their own right, with the economic payoff they generate being complemented by social impacts in communities and by increased recognition of the importance of arts and culture in everyday life. In a more general sense it can be argued that culture is the context in which development occurs, such that any development strategy that ignores culture is bound to fall short. These propositions are strongly supported by Amartya Sen in his Foreword to the book, and repeated in endorsements of Kabanda’s work by two other Nobel Laureates in Economics (George Akerlof and the late Kenneth Arrow) that are reprinted on the back cover.

Over the last 40 years or so, economists have broadened the concept of ‘development’, taking it beyond mere economic growth to include measures of education, nutritional status, health, and environmental amenities. An important argument put forward in the book is that the concept should be widened further to embrace people’s experience and practice of their culture, most immediately reflected in the arts. An appeal to the development community to expand its world view in this way is not new, but it is put forward here with vigour and originality, tied very closely to a grass-roots sense of how art contributes to human welfare.

The author is an accomplished musician; his career began in his childhood in Uganda and led to a range of professional activities and qualifications in the United States. His personal background in the arts gives his writing a sense of freshness and immediacy; he argues his case from a strongly-felt personal conviction about the importance of art and culture in human affairs, both generally and specifically in the developing world. He cites a wide range of illustrative examples to support his view, drawn from many countries around the world, especially in Africa. Much of this evidence is of anecdotal value, and many of the sources quoted are located in media, journalism and the grey literature, i.e.,  materials and research produced by organisations outside of the traditional commercial or academic publishing and distribution channels. The exposition is polemical rather than scholarly – the book is written in a colloquial style that is readily accessible and indeed entertaining to the general reader. At the same time, it must be noted that the book has the potential to make a genuine contribution to the academic discourse – it can be seen as an extended practical case-study to complement more formal scholarly and policy discussion of a number of issues in the field.

In a charming nod towards his musical practice, Kabanda labels his chapters with titles such as “overture”, “suite”, “variations on a theme”, “rondo” and “finale”. He deals with a wide range of topics, including discussions of sustainability, economic and cultural value, environmental stewardship, trade in culture, artists’ exchanges, cultural tourism, issues of gender and disability, and the challenges of data collection. In one especially significant chapter he discusses the importance of the arts in education, or “cultivating creative minds for development”. With a wealth of illustrations, he demonstrates the pervasive impacts on children’s capabilities of exposure to and participation in art from an early age, and he argues persuasively for the allocation of increased resources to art education at all levels of school and post-school experience.

The concept of ‘development’ should be widened further to embrace people’s experience and practice of their culture, most immediately reflected in the arts

The title of the book pays homage to Adam Smith’s seminal work The Wealth of Nations of 1776. A similar reference to a great book of the past is contained in Michael Hutter’s title, which is an ironic reference to Tibor Scitovsky’s The Joyless Economy, published in 1976. But whereas Scitovsky’s book painted a gloomy picture of a population too stupid to devote their increasing amounts of leisure time to enjoying the arts, Hutter interprets the behaviour of consumers somewhat more optimistically. He sees them as deriving joy from consuming experiences in the form of literature, music, performance, images and so on, and from expanding their consumption through learning new tastes and acquiring new products to give themselves fresh surprises and renewed joy. 

In The Rise of the Joyful Economy, Michael Hutter seeks to identify the ways in which artistic innovation has economic impacts, and the reverse process where the economic context influences the nature and content of art. He finds evidence of these two effects in the history of Western art and society over the past six hundred years. In pursuing this ambitious project, he singles out three periods of evolutionary growth during this time that exhibit increasing complexity in the markets for joyful goods. 

The first period began in the 15th century with the discovery of perspective in visual art, allowing artists to generate the effect of spatial illusion, an innovation that had widespread ramifications and provided a stimulus to commercial development, including the growth of trade in art. The second period, which the author labels the “period of exploiting social relations” lasted from the early 18th to the end of the 19th centuries. Over this time the subject matter of paintings changed to living persons and their social environments, influencing tastes and leading in due course to changing consumption habits. Finally, in the third period, which began in the 1920s and continues today, it became possible to exploit “serial variations”, the capacity of artworks to be reproduced in infinite numbers and variety, generating markets for experience goods (i.e., products that can only be evaluated once purchased and experienced) in the visual arts, film, television, popular music, and so on. For each of the three periods, Hutter provides numerous illustrations, drawn primarily from the history of painting, but also including many examples from architecture, urban planning, photography, music and design. There are images of many of the works referred to scattered through these pages, some in black-and-white, and a group handsomely reproduced in colour.

This is not an easy book to read. The exposition is dense and copiously referenced. The analysis throughout interprets behaviour, events, social interaction, artistic creativity and other phenomena as games in which play occurs as an ordered series of moves subject to various rules. Progress occurs through surprises, misunderstandings, accidents and other events that generate increasing complexity. Readers may have some difficulty accepting the relentless re-interpretation of social and cultural history in these terms, but the intellectual breadth and depth of Hutter’s scholarship are undeniable, and the originality of his ideas is impressive. Despite the challenges, there is much in the book to interest the general reader as well as the specialist. 

Taken together, these two books provide contrasting but equally rewarding excursions into the fascinating territory that lies in and between the fields of art and economics. From their different perspectives, both authors present convincing arguments about the importance of creativity and innovation in the arts, and the impact that culture in its broadest sense has on economic life.
 

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