Book Review

Arts, Sciences and Economics

by Tönu Puu

Springer, 2006

Harry Hillman Chartrand  ©

Journal of Cultural Economics, 31 (1) September 2006


Until now I thought there were only three ways to practice cultural economics.

First, one can take standard economic tools and techniques, e.g., supply and demand analysis, and apply them to the arts.  In effect, this is what Baumol and Bowen did in their seminal 1966 study: The Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma with its finding of an ‘income gap’, i.e., a gap between what the traditional live arts can reasonably earn at the box office and the cost of doing business in an industry with no hope of labour productivity improvement.  It takes the same time to practice, prepare and perform a live Mozart concerto in 2003 as in 1783.  In this regard, Baumol (Baumol & Oates 1972, 1974, 1976), went on, in his long running debate with Tullock (1974, 1976) in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, to distinguish the aesthetic difference between live performance with its gestalt of performer and audience and that of media extension, e.g., sound recordings and television.

Second, one can draw lessons from the natural history of the arts and cross-examine economic orthodoxy.  In effect, this is what Scitovsky did in his seminal 1972 article in the American Economics Review: “What’s Wrong with the Arts is What’s Wrong with Society.”  Scitovsky went on, in his 1976 book: The Joyless Economy, to attempt a re-tooling of hedonistic economic psychology (a form of utilitarianism) with the findings of contemporary clinical psychology to account for the economic contribution of the arts.  In the process, he contrasted American and European economies as being rooted in Comfort (U.S.) versus Novelty (European).  This is also what Kenneth Boulding suggested in “The Arts Applied to Economics” (Boulding 1985).

Third, one can attempt a stereoscopic perspective by placing the arts (or culture) and economics within a wider epistemological context.  In this view, the arts become, for example, one corner of a contemporary triangle of human knowledge with the natural & engineering sciences and the humanities & social sciences constituting the other corners.  Economics, in this view, is but one discipline within the wider humanities and social sciences.  Put another way, the arts is a distinct ‘way of knowing’ summed up in a philosophy called ‘aesthetics’ founded in the late 18th century by Baumgarten (a contemporary of Adam Smith).  Aesthetics was to be a new science of sensual knowledge to balance logic as the science of intellectual knowledge (Kristeller 1952, 35).  Economics deals with one type of logic; the arts deal with a completely distinct ‘way of knowing’. 

Professor Puu, who claims his book is not a work in ‘the economics of culture’, arguably introduces a fourth approach.   Defining and naming it, however, is problematic.  For example, working it like a triangle, Arts, Sciences and Economics is, in a sense, inductive in nature.  An observation made in one of the arts or the natural & engineering sciences (henceforth ‘sciences’) or economics is extended to cover the other two points of the triangle.  The temporal plane of this triangle covers the pre-Renaissance to the 21st century with a special and loving emphasis on the Baroque.  This was the time of ‘the instrumental revolution’ or what at the time was called ‘experimental philosophy’ or today ‘the Scientific Revolution’.  New instruments raised the veil of nature achieving Francis Bacon’s objective of reducing Nature’s complexity through instrumentally controlled experimental conditions thereby forcing Her to reveal Her secrets.  This arguably evolved into contemporary ‘instrumental realism’ (Idhe 1991).  In the arts, new musical instruments invented during the Baroque changed the soundscape of the world forever.   The spirit of playful fascination with new instruments and devices in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially those to measure longitude, is captured in Umberto Eco’s novel: The Island of the Day Before (Eco 1994) which unfortunately is not referenced in Professor Puu’s text.

In another way Professor Puu’s approach is what I define as ‘ideology’, i.e., a search for commensurable sets or systems of ideas shared across different knowledge domains, practices, disciplines, sub-disciplines and specialities of thought.  Given the increasing incommensurability of knowledge within and between knowledge domains finding such shared or common conceptual structures should facilitate communication and permit us “to glimpse a constructivist companion to the reductionist thesis” (Kauffman 2000, 268).

In yet another sense Professor Puu’s method reminds me of Pascal’s Pensees (1660) especially the opening heading to Section 1: The difference between the mathematical and the intuitive mind.  Thoughts or observations are collected over one’s life and then presented as reflection rather than narrative.  In this sense it also reminds me of Goethe when he wrote: “The desire of knowledge is first stimulated in us when remarkable phenomenon attract our attention. In order that this attention be continued, it is necessary that we should feel some interest in exercising it, and thus by degrees we become better acquainted with the object of our curiosity. During this process of observation we remark at first only a vast variety which presses indiscriminately on our view; we are forced to separate, to distinguish, and again to combine; by which means at last a certain order arises which admits of being surveyed with more or less satisfaction” (Goethe 1810).

Unlike Goethe, however, the ‘certain order’ achieved by Professor Puu is mathematical rather than intuitive or aesthetic in nature.  Underpinning the text is the correlation between Arts, Sciences and Economics through mathematics.  And the mathematics covers the water front from probability to chaos theory to Godel to Lancasterian space.   The Renaissance discovery or re-discovery of geometric perspective certainly raised the epistemological status of the visual arts while music is arguably the first experimental science which, in the hands of Pythagoras, led to recognition of a cognate relationship between number and matter.   This underpinning does, however, reveal Professor Puu as having a very well developed mathematical mind, one beyond the ken of this observer.  Similarly, his cultural and historical erudition cannot be faulted but rather must be praised.  The text is rich in example.  My structural complaints are limited to its episodic nature and lack of an index.  This book is not a narrative with a beginning, middle and end.  It is Professor Puu’s Pensees.

I do, however, take exception to his ‘economics’.   He begins with the assumption that “a supreme goal of all economic activity [is] to produce material welfare”.  He then reifies utility and human happiness as prices.   This is but one room in the economic mansion.   For me, at least, economics is about satisfying infinite human wants, needs and desires with limited means.  Wants, needs and desires, however, as well as the means to satisfy them, need not be strictly ‘material’ in nature.   Calculatory rationalism is not the only tool of economics.  Arguably, this is one implication of the term ‘knowledge-based economy’.   To such an economy, however, Professor Puu has made a most valuable and fascinating contribution.  He assumes a near transdisciplinary perspective lacking, to my mind at least, only an intuitive appreciation of why the numbers of the spheres tease and titillate not just our mind but also stimulate the thoughts of our heart (Hillman 1980).


Harry Hillman Chartrand



Baumol, W., W. Bowen, The Performing Arts:  The Economic Dilemma, Twentieth Century Fund, New York City, 1966.

Baumol, W.J, Oates, M.I., “The Economics of Theatre in Renaissance London”, Swedish Journal of Economics, 74, 1972, 136-180.

Baumol, W.J, Oates, M.I., “The Economics of Theatre in Renaissance London and the Gay Ninties”, Swedish Journal of Economics, 76 (3,) 1974, 369.

Baumol, W.J, Oates, M.I., “Comment: The Economics of Theatre in Renaissance London”, Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 78, 1976.

Boulding, K., “The Arts Applied to Economics”, in Managerial Economics for the Arts, V. L. Owen & W.S. Hendon, ed., Association of Cultural Economics, University of Akron, 1985, 1-8.

Eco, U., The Island of the Day Before, Harcourt Brace & Co., NYC, 1994.

Goethe, J. W. von., Goethe's Theory of Colours - 1970 Introduction and 1810 Introduction, John Murray, London, 1840; reprinted M.I.T. Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1970.

Hillman, J., The Thoughts of the Heart, Eranos Lectures 2, Spring Publications Inc., Dallas, Texas, USA, 1981.

Ihde, D., Instrumental Realism: The Interface between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Technology, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991.

Kauffman S., Investigations, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Kristeller, P.O.,”The Modern System of the Arts:  A Study in the History of Aesthetics  Part II”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 13 (1), Jan., 1952, 17-46.

Scitovsky, T., “What's Wrong with the Arts is What's Wrong with Society”, American Economic Review, May 1972.

Scitovsky, T., The Joyless Economy, Oxford University Press, London, 1976.

Tullock, G., “Economics of Theatre in Renaissance London and Gay Ninties Eldora”, Swedish Journal of Economics, 76 (3), 1974, 366-368.

Tullock, G., “Comment: The Economics of Theatre in Renaissance London”, Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 78, 1976, 115.