Art and Economics

For the last three years now, I’ve been teaching a course called Principles of Economics to the first year students of the undergraduate program at the Gokhale Institute, and of all the courses I’ve taught over the years, this one is closest to my heart, by far.

This is true for a variety of reasons: introducing a subject (any subject) is always fun, and even more so when you can see students fall in love with it. When students “get” the power of economics – when they learn to see the world as an economist does – it is so much fun to see them realize that there is so much work to be done in this field. And when they begin to apply these principles in their own lives, well, what more could one ask for?

But one reason that is perhaps a little bit underrated is that I get to teach folks who aren’t all that convinced that they should be studying economics in the first place. Some enroll in the course simply because they aren’t sure about what else to do. Some enroll in the course because their parents recommended that they do so. Still others see this as simply a place to spend three years before doing an MBA.

In such cases, the challenge is to teach economics by first latching on to something that they will enjoy learning about. Pick, that is to say, a topic that interests them, and help them understand how economics has a role to play in that topic. And slowly but surely, use that insight to have them then ask the obvious follow-up question: what else becomes clearer for having studied economics? And once they hit upon the answer themselves (“why, everything!”), well, we’re off to the races! (See pt. 4 in this blogpost)

And I’ve tried cricket, movies… and art.

There’s no end to the list of topics I could try this with, of course. Why are YouTube videos typically 10 minutes or so in length is a good question to ask, for example. Or you could talk about how Spotify is changing the way music is created. Or the economics of a bhurji stall. The list is endless.

But precisely because I know so very little about it, I have a soft spot for art.

And the book that started me off on my journey about learning more about economics through art is a lovely little book called Vermeer’s Hat, by Timothy Brook:

Vermeer’s Hat is a brilliant attempt to make us understand the reach and breadth of the first global age. Previously, all those pirates, explorers and merchant seamen seemed to belong to a separate world from the one inhabited by apple-cheeked Dutch girls smiling pensively at bowls of fruit. What Brook wants us to understand, by contrast, is that these domains, the local and the transnational, were intimately connected centuries before anyone came up with the world wide web. A start was made on this kind of work a decade or so ago with all those neat little books on a single commodity – spice, coffee and so on. But lacking the necessary context, they soon started to seem tiresome and slight, a mere listing of unlikely contingencies. What Brook shows is that with a driving intellectual design and a detailed understanding not just of “here” but “there” too, a history of commodities and the way they circulate is no mere novelty but a key to understanding the origins of our own modern age.

In the book, Timothy Brook speaks about eight of Vermeer’s paintings, and asks a deceptively simple question. What, he says, might we learn about trade in that era by looking at the objects within the paintings? Where did that fur hat come from in the Officer and the Laughing Girl? What about the map behind both of them? What does his painting of the view of Delft tell us about patterns of architecture, commodities trading and globalization more generally?

By the way, if you haven’t clicked on the links of those two paintings, please do take the time to do so. The website in question ( is a lovely resource if you want to learn more about Vermeer, or for that matter about his techniques.

Imagine beginning a semester long course on international trade this way, rather than with a dull recitation of absolute and comparative advantage (I’m not saying the theories are dull, to be clear, but I am saying that the way they’re taught often is!). Economics can be brought alive by helping students realize that economics is about so much more than just one introductory textbook about the subject!

But the other reason for writing this post is that I think this would be a great way to learn more about India’s history (and her ancient patterns of trade) too! What if we tried to take a look at Indian art (paintings, murals, architecture, plays and so much more) and asked about the origins of objects within them, the style of depiction and the influences of different cultures, countries and creators? Both from an intra and an international perspective, my guess is that there would be much to learn and disseminate.

If you happen to know of YouTube channels/books/blogs/podcasts that cover this topic, please, do share!