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Zen and the art of economics

In our headlong rush to commerce, if we ignore the arts and aesthetics, this is of course civilisationally bad, but, in the long run, may be bad for commerce itself, writes Kaushik Basu.

columns Updated: Apr 23, 2008 15:22 IST

In this age of commerce and technology, is the world becoming too mechanical? Some months ago, I published an article on BBC Online, called Time to give SAARC a Facelift. A few days later, I found my article linked to a webpage on Facelift Surgery. There it sat amidst links to ‘Abdominoplasty’, ‘Liposuction surgery’ and ‘Weight loss filters’. Clearly, this was the work of robotic intelligence; it would not have happened with the human touch.

Art and commerce are, at one level, poles apart. Yet there is something diminished in a society that tries to compensate for one with the other. Thomas Carlyle’s lament in 19th-century Britain that, thanks to the rise of economics (he called it the ‘dismal science’), the arts were being doomed, may have been mistimed. But it would not be out of place in today’s India. While celebrating Lakshmi, there is a genuine risk that we will ignore the non-commercial flanks of society — art, music, good cinema and mathematics.

Last month, after four days of economics in Munich, I found myself alone and with two free days. I took the subway to the beautiful Marienplatz, and from there walked to the art galleries — Pinakothek der Moderne and Lenbachhaus. Early twentieth-century German art was one of the most astonishing human achievements. Expressionism, Die Brucke, the Blaue Reiter all found homes in Germany. The Blaue Reiter movement was in fact located in Munich, with Wassily Kandinsky, (his partner and in my view the more talented) Gabriele Munter, Franz Marc and Jawlensky experimenting with new art forms and colours.

It struck me that, in the long run, there was something symbiotic about the rise of the economy and the arts. The latter involves innovation and the love of excellence; and, in different ways, these are also the ingredients of sustained economic progress. In our headlong rush to commerce, if we ignore the arts and aesthetics, this is of course civilisationally bad, but, in the long run, may be bad for commerce itself.

In the nineteenth century, the Bavarian monarchy wanted Munich and its surroundings to be not just a great industrial centre but the world capital of music. The arts in the region developed because of royal patronage. It is arguable that Rousseau would never have written The Social Contract, if it were not for the generosity of the Duke of Luxembourg.

In the modern world we do not rely on the eccentric patronage of kings and the nobility, but on our universities and institutions to provide a home for all kinds of innovators. In India, while the schools of management and engineering are doing well, the university system is floundering. Literature, the arts, mathematics and abstract science have little immediate commercial value. So left to the whims of the market, they tend to wilt. But in the course of time, they play a fundamental role in making people creative, and so they deserve government support and encouragement.

Postscript. On the flight out of Munich, I am drawn into another unusual pairing with economics — that with religion. I am seated next to a German scholar. On hearing that I am a professor and before I can tell him that I do not take my profession too seriously, he sallies into a treatise on economics and religion, halting English notwithstanding. After a while I have stopped listening, when, to my dismay, I find him asking me: “Is Zen Hindu?” Not knowing how and when we have moved to the intricacies of eastern religions, I begin by stammering. But gladdened by the role reversal, I speak in a monologue for, maybe, ten minutes, giving no breaks, which could grant him a toehold.

Since everything I know about Zen can be said in half-a-minute, I am very impressed by the last nine-and-a-half minutes of my speech. He is a polite person and listens to me patiently. But even as he nods courteously to a meaningless discourse on Mahayana Buddhism, he looks puzzled. It is almost as if he was expecting a shorter answer to the question. The puzzle is solved when, after much more conversation, breakfast and coffee, he asks me, “Is Zen the only Indian who has won the Nobel Prize in economics?”

Kaushik Basu is Professor of Economics and Director, Center for Analytic Economics, Cornell University