Commerce on the Canvas: Discovering Economics through Art

During introductions at an economics workshop I attended a few years ago, one of the participants revealed that she did not teach economics, history, or personal finance—she taught art. "What are you doing here?" someone asked, to which she replied, "I'll find a way to make it fit!" Clearly, she believed that economics can be found (and taught!) everywhere. After all, the influential economist Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of "mankind in the ordinary business of life." Artists—whether painters or sculptors, actors or writers, filmmakers or photographers—have all incorporated the "ordinary business of life" in their works.

Take, for instance, Norman Rockwell, whose familiar and nostalgic scenes of Americana have much to say about the American standard of living, entrepreneurship, and industry. Or Andy Warhol, who believed that "making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art of all" and famously turned commercial products into iconic pop images. Or impressionist masters Monet, Pissarro, and Degas, who all beautifully captured 19th-century French life and, with it, scenes of commerce, labor, and trade. The humble agrarian economies portrayed in the pastoral scenes of Edward Hicks and the wheat fields of Van Gogh stand in stark contrast to Diego Rivera's compelling scenes of industrialization, or Edward Hopper's realist take on the business of modern urban living. Across history, art has acted as a powerful agent, conveying messages of both inspiration and propaganda, and sometimes telling the economy's story along the way.

Collections available through the Federal Reserve Banks of Cleveland and St. Louis provide online access to art on a wide variety of subjects, including economics and history. The Cleveland Fed's Propaganda and Patriotism collection captures the themes of currency and central banking in its online exhibit of the history of war bonds. The display begins with the Revolutionary War and Emanuel Leutze's renowned portrait, Washington Crossing the Delaware.

The St. Louis Fed's Great Depression curriculum offers many opportunities to connect economics, history, and art. On the St. Louis Fed's web pages, you can find links to photography and cartoon collections from the era as well as to the Library of Congress's massive collection of Work Projects Administration, or WPA, posters. You can also find a link to the New Deal Network website, which offers an entire curriculum unit integrating the Great Depression and the arts. Lesson 2 in the curriculum asks students to express their understanding of the causes of the Great Depression by creating a newsletter incorporating various modes of artistic expression.

Those of us who may be art lovers but not art historians can find a thorough introduction to the topic of teaching economics through art on the web pages of the Purdue University Center for Economic Education. The center provides a PowerPoint file showcasing more than 50 works of art from various genres and time periods, using Alfred Marshall's quote as a framework. Slides identify the relevant economic concepts and include links to more information about most of the featured paintings and artists. The website includes 10 galleries of works divided into such economic topics as natural resources and agriculture, markets and exchange, capital resources and technology, and money, banking, financial crises and bubbles. Each gallery concludes with "Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?," a slide containing comprehensive, thought-provoking discussion questions intended to reinforce the economic concepts found in the gallery's paintings, engravings and drawings. Also featured are online collections devoted to a single artist, showcasing works from artists as diverse as Diego Rivera, the Brueghels, and Norman Rockwell.

Putting a twist on Warhol's money as art assertion, the Federal Reserve hosts a number of web collections showcasing historical and world currency, many examples of which highlight not only history and economics, but are works of art in their own right. Online at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland you can view exhibitions of both historic and world currency, and even design your own bill. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco's American Currency Exhibit provides a comprehensive look at currency from colonial times to today, and publications from the Federal Reserve Banks of Boston and Philadelphia explore the history and meaning behind currency symbols both present and past.

Extend your study of economics in art with a look at the market for art itself. "The Scream," Edvard Munch's familiar expressionist depiction of angst gained notoriety as the world's most expensive piece of art when it sold for $119.9 million last year. How are pieces of art valued? What kind of market is the market for art? Is buying an expensive piece of art a good investment, or just a way to show you are very wealthy? What can the market in art tell us about the economy in general? In the related links section, you will find a number of articles covering these topics. Consider using the articles as the basis for discussing the economics of the market for fine art.

From old masters to contemporary compositions, the life reflected in art appeals to our intellectual curiosity about aesthetics and economic theory. It is exciting to find these principles expressed in an unexpected place. To quote American painter Edward Hopper, "The whole answer is there on the canvas."

Related resources
American Currency Exhibit (Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)
Coins & Currency (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston)
Discover Historic U.S. Currency (Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland)
Economics and Art (Purdue Center for Economic Education)
The Economist: "Why Buy Art?"
Explore Money from Around the World (Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland)
The Great Depression Curriculum website (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)
"History at Your Fingertips" and "Spirit of the Nation" (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston)
Huffington Post:"The Not So Curious Economics of Art," David Galenson (March 3, 2014)
"Barter Economics Still Lives in the Art Trade," Daniel Grant (July 16, 2013)
Liberty and the American Eagle (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston)
New York Times: "How the Art Market Thrives on Inequality"
NPR: "Why a Dead Shark Costs $12 Million"
Propaganda and Patriotism: The Art of Financing America's Wars (Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland)
Symbols on American Money (Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia)
You Look Like a Million Bucks (Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland)

By Lesley Mace, senior economic and financial education specialist with the Jacksonville Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
March 5, 2014