Book Review

Arts and Artists from an Economic Perspective

by Xavier Greffe


ISBN Economica 2-7278-4362-0

UNESCO 92-3-103834-6, Paris 2002

Harry Hillman Chartrand ©

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

March 31, 2003 


There are three ways to attain an economic perspective of the arts. 

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 went on, in his long running debate with Tullock in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics between 1972 and 1976, to distinguish the aesthetic difference between live performance with its gestalt of performer and audience and that possible through media extension of performance, 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). 

Third, one can attempt a stereoscopic perspective by placing both the arts 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 remaining corners.  Economics, in this view, is but one discipline within the wider humanities and social sciences.  Put another way, the arts represent a distinct ‘way of knowing’ summed up in a new philosophy called ‘aesthetics’ created in the late 18th century by Baumgarten (a contemporary of Adam Smith, founder of modern economics).  Aesthetics was to be his new science of sensual knowledge to balance logic as the science of intellectual knowledge (Kristeller 1952, 35).  The word aesthetics itself derives from the Greek aisthesis - the activity of perception or sensation - which at root means “taking in” and “breathing in” - a “gasp”, the primary aesthetic response (Hillman 1981).   Economics deals with but one type of logic – the min-max solutions of utilitarianism; the arts deal with a completely distinct and varied ‘way of knowing’. 

Greffe attempts all three approaches in his effort to present an economic perspective of the arts.  At least in translation from the French into English, there is, however, no lyricism to the presentation.  In short cryptic staccato sections, within seven long chapters, he offers a mixture of:

* economic findings about the arts, e.g., their role in urban and regional economic development;

* astute aesthetic references, e.g., his analysis of Baudelaire’s stroller; and

* policy analysis and prescription, e.g.,  only 7% of cultural spending in France is provided by government (in this sense probably the most cultured nation in the world) with the remaining 93% spent by individuals and bodies corporate. 

The enormous wealth of observation and findings (a credit to the author’s vast learning and insight) – aesthetic, economic and public policy – is not, to my mind, easily accessible.  Greffe assumes a level of aesthetic and economic literacy that most readers will find intimidating.  The structure of the text does not help.  While I commend the text to other readers, I suggest using the well developed index to select topics of interest and then read the appropriate section.  In this sense, Greffe has produced a text in the tradition of Diderot’s Encyclopedia that can most profitably be consulted as an exhaustive reference work rather than a narrative presenting a holistic economic perspective of the arts.



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, Vol. 74, 1972, pp. 136-180

Baumol, W.J, Oates, M.I., The Economics of Theatre in Renaissance London and the Gay Ninties, Swedish Journal of Economics, Vol. 76, No. 3, 1974, p. 369

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

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

Kristeller, P.O.,The Modern System of the Arts:  A Study in the History of Aesthetics  Part II, Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 13, Issue 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, Vol. 76, No. 3, 1974, pp. 366-368

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


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