John Maynard Keynes as Art Snob

In his book How Music WorksDavid Byrne argues for the traditional economic principle “De gustibus, non est disputandum”–tastes are not to be disputed. But eminent economist John Maynard Keynes departed from that principle in the arts. Here is what David Byrne says about Keynes, on pages 279 and 280:

Outside of his work as an economist, Lord Keynes was involved in an organization called the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), a government arts-funding agency that later morphed into the Arts Council of Great Britain. It was established during World War II to help preserve British culture. Keynes, however, didn’t much like popular culture–so some things were deemed outside the provenance of the agency’s mission. Keynes “was not the man for wandering minstrels and amateur theatricals,” observed Kenneth Clark, the director of London’s National Gallery, and later the host of the popular television series Civilisation. Mary Glasgow, Keynes’s longtime assistant, concurred: “It was standards that mattered, and the preservation of serious professional enterprise, not obscure concerts in village halls.”

If we subscribe to the nineteenth-century view that professionally made classical music is good for you and good for the ordinary man, then it follows that supporting it financially is more like funding a public-health measure than underwriting entertainment. The funding of “quality” work is then inevitable, because it’s for the good of all–even though we won’t all get to see it. The votes came in, and the amateurs lost by a landslide. (The Arts Council did, however, modify their brief after Keynes’s death.) There seemed to be no way, meanwhile, to teach folks how to develop their own talent–one was either born with it or not. Hazlitt, Keynes, and their ilk seem to discount any knock-on effects of benefits that amateur music-making might have. In their way of thinking, we should be happy consumers, content to simply stand back and admire the glorious efforts of the appointed geniuses. How Keynes’s friends like Virginia Woolf, or his wife, the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, learned their own skills is not explained.