John Maynard Keynes: A Black Sheep or a Perfect Fit?

If you are familiar with the primary waves of influence on classical economics, you may have heard of Keynesian economics. John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the twentieth century, is famous for challenging the concept of a stable market equilibrium. He argued that there was no guarantee demand would always keep up with production, an assumption that had guided the supply-side economic theorists of previous centuries. His work influenced basic understandings of supply and demand, money supply, fiscal policy, and the government’s role in stabilizing the economy. He was also incredibly influential in the formation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

His popularity was supported by the need for an explanation of the financial collapse that led to the Great Depression. He refocused the economic discourse of the day around demand, and he opened an entirely new school of economic theory that sought to diagnose the disease and prescribe the cure for the economic crisis of 1929. His personal findings are highly credited for their power and influence during this period. However, many are unfamiliar with the support he received from a group of artists, writers, and critics: a group that encouraged and advanced his personal affinity for the arts. This London-based progressive gang is known as the Bloomsbury Group.

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Of the ten original members of this multi-faceted clique, Keynes is the only economist. The rest are writers, journalists, critics, and artists. This original list includes well-known writers Virginia Woolf (my favorite author) and Lytton Strachey. This group rejected the narrow-minded attitudes of the Victorian era in favor of new forms of expression and unconventional arrangements. Keynes seems to stand out in this creative crowd; while their days were filled with pining over the final touches on a piece or perfecting their metaphors, his were filled with dry policy research and mathematical modelling. His membership to this group gave him a sympathy for the arts that does not seem to fit a man who spent his life obsessing over the graphs driving his theories and the soundness of their logic.

Though he was not an artist himself, he became an avid art consumer. His passion started with a love of drama found at the New Theatre of Cambridge. It was at Cambridge where Keynes began friendships with Roger Fry and Desmond McCarthy, an artist and a journalist who became acquainted with the other members of the Bloomsbury Group at Cambridge. His interest in theatre spawned an interest in ballet, and he ended up marrying Lydia Lopokova, who was a ballet dancer herself. His artistic sensibilities expanded further when he discovered his first impressionist painting in 1905 on a trip to Paris. He began collecting paintings three years later. Impressionism was, at the time, a new technique that had gained some popularity in France but was not yet appreciated in England. His friend and fellow Bloomsbury Group member Roger Fry was responsible for opening the first impressionist exhibit in London in 1910.

His friendships with Bloomsbury Group members Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, and his romance with member Duncan Grant kept him up to speed on the quickly evolving world of canvas art. His collection of paintings and drawings grew to include the works of some of the most important painters of his time, including Degas, Picasso, and Cezanne; artists who extended impressionism into cubism and fathered modern abstract art. By 2013, Keynes’ collection was valued at over 70 million dollars.

As an economist, he understood the potential future value of this art. During WWI, he and the director of London’s National Gallery were able to secure some French pieces for bargain prices. The story is complete with disguises and faux French accents. This French exhibition led to the acquisition of large collections from Degas and Manet. Keynes membership to the Bloomsbury Group also kept him on the forefront of some of the most revolutionary forms of literature to come out of this time. Virginia and Leonard Woolf ran Hogarth Press, the publishing company to publish the distinguished poetic work The Waste Land by T.S. Elliot. Virginia Woolf’s own writings also pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible in literature with her vivid descriptions of the inner-workings of the mind.

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While Keynes’ presence in this group might seem out of place, it is not so surprising when you consider his incredible ability to shift staunchly held perspectives on widely accepted truths. His work broadened the mainstream understanding of the forces responsible for economic cycles like the way Picasso broadened the mainstream understanding of what art could be. Keynes’ found his application for this skill in the more logic-oriented work of economics, but he was able to develop and maintain a deep appreciation for the ability to expand people’s perspectives in the more free-form, creative subjects. This hallmark of modernism in the early twentieth century seems to be the glue that held the Bloomsbury Group together. Keynes’ surprising mix of personal qualities prove the necessity of the boundaries breaking that took place in the literature and art of the time to capture more of the real human experience.

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