Saturday, January 15, 2011

Art and Literature Should Profit

Ludwig von Mises defines profit as

the gain derived from action; it is the increase in satisfaction (decrease in uneasiness) brought about; it is the difference between the higher values attached to the result attained and the lower value attached to the sacrifices made for its attainment; it is, in other words, yield minus costs. To make profit is invariablythe aim sought by any action. If an action fails to attain the ends sought, yield eithe does not exceed costs or lags behind costs. In the latter case the outcome means a loss, a decrease in satisfaction.

Profit and loss in this original sense are psychic phenomena and as such not open to measurement (Human Action, 289)
A work of art should yield profit in Mises's sense of the term. If it does, it is likely to be a work of beauty. If it does not, it is not a work of beauty. This is not a sufficient definition of beauty, of course, but it is a necessary element.

Beautiful works are those which are complex. There is a clear difference between the complex and the complicated -- though most people mistake the two. They are not equivalent, as we shall see.

Something is complicated if it appears difficult but is, in fact, simple. The word is derived from one which means "knotted." Something is complexi if it appears simple but is, in fact difficult. The word is derived from one which means "folded." Knotted and folded. A knot is difficult to undo, but when you get it undone, what was three dimentions is now but one. Something folded is already two dimensions, but we discover that there are layers upon layers under the surface. One has to go deeper and deeper to see just how much is there. One returns to the complex with benefit; once the complicated is unknotted, there it is -- a lot of hard work for a string.

In other words, a work which is complex is one which is profitable to read or view; a work which is complicated is one which creates loss, as the reader or viewer has spent a lot of time and work to go, "oh, is that all there is?" One returns to complicated things and experiences loss; one returns to complex things and experiences gain. Complication gives rise to simplicity; simple rules (as Stephen Wolfram shows in his work on cellular automata) give rise to complexity.

Art and literature should profit. Great works are thus complex works. But we have also seen that complex works are also apparently simple. They are both, simultaneously. A paradox? Well, that too is the nature of complexity.

Art and literature should contribute to the complexity of society. If they are themselves complex, they do so contribute. They complexify the minds of the readers and viewers, profiting them, making them psychicly wealthier by such profit, thus allowing them to behave in more complex fashion, with more different kinds of people, to contribute to the complexification of society.

Art and literature should emerge from the complexity of society. Thus would the arts and the society at large contribute to each other in feedback loops of ever-greater complexity, driving complexity.

This is but one of the ways one can evaluate a work's quality. But it may be one of the most important ones.


  1. A work of art or literature is interpreted. The richness of the interpretation depends on the complexity of the receiver. "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder".

  2. Great explanation of the distinction between complexity and complicated things. Thanks a lot for that.

  3. Beauty isn't merely subjective. There is a reason why the vast majority of people agree that certain things are beautiful. The complexity of the receiver only allows them to see more beauty, to get the deeper depths of the works.

  4. How does your definition of a beautiful (meaning complex) work of art fit in with the idea of uncertainty in the market? What makes the market system complex (based on your definition as something which seems simple but is actually difficult to comprehend) is that the entrepreneur must work in a world of uncertainty and must speculate as to profit and loss.

    The process of valuation of profit and loss is subjective from person to person. So based on this, should a work of art make its viewer into an entrepreneur so that he may speculate and find what it is that gives him the psychic satisfaction of a seemingly simple piece of art?

    Also would your definition of a complicated piece of art be one which is cluttered (such as a story with too many subplots or a filled with images but no focus or theme)?

    Just seeking some clarification is all. On a side note, my Girlfriend is an artist so your site has actually allowed me to engage in conversations with her about art and not just economics and politics (which she likes too) as it blends our two favorite subjects, so thanks lol

  5. Some excellent questions.

    Actually, you have things backwards in the first question. The economy is uncertain because it's complex. If the economy were simple, it could be predicted. Because it is complex, it cannot be. Thus, the entrepreneur must speculate. At the same time, if an economy is a complex process, that means it is also in a far-from-equilibrium state, a state which is most creative. The result is that new things will be created, and more things will work out than won't -- thus creating wealth. This is true only if we see each person as an entrepreneur, rather than just Misesian promoters.

    Indeed, the process of valuation of profit and loss is subjective from person to person. Especially when one doesn't have money to make things a bit more objective in that matter (I can think my business is profitable all I want, but if I lose money and go bankrupt, that's a pretty objective determiner of loss). So your statement that a work of art "makes its viewer into an entrepreneur so that he may speculate and find what it is that gives him the psychic satisfaction" is an excellent description of what happens.

    Your definition of a complicated work of art is certainly one way a work can be complicated. When there is too much going on, the brain tends to simplify. Also, one may analyze a work and come to realize that the work is not that interesting, or that its meaning is a cliche or kitsch. The author or artist can be saying far less than it seems as well. Let me give an example of a poem. If you can summarize a sonnet in under 140 syllables, the work is complicated; if one can write books on it, it's complex.

    Glad to hear that in addition to literary/artistic theory, we are also helping to maintain healthy relationships! ;-)

  6. Happy to give it. That's what we'd like to be able to be here for. :-)