Economies of Life

Most conversations that try to connect ”the arts” to ”the economy” are exercises in frustration. For arts enthusiasts, the conversations seem cold and disconnected, but necessary to advance the cause. For non-enthusiasts interested a strong economy, the conversations seem like sales pitches more than substance.


But in his lovely collection of essays entitled Economies of Life: Patterns of health and wealth (also available in a free download version here), Bill Sharpe offers us another way to frame the question. He suggests that there are, in fact, many economies — one of them involving money — and that we only get somewhere useful if we recognize them all.
Sharpe defines an ”economy” as ”a coordinated pattern of human activity enabled by a currency.” Transactions and exchanges of goods and services enabled by money is the one we consider first. But there are dozens if not hundreds more: political process enabled by the currency of votes, sports competition enabled by the currency of scores, scientific discovery enabled by the currency of peer review.
Sharpe suggests that the essential challenge is thoughtfully addressing the areas where these economies intersect. Says he:
Each economy can only thrive because we get its boundaries right and allow it to operate according to its own internal logic while meaning and money pass to and fro across the boundaries with other economies. Our human society is forever finding new ways to relate economies to each other that keep them all ‘healthy’, that is, each operating in ways that preserve its integrity while supporting each other.
His examples help make the point. We’re all comfortable with the concept of scores in sports to determine a winner — both within a game, and across a season of wins and losses. We’re not particularly concerned that we might pay to observe a game in the stadium. But we are concerned if money influences the outcome of the game (through a bribe to a referee, or a player betting on the game and then altering behavior to win the bet). This is an unhealthy intersection of the economies of sports and money, and it damages the internal logic and vitality of the sport.
So what of art? Sharpe suggests that art is not an economy, but a currency. Art is the currency of human experience — the flow of value and meaning between people’s lives. That economy has many intersections, with money, with politics, with power. And these intersections are the places worthy of discussion and debate.
The side benefit of Sharpe’s approach is that it also addresses and discounts the long-worn ‘art for art’s sake’ chatter on both sides of the arts and economy debates. Say he:
For some reason artistic genres are particularly attacked if they pursue art for art’s sake but this is as ridiculous as criticising a jockey for racing for racing’s sake or a physicist on the new Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator for doing physics for physics’ sake. The confusion is now easy to understand: within the race, the jockey must indeed operate according to the values that connect all the participants and make the race a race — anything else is to defeat the whole object. And surely physicists who do anything other than good physics will not find what they are looking for — you certainly can’t persuade new particles such as the Higgs boson to turn up for any political imperative to improve society or any monetary incentive. The race and the experiment are each part of a particular cultural economy in which the individual event must sustain, and be sustained by, the integrity of the currency which relates it to other events.
Well worth a reading and a deep conversation.


  1. says

    On this topic I highly recommend Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book “The Gift.” Until reading it, I felt sort of crazy as a musician in this society. Hyde explained why musicmaking seemed to fit so uncomfortably with the dominant economy.

  2. Joan Sutherland says

    Thanks so much for these links. Somehow though, there needs to be an economic way of creating a better economic link between the different worlds of work. I’ve recently developed a bad case of Tinnitus and I’m deaf in one ear, which is really game over for my work as a violinist, and I have been frequenting the job connect services in my city. It’s apparent right away the social and economic disconnect that exists between a person working in the arts and a person who is regularly employed. Even the term “self-employed” doesn’t encompass the gulf between these worlds. And to try to pursuade the job connect staff that I have spent 40 years of my life “working” in a real job, a demanding job, one that is often discouraging and difficult and boring as much as it has been rewarding, (is this SO different from other work?) has proved to be really impossible. “You’ve been doing what you love(self-indulgent)-you haven’t worked. Now you have to look (at 60) for a job.” It’s like being made completely invisible, or turned into a refugee in one’s own country. Could it be that some of the economic disconnect follows rather than preceeds a cultural misunderstanding?

  3. Jerry Yoshitomi says

    Thanks very much for blogging on the Economies of Life. It’s a great little book. There’s also an interview with Sharpe in the most recent Arts Presenter’s Inside Arts Magazine. In the interview, he mentions a companion piece, Producing the Future: understanding Watershed’s role in ecosystems of cultural innovation.
    “A short report exploring how the ideas in Bill Sharpe’s set of essays ‘Economies of Life: patterns of health and wealth’ resonate with the creative practice of Watershed Media Centre in Bristol, UK and will help to extend and develop their conscious cultural innovation. The report also includes a chapter on how policy might better support such work and help to sustain innovation in the arts and cultural sector.”
    It’s available here: