John Maynard Keynes and Artistic Conventions

by Merve Emre

Introduction: Keynesian Convention Revisited

In recent years, Modernist Studies has witnessed a resurgence of interest in John Maynard Keynes, the eminent British macroeconomist and Bloomsbury intimate. The impressive reissue of Keynes' collected writings by The Royal Economic Society in 1981 centralized Keynes' articles, public broadcasts, and correspondences within 34 hefty volumes, each bound in dusky blue cloth and ornamented with magnificent gold lettering. While many of Keynes' canonical tracts and treatise were already well circulated among economists, his writings on art and literature provided new primary source materials for literary scholars. Given Keynes' immersion in Bloomsbury, it seemed only natural that Keynesian economics would have somehow influenced the political and aesthetic sensibilities of his writerly neighbors, particularly Virginia and Leonard Woolf, with whom Keynes was quite friendly. 

Despite the richness of the Keynesian archive, economic historians and literary scholars alike have continued to focus on Keynes' 1920-1930 oeuvre, paying special attention to his magnum opus The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. In doing so, these scholars have read The General Theory as renouncing the market orthodoxies of the nineteenth century, particularly the emphasis on individual rationality as a defining characteristic of economic actors. In her oft-cited article "Woolf, Keynes, and Modern Markets," Jennifer Wicke argues that Keynes brought about a "sea change in market consciousness" (6) by undercutting assumptions of market rationality.[1] "For the ordered, rationalist image of the market and its laws," she writes, "Keynes substitutes an insistence on the chaotic nature of the market, no longer chartable in regularized terms, but recognizable as a preternaturally sensitive organism ready to ramify the smallest shock throughout its limpid, limbic system" (11). Although Wicke denounces her project's status as an "influence study," she ultimately focuses on the circulation of ideologies in the Bloomsbury "life-space" (7), and argues that Bloomsbury's position as a space of exchange - a market in its own right - led Keynes and Woolf to "[do] the same thing": to theorize irrationality as a defining characteristic of civil society. Aesthetically, the chaos of the Keynesian marketplace mirrors what Wicke describes as the "fleeting, frangible [...] blooming, buzzing, dispersed, and displaced" (11) exchanges in Mrs. Dalloway'''s urban consciousness.

Elsewhere, I have argued against this intepretation of the Keynesian market as either an inherently chaotic system or a hotbed of irrational impulses. To rehearse my position briefly here, I maintain that Keynes developed the notion of market conventions to stabilize the psychological dimensions of economic behavior. For Keynes, conventions represent the socially manifest rules of behavior that structure the beliefs and actions of investors in proportional, observable, and incremental ways. From a procedural perspective, then, the rational constitution of conventions erects guidelines for market exchange among individual actors. Contrary to Wicke's interpretation, Keynes did not revolutionize economics by doing away with rationality, but by positing convention as an endogenous, independent variable that guides economic actors in their decision-making processes. 

But Keynes' development of convention did not begin and end with The General Theory. In this essay, I want to bring to light some of Keynes' unexplored works - particularly his memoirs, radio broadcasts, and art catalogue statements - to show how he broadened his theory of convention to address Bloomsbury's culture of artistic production, consumption, and exchange. In using the term "address," I mean to interrogate two separate, but interrelated, ways in which Keynes engaged and expanded his initial formulation of economic conventions. First, in a very general and abstract way, Keynes theorized artistic conventions as representing the ethical standards for behavior in pre-war British society - this Burkean understanding of convention was often intermixed with concepts like "customary morality" or "civilization," but ultimately communicated an ethos of culture that seemed to disintegrate in the aftermath of World War I.[2] Second, in a more specific and empirical way, Keynes assumed leadership and/or patronage roles within Bloomsbury's artistic organizations in order to articulate and codify conventions of cultural exchange - what kind of art ought to be produced, for what purpose, and at what price. 

Tracing these disparate yet overlapping strands of convention, as Keynes developed them, is an ambitious project that requires a more granular investigation of Bloomsbury's intellectual history and its economic institutions than the one I can provide here. However, this essay makes an initial gesture towards this prolific research agenda, and offers some prelimnary thoughts on teasing apart the Keynesian archive for new textual sources and uncharted directions for future analysis.

Convention and Artistic Publics

If one were to peruse the entirety of Keynes' economic, political, and cultural correspondences, one would no doubt discover that the word "convention" is used frequently, forcefully, and vaguely across a variety of contexts. The ontology of convention that Keynes provides in The General Theory is relatively opaque, and rears its puzzling head in several, seemingly unrelated, writings on analytical philosophy, public art, and, of course, the London Stock Exchange. Unpacking Keynes' cross-disciplinary uses of convention thus requires engaging his non-economic writings, as they also invoke the idea of convention to philosophize various modes of modern valuation and exchange.

One good place to start is Keynes' often overlooked Bloomsbury memoir My Early Beliefs, as it provides a deliberately self-reflexive and historicized account of how Keynes' philosophical sensibilities evolved from his student years through his later career. Although the memoir first appeared in print posthumously in 1949, Keynes initially presented it to the Bloomsbury Memoir Club in the summer of 1938. The memoir begins with Keynes' collegiate years at Cambridge in the inaugural days of the twentieth-century, where he studied mathematics and philosophy alongside his soon-to-be Bloomsbury associates Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Goldsworthy Dickinson.[3] Under the tutelage of analytic philosopher G.E. Moore, Keynes and his coterie honed a disciplinary ethic of rational and methodological cross-examination - a scholastic hermeneutics that Keynes frequently mythologized as his "religion" (58) or "faith" (54). Keynes characterizes the Moorean method as a persistent exercise in dialectic explication, whereby asking the right questions would lead to a fixed, essential, and rational answer to all of the unwieldy questions imaginable: 

"It was a method of discovery by the instrument of impeccable grammar and an unambiguous dictionary. 'What exactly do you mean?' was the phrase most frequently on our lips [...] We spent our time trying to discover precisely what questions we were asking, confident in the faith that, if we could only ask the right questions, everyone would know the answer" (56; italics in original).
Given Moore's disciplinary stake in analytic philosophy, as evidenced by the publication of Principia Ethica in 1903, it is perhaps unsurprising that his pedagogy would be so blithely drenched in objectivity. Keynes tell us, in rather heavy-handed tones, that Moore cultivated in his students the purely logical assessments of such concepts as love, beauty, and, most obviously, truth.

From My Early Beliefs, we can conclude that the central tenets of Keynes' educational philosophy were two-fold: first, the human race consisted of "reliable, rational, decent people, influenced by truth and objective standards, who [could] safely be released from the outward restraints of convention"; and second, these outward restraints imposed by "customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom" (62; italics mine) should always be repudiated in favor of individual, and thus rational, judgment. Here, Keynes' repetition of the word "convention" feels so agonistic that one wonders if he is setting up his younger self for failure. This, in fact, was precisely his objective in the rest of My Early Beliefs: to develop a rich philosophy of convention that puts to shame the analytic snobbery of his Cambridge education.

In the aftermath of World War I, and amidst the decay of the imperial capitalist system in the 1920s, Keynes developed a keen appreciation for convention - or, as he rephrased it, "the extraordinary accomplishment of our predecessors in the ordering of life [...] or the elaborate framework which they devised to protect this order" (62). This understanding of convention differed greatly from his definition of it Keynes provides in The General Theory, where convention came to represent a market convergence point - the procedural guidelines that structured the economic actions of independent investors. Instead, convention points in a more substantive direction, to a normative framework for governing the "spontaneous, volcanic, and even wicked impulses" (63) of human nature that defy rationality. Given the historical moment of Keynes' memoir, perhaps we should not be so surprised to see a shift in his thinking from procedure to substance. We can hear in this sketch of convention some echoes of Walter Benjamin's celebrated essay "The Storyteller," which published contemporaneous to the presentation of Keynes' memoir. Benjamin writes that "the moral world" of the pre-war period had "undergone changes which were never thought possible," and had thus unearthed the substantive lacuna behind the Moorean philosophies of rationality.[4] 

Clearly, this new articulation of convention - what we may more accurately refer to as social convention - complicated Keynes assessment of it in The General Theory. Unlike market conventions, which arose organically from the autotelic overlap of individual and aggregate beliefs and behaviors, social conventions needed to be "ordered," "devised," and "protected" by a distinct and elite board of trustees that Keynes did not identify. While the economic conventions of The General Theory were continually checked by the self-correcting activity of financial markets, it was not clear that social conventions were, or should be, perpetually evolving in accordance with individual belief or action. Rather, they were rules that were enforced from some hypothetically hierarchical realm of ethical authority. It is in this vein then that Keynes concludes My Early Beliefs, with an appeal to religiosity rather than rationality. He writes, "I behave as if there really existed some authority or standard to which I can successfully appeal if I shout loud enough - perhaps it is some hereditary vestiage of a belief in the efficacy of prayer." (63).

How does art enter into this abstract discussion of convention? For Keynes, the "public arts" represented the privileged domain for the widespread resurrection of social convention in a substantive sense. Keynes' thematization of art as an ethical enterprise provides the subtext for much of his artistic writings and reviews from the 1920s; however, it only really comes to a head in his article "Art and the State," written for J.R. Ackerley's periodical The Listener and published on August 26, 1936.[5] Ackerley had originally solicited the article in May of the same year. He wanted Keynes to write a prologue to a special summer issue of The Listener that addressed "the condition of modern art at home and abroad in relation to the social crisis" (335) of the post-war era. In his letter, Ackerley defined the arts as "painting, sculpture, architecture, and such new forms of art as, for instance, pageantry of ceremony and festivity" (335) - in short, forms of artistic production which explicitly addressed a so-called "public" and, in doing so, intervened in the socially precarious discourses of Britain in the 1930s. 

In "Art and the State," Keynes chastised the British government for failing to "maintain the grandeur and dignity of the state" (336), a failure he attributed to the habit of limiting government interference in social affairs. This, in turn, was a habit rooted in the state's "utilitarian and economic" considerations of public expenditure, whereby financial backing was only extended to creative enterprises that provided tangible financial returns - what Keynes sarcastically dubbed "the arts of public construction" (344). But this "perversion of business arithmetic" ignored the intangible benefits of the public arts - they were "best suited to give form and body to civic pride and a sense of social unity" (345). Keynes argues that utilitarian calculations have led public shows and ceremonies to fall into "an almost complete desuetude," even though they provide a unique opportunity for joining together "in a celebration, an expression of common feeling" (346).

The civic pride, social unity, and common feeling that Keynes invokes throughout "Art and the State" are undoubtedly manifestations of social convention that are culturally prescribed by the artist or artists involved in the creation and circulation of public art. The public that public art instantiates is constituted by a particular ethos of cultural citizenship, a "spirit of the age" which invokes the civic norms of "openhandedness, of liberality, of candor, of toleration, of experiment, of optimism" (345). While some critics read Keynes' article as promoting a uniqely national or domestic sense of community, Keynes explicitly warns against using the public arts to mobilize an ostensibly "national spirit" (347).[6] Rather than motivating some vague notion of the geopolitical nation-state, the public arts should a particular culture of citizenship. This convention is made all the more muscular by its explicit, i.e. financial, sovereign endorsement.

Convention and Individual Valuations of Art 

Despite Keynes' call for state sponsorship of public art, he recognized that individual sponsorship was necessary to enact social conventions on a more intimate scale. To this end, Keynes organized, financed, and promoted a number of artistic organizations, including the London Group (1921), the London Artists' Association (1925), the Cambargo Society (1931), and the Arts Theatre in Cambridge (1936).[7] In his position as official Treasurer in these various groups, he arduously tried to instantiate the kind of conventions he had abstractly discussed in both The General Theory and My Early Beliefs - rules for valuing works of art in both the monetary sense and the ethical one. Admittedly, because Keynes' explicit theorizations of convention appeared nearly a decade after his involvement in many of these organizations, what I highlight below are the thematic, rather than the causal, ways in which Keynes' active participation on the financial side of Bloomsbury's artistic institutions neatly complemented his later development of convention in his theoretical writings.

Although I cannot thoroughly discuss Keynes' participation in all of these institutions here, a short analysis of his writings for the London Group highlights the consistency between his abstract beliefs and manifest activities. Some brief background on the London Group is necessary in order to situate it within the broader expanse of the 1920s London art scene. The organization had its roots in the 1908 merger of the Camden Town Group and the Allied Artists' Association, two companies with vastly different aesthetic philosophies who were equally "unhappy with the state of painting in Britain," i.e. as it was represented by the official exhibition associations of the Royal Academy and the New English Art Club. By 1920, the London Group's members included Keynes' friends Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and Keynes' then-lover Duncan Grant. In October 1921, London Group President Bernard Adeney invited Keynes to write a preface to the group's exhibition at the Mansard Gallery, one of the preeminent exhibition spaces fo post-war French avant-garde art. Keynes, I suspect, thought that both the storied history of the exhibition site and the London Group's attempts at establishing a counter-aesthetic for British cultural progress rendered this exhibit a potential inflection point in the development of avant-garde artistic markets.[8] 

Accordingly, in his forward to the Mansard Gallery's catalogue, Keynes positioned the exhibit as straddling the divide between both public and private, and rich and middlebrow connoisseurship. In rather beseeching tones, he wrote to prospective buyers that the existing conventions of the avant-garde art market discouraged the purchasing of works by new or unknown artists: 

“It scarcely occurs to such people to buy a picture – this is a rich man’s fancy. The conventions of picture exhibitions are partly responsible. There is a slight mystery about the prices, which can only be ascertained by those bold, inquisitive or wealthy persons who make enquiry at the desk. The enquiry, if made, generally discloses a price beyond what the purchaser feels he can pay merely for the adornment of his house; yet it needs a great confidence in his own judgment for him to pay an appreciable sum for the work of a young, and perhaps almost unknown artist ‘as an investment’” (296; italics mine).[9]
Keynes quite easily identified the troubling conventions within which the avant-garde art market operated - except for some unconscientiously wealthy buyers, the bourgeois afficionados of modern art had no systematic means of valuing a piece confidently enough to make an offer for it. This convention, of course, is more akin to the kind of economic conventions that constitute the later focus of
The General Theory. Prices could not be fixed due to massive information asymmetries between buyers and their future sellers, and thus a market for a particular commodity - in this case, amateur works by the aspiring Bloomsbury avant-garde - could not be established.

In attempting to establish a counter-convention for determining prices, Keynes invoked the social conventions he would later explicate in "Art and the Stat" - consumerism as a civilizing, cultural activity. After lamenting the stifling practices of the British picture trade, Keynes continued: 

“It is not so rash to affirm that it is from amongst [the London Group] that posterity will choose those whom it will celebrate as the leaders of English painting in the generation after to [sic] War; - which affirmation leads me back to my proper topic and allows me to add that the element of ‘investment’ may not be entirely absent after all” (297).[10]
Investment, as it is employed here, does not directly refer to the monetary return of the painting, although it certainly hints at
The General Theory'''s formal modeling of return on investment (ROI). Nor does it convey the private self-satisfaction a buyer revels in when he exercises his aesthetic judgment; significantly, Keynes draws a sharp and disparaging distinction between purchasing a picture as a mere "adornment" for one's house versus purchasing a picture as an "investment." I believe the term "investment" indexes the artistic conventions that patrons create by performing an act of purchasing - more specifically, by purchasing a work by one of "those" British painters whose aesthetics communicated, embedded, and promoted the cultural norms of "the generation after the War." Importantly, then, the act of purchasing was not a purely private matter, but had supremely public ramifications.

However, Keynes' writings beg a simple question: what were the cultural conventions represented in the works of the post-war Bloomsbury painters? While Keynes, in his position as an official Treasurer and economist, often shied away from defining the positive content of culture, his contemporary art critics did an excellent job supplementing Keynes' vaguer notions of British culture. The "Postimpressionists" of the London Group, a label cautiously affixed by Roger Fry, were bombarded with constant "accusations of anarchism" - both aesthetically and in a broader social context. On the aesthetic front, the viewing public expressed great irritation with the Postimpressionist's radical rejection of pictorial mimeticism for conscious formal distortion. In a lecture at the Grafton Gallery in 1911, Roger Fry framed the problem as such: 

"Before ever they have in any real sense seen a picture, people are calling to mind their memories of objects similar to those which they see represented, and are measuring the picture by these, and generally - almost inevitably if the artist is original and has seen something with new intensity and emotion - condemning the artist's image for being different from their own preconceived mental images" (168; italics in original).[11] 
One can see why G.E. Moore and Henry Tonks bemoaned the London Group's distanciation from the Turner-Gainsborough-Constable triumverate of New English painting - while the eighteenth and nineteenth century painters had offered up Romantic landscape and portraiture as representative of the "English love for intimate and domestic things," the Post-Impressionists heaped upon the public "the burden of dozens of half-digested principles, the bewilderment of theories innumerable."[12] The London Group's break from the New English school, however, was more than just an aesthetic thorn in the side. Fry continued his lecture by claiming that the Post-Impressionists  conveyed the "disturbed" parts of the real world, the "coherence and unity which the actual world lacks" and which representational painting boldly denied - in Keynesian terms, a cultural convention of distortion in all spheres of life. By cobbling together the critical discourses on the London Group, the parallels between a cultural convention of distortion and Keynes' rejection of Moorean objectivity become quite clear. 

Of course, this brief analysis is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Volume XXVIII of Keynes' collected works provides a smattering of wonderful reviews, radio shows, and previously unpublished correspondences with Kingsley Martin, George Bernard Shaw, and Leonard Woolf that would certainly add endless amounts of detail to my account of economic and social conventions. Even in those pieces that Keynes disparages as "puff" (9) - promotions for Cambargo ballets, reviews of modern poetry, and cultural critiques of Einstein - there exist fascinating and unearthed parallels between Keynes' grand economic theories and his more modest understandings of art.

  1. Jennifer Wicke, “Woolf, Keynes, and Modern Markets,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994).
  2. Thank you to the Modernisms seminar participants for suggesting the parallels with Burke's writings.
  3. John Maynard Keynes, “My Early Years” in The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs, Commentary, and Criticism, ed. Stanford Patrick Rosenbaum (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 49-64.
  4. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (Schocken Books: New York, 1968), pp. 83-109.
  5. John Maynard Keynes, “Art and the State” in The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. XXVIII, Social, Political, and Literary Writings (London: The Macmillan Press, 1982), p. 345.
  6. Keynes cautions against directly public art to overtly nationalist purposes, as he claims Mussolini did by commissioning of explicitly Fascist Italian artworks. Of course, Keynes would probably argue that the art in question had to cultivate some shared notion of nation-ness, but it could do so through an ethos of citizenship rather than the overt symbols of the nation-state as a delimited and circumscribed entity.
  7. See John Maynard Keynes, The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. XXVIII, Social, Political, and Literary Writings (London: The Macmillan Press, 1982), pp. 295-373.
  8. See Roger Fry, A Roger Fry Reader, ed. Christopher Reed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 283 and Denys J. Wilcox, The London Group, 1913-1939: The Artists and Their Works (Michigan: The Scolar Press, 1995), p. 20.
  9. John Maynard Keynes, “London Group” in The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. XXVIII, Social, Political, and Literary Writings (London: The Macmillan Press, 1982), p. 296.
  10. Ibid
  11. Roger Fry, "Post Impressionism," Fortnightly Review, May 1911, pp. 856-67.
  12. Michael J.K. Walsh, A Dilemma of English Modernism: Visual and Verbal Politics in the Life and Work of C.R.W. Nevinson (Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2007), p. 40.