The Art of Economy

‘An artist is not a special type of person, rather every person is a special type of artist.’ – Ananda Coomaraswamy

Like many people, I have never considered myself an artist. I don’t draw very well, my piano lessons never reached concert potential, and as a dancer I’d rather move between than stand out in the spotlight. I don’t make paintings, songs, or poems, my work doesn’t sell in galleries. I am an economist, my diploma says Masters of Science.

Despite my profession, I have always questioned the scientific-ness of my field. The economics that have dominated the last century – and certainly dominated the courses of my degree – are founded on worryingly simplistic assumptions, allowing economists to describe society’s value system numerically and in 2- dimensional diagrams. Rather than approaching the economy as an evolving social structure – made up by people with a diversity of cultures, beliefs and personalities – economic theory seemed obsessed with creating equilibrium outcomes by universalising people into 1-size-fits-all, values-free decision makers. In the attempt to make the study resemble a ‘hard science’, the dynamics of these models were then called the ‘laws’ of economics.

The values-free language of economic laws and models has created not only a mechanistic, but also a dualistic approach. Economists are taught to disconnect themselves from the system they study; they place themselves outside, look at the system and analyse it, presumably impartially and objectively. Not surprisingly, this approach has spread to all fields where economics is applied. For example governments policies are designed to ‘intervene’ in an economy; cleanly, like a watchmaker in a clock. As if at a personal and institutional level politicians and civil servants are not intricately part of and shaped from within that same economy. Companies design scenarios to strategically ‘react’ on the upcoming market developments; as if the business does not play a role in shaping that very same market. More generally, people in the street feel at the mercy of economic forces, while newspapers state that ‘the economy is in recession’ or that ‘the labour market is picking up’. We all talk about the economy as if it were an anonymous outside force; an entity alien to ourselves, a something that overcomes us.

Reality of course is that we are the economy. We are the market forces. Our confidence is consumer confidence. There is no system but us. The only economy is the one we create, every day, every transaction, every decision. We are not victims of economic forces, we are the enactors of them. So no matter whether we are involved in the science of economy, every single person participates in the continuous creation of it.

If we are all the creators, why don’t we then approach the economy as a piece of art? A world-size social sculpture. By being, acting and transacting in relation to each other and all other species, we are and shape the sculpture. We make ideas matter by buying and selling what we value, we choreograph the market by deciding where and how we work. We create harmony or dissonance in our organisations, give rhythm and pace as co-creating economic agents. We are the artist, the pencil and the paint. With our intentions we colour the bigger picture.

Economics has been exclusively a science of experts. I believe we should rebalance, become inclusive and allow more space for Art.  The Art of acting in integrity, of expressing our inner values in the outer economic value system. The Art of creatively improvising our pathways towards a healthy, sustainable, vibrant future. And the Art of enjoying the ongoing performance.

Realising that we are all a special type of artist, we are invited to use our diversity of talents, personalities, ages, colours and qualities to create the economy we wish to see in the world. Without knowing the outcome, but with dedication to the future continuously coming into being, we express our individual shapes and sizes, use the power of contrast to bring out the light in each other, or tune in and compose in harmony. There is no conductor or jury but ourselves. We are the social sculpture called economy, and it is up to us whether we make it beautiful.

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11 thoughts on “The Art of Economy

  1. Thank you Sarah – I enjoyed your thoughtful post very much. Is the holistic approach you advocate a popular school in modern economics, or do you consider yourself an innovator in this area?

    • Thank you Geoff. I can only give you my impression.. I believe we are generally moving towards a more holistic understanding of the world. We can recognize this in popular language, people’s value choices, growing realisation of the value of ‘environment’. It also shows in ways of doing science, thinking about organisational and systemic change, etc. But I must say, in the field of economics it still is very much an undercurrent. Call it wishful thinking, call it talking from my greenish bubble, but I believe this current is growing and may even find its way to the mainstream very soon. Best! S.

  2. As a writer, you are definitely an artist! Beautifully written.

    I’m reading David Korten’s book “When Corporations Rule the World” right now and he makes makes similar point that prevailing schools of economic thought start out by making absurd assumptions about what drives behavior and then attempt to generalize economic “laws” from there.

  3. When I was reading your blog, I had to think of Michel Foucault and this great quote:

    “What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”

    Let’s make art of our lives. It is possible! Take care, Martijn

  4. The domination of the ‘Occidental’ left brain thinking has tended to a feature of language called ‘nominalization’. This is the tendency to freeze processes and activities into ‘things’. So just behaviour becomes ‘justice’ and loving behaviour becomes ‘love’. So too ‘economic activity’ becomes the thing called ‘economy’. Herein lies the potential contribution of behavioural economics to a more holistic approach.

  5. HI Sarah, Indeed, economics is more like a television today! We sit and watch pre-determided channels in an input of info that we don’t know what to do with… Have you find examples in which people/communities deal with economy with artistry? what are the tools? What are our pallets and colours? Genuine Progress Indicator…what else?

  6. Rather than looking at economy as an art, I would look at economy as an instrument to create a just society, that actually honours human rights, which is so unlike the current capitalist economy.

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