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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 1049-1050

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Book Review

Art and the Market: Roger Fry on Commerce in Art:
Selected Writings, Edited and with an Interpretation

Art and the Market: Roger Fry on Commerce in Art: Selected Writings, Edited and with an Interpretation. Edited by Craufurd D. Goodwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. xii; 222 pp. $39.50.

Cultural economics is a small but growing branch of economics with a journal of its own. It holds that art is a special type of good, subject to various kinds of market failure. The chief of these is “externalities.” There are spillovers to both producers (e.g., tourism) and consumers (especially future generations). There may be a failure in investment in taste. Art may also be seen as a “merit good”—people may agree that artistic activity should go on even if they derive no individual utility from it. Benefits underproduced by the market are said to justify public subsidy (Peacock 1998).

The economic analysis of art long preceded the emergence of cultural economics. Thorstein Veblen (1899), for example, famously argued that the rich bought cultural goods to signal their wealth. It might then be argued that this led to a structure of demand for cultural goods inimical to “good” art. This was the basic contention of Roger Fry (1866–1934), English painter, decorator, designer, and art philosopher/historian, member of the Bloomsbury Group and friend of John Maynard Keynes. Professor Goodwin has collected seventeen essays of Fry on aesthetic theory, art history, the art market, and public policy, and introduced them with a lucid account of Fry's main ideas. Although Fry was not an economist, this group of essays, together with Goodwin's introduction, is a notable addition to cultural economics.

For Fry, failure in the art market was a failure in demand for “good” art. A key argument is that mechanization has drastically reduced the popular demand for good art, making it increasingly difficult for good artists to earn their living. Fry was much concerned with the poor quality of design and was personally involved in two enterprises—Omega Workshops and the Hogarth Press—that aimed “to restore aesthetic quality to productive processes” (5).

Obviously Fry's position presupposes that one can distinguish between “good” and “bad” art. Fry approached this distinction by way of elimination, concluding that what was most valuable in a work of art was form, not narrative. “The aesthetic emotion,” he wrote, “is an emotion about form. In certain people, purely formal relations of certain kinds arouse peculiarly profound emotions” (17). Fry was trained as a scientist, and to him the pleasure evoked by form in art was analogous to that offered by an elegant scientific theory.

But it was a highly specialized pleasure. In his essay “Art and Commerce” (1926), Fry points to the paradox that there is no biological need for art, yet all societies have had art of some kind. Following Veblen he argues that certain kinds of goods gratify the desire for ostentation or display, and calls such goods “opifacts.” Historically, the great patrons of “opifacture” have been churches, courts, and aristocracies. From time to time—in the Renaissance, in seventeenth-century Holland—the demand for opifacts was allied with a spirit of creativity which made possible genuine works of art. [End Page 1049]

But our own age, Fry suggests, is not one of them. This is because mechanical reproduction has robbed opifacts of their snob appeal as well as destroying any “latent aesthetic sense” in the artists who produce them. Good art is no longer embedded in, or protected by, opifacture. It becomes increasingly remote from ordinary life. “In proportion as art becomes purer the number of people to whom it appeals gets less” (20). Thus the sources of production of good art have dried up on both the demand and supply side.

So where is the demand for art to come from? Fry suggests three possible sources: the working class, the middle class, and the state. Nothing can be expected...


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