The co-evolution of economy and art


How do different value systems interact? How does this exchange trigger new ideas and their implementation, hence innovation, in its particular discursive context?

The project “Co-Evolution of Economy and Art“ develops answers to these questions by examining instances of interdependence in case studies that deal with the relationship between visual art and the economy between the 15th century and the present. The case studies not only reveal the effect of artistic events and artifacts on economic activities but also demonstrate how economic activities affect artistic forms. The modes of interdependence between the value systems vary from case to case, leading to an overarching interpretation that reaches beyond the particular historical situations.

The frame of investigation is culled from a social theory that assumes communication systems and their internal valuation processes as self-reproducing and self-sufficient entities in their specific societal environment. In that respect they operate similarly to living organisms. For the emergence of living forms irritations – disruptions as well as newly emerging connections – play a crucial part in facilitating evolution through variation. In a comparable manner, value systems – art communication, for instance – generate irritations in the observed system – the economy – thus leading to reactions, further communication and added commercial value.

Six Case Studies

The cases were chosen on the basis of existing research that already suggests coherences. Hence, the argument of the studies draws strongly on the competence of experts for the particular artistic genres and their historic socioeconomic contexts. Two case studies look at artistic inventions in the context of economic change, four cases focus on the influence of visual art on economic innovation.

Among the studies investigating the impact of economic context on new visual forms, the first one, “Artful Transactions” deals with six artworks from different epochs. It examines how differences in wealth distribution connected to specific patterns of consumption led to changes in the visual representation of purchasing acts. A second study, “Cheap Blues” traces the development of relative prices for artifacts in relation to the costs for input materials like color pigments, sound amplification or film exposure.

The second strand of investigation studies the impact of artistic invention on economic change. A first case (“Masaccio and the Consequences“) deals with macro-inventions, which are known and studied in the sciences. Comparably fundamental inventions took place in visual representation as well. This can be demonstrated by the diverse long-term effects of the invention of linear perspective on arts and crafts, architecture, horticulture and other trades. Another case (“Visual Credit”) starts from the difficulties incurred in the introduction of bank notes. In the 17th century, paper credit formed the basis for a new and promising economic system. Each banknote contained a number of visual authoritative symbols to grant its credibility.
A further debate springs from the argument that economic growth is rooted in dominant mental models accompanied by codes of conduct that emerge on the basis of individual choices (“Consuming Politeness”). This kind of impact can be observed in early 18th century England, where consumption was suddenly governed by taste rather than custom and morals. Research in this field widely attributes these new patterns of consumption to popular and intellectual literary sources like magazines, novels and essays. The case study, instead, traces the visual sources of consumption.

Finally, the category of exhaustible natural resources has been expanded to sources of knowledge and creativity. Besides education and scientific discovery, economic value is drawn from the vast arsenal of cultural heritage artifacts, and the finely spun network of artistic references. This artistic capital forms the subject matter of a final study on “Art as a Resource“. Preliminary work is underway to extend the study to other forms of artistic expression, i.e. music, literature, and theatre.