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Birks – Economics, art and pluralism

Analogies, rhetoric and a case for pluralism:

September 2014 saw the opening of an exhibition, Picasso and Spanish modernity, at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. It explored Picasso’s influence on Spanish art, but the descriptions included points which may, by analogy, be relevant for economics. Signs in the exhibition and the booklet to accompany the exhibition both refer to Picasso’s use of a variety of styles. Hence, on p.4 of the booklet is written:

Picasso abandons stylistic unity and adopts versatility and iconographic and artistic “variations” as a working system, producing drawings in different styles at the same time…Picasso could develop the same theme or figure using different styles, ranging from the rediscovery of classicism to Surrealism via Expressionism or Cubism, either at different moments or at the same time. A single image can take on different meanings according to its context. Picasso proceeded by “variations” in a musical sense, strengthening, transforming and embellishing his theme, or merging it with others. A major work by Picasso is rarely a single product without replica, reiteration or variation.

We could ask why artists use different styles to represent the same objects or phenomena. Do they emphasise different aspects of the phenomena? Do the styles influence our views on the phenomena depicted in the artwork?

If there is no single way to represent something in art, if what we see is influenced by the way in which it is depicted, might economic phenomena display similar properties? Can alternative theories or models represent the same phenomena, but emphasise different aspects of them? Might our understanding of economic phenomena be subjectively influenced by the ‘style’ in which they are represented?

Is there one ‘best’ artistic style for representing a phenomenon, or, even more broadly, for representing all phenomena? If not, might this serve as a relevant analogy for economists? Should economists select one approach (school of thought, theory, or model) as being the best for understanding an economic phenomenon, or all economic phenomena? Or should economists emulate artists and acknowledge the validity of a variety of approaches, with none being complete, definitive representations of reality?

Student protest

There is an international network of student groups operating under the name, the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics. They want wider and more realistic perspectives than that presented in mainstream economics courses. They may also have a parallel in a very productive art  student protest movement over 165 years ago. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is described as follows in the City of Manchester Art Gallery (as at December 2014):

Britain’s first and best-known radical art movement emerged from within the Royal Academy in 1848. Its original members were rebellious art students who were disillusioned with contemporary practice. They looked back…seeing the pre-1500 period as one of great sincerity…The Brotherhood also rejected contrived studio lighting and took canvases outside to paint directly from nature.

I wonder if ISIPE will have as great an impact on economics.

Commentary by Stuart Birks, last updated 18th December 2014

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