When Ludwig Met Chelsea

Austrian economics hits Manhattan's art scene.


A half-century ago, one of the leading lights of the increasingly influential "Austrian school" of economics, Ludwig von Mises, found it impossible to nab a tenure-track gig at a respectable American college or university. In an age when mathematics and macro variables were overtaking the discipline, Mises saw economics as a logical and deductive science based on individual human choice. Worse, Mises was a champion of radical laissez faire at the high-water mark for Keynesian planning.

As Mises' student Richard Cornuelle, author of an influential book on volunteerism, Reclaiming the American Dream, once told me, "It's hard at this distance to realize, but it was more than contempt [that intellectuals] felt for Mises….They thought he was pushing a vicious, inhuman position that appealed to capitalists but didn't deserve any encouragement. It was an outcast position."

If being embraced by the academy was unthinkable, who could have ever imagined that the Manhattan art scene would someday cozy up to the author of Human Action and Socialism? Yet in September the Chelsea gallery D'Amelio Terras staged "Drawings for the Austrian School," a solo show by up-and-coming artist John Morris that won praise from The New York Times. "Though the drawings look fragile," the reviewer wrote, "they seem to be wired into one another in a way that lends cumulative strength. Altogether, they generate a lot of juice."

Morris' drawings are made with wax crayon, acrylic, ink, graphite, and watercolor. They are, as the Times put it, "intricately layered sheets in which dots, spots, traceries, patterns, webs, grids, and other markings of utmost delicacy are made…some tightly controlled, some robotically repetitive in their imagery, they evoke man-made and natural phenomena…electronic circuitry, virus colonies, active spermatozoa, musical notation." They include "A Drawing for F.A. Hayek #1" and "A Drawing for Ludwig von Mises #1" (see right).

The 38-year-old Morris had his first professional solo show in 1998. His interest in the world of business and economics arises, he tells me, from his interest in making and saving money. That caused him to do a lot of self-driven reading in market theory. He first showed this interest in a series of works named after new-economy companies such as the Web-based grocer Peapod, many of which turned out to be dot-bombs.

"I was very aware given the pattern and nature of economic change," Morris tells me, "that in many cases the drawings would outlive the company." Though self-taught in the subject, Morris knows the ins and outs of Austrian economic scholarship and debates. He also knows that his positive attitude toward capitalism makes him unusual in the downtown scene. "I don't have too many friends in the New York art world," he tells me. While he says the economically incorrect focus of his show "didn't create the visceral hatred" he half-expected, "that seemed to be because people know so little about Austrian economics."

How exactly does the thinking of Mises and Hayek inspire Morris, who stresses that he doesn't try to "push a certain message"? "I do the work and then figure out why I did the work," he says. "I always consider my works to be semi-installations. It's all about the patterns and systems and the relationship between separate works" helping to form a larger whole. Such an aesthetic is informed by the Austrian school's stress on pattern formation and its interest in how complex, incredibly varied economic order arises from millions of uncoordinated individual choices.

There may be an even deeper, subtler Austrian element in Morris' work. The greatest achievement of the market process studied by the Austrians is its ability to coordinate disparate human knowledge into a spontaneous order that generates previously unimaginable wealth—the sort of wealth exemplified by Manhattan's art community. While it's unlikely that his swirling, nonrepresentational drawings would have appealed to Mises' and Hayek's generally traditional Viennese tastes, the very existence of Morris' show can be seen as a tribute to their vision of the unpredictable creativity generated by free people in a free economy.