Last week came news that a reputable economist at the University of Chicago, David Galenson, has devised a quantitative method to measure the importance of 20th century artists. His rankings, which received major section-front coverage in The New York Times, are based on how often paintings or sculptures by a given artist are reproduced in each of 33 art history textbooks published between 1990 and 2005. Science accords merit on the basis of citations in the expert literature. Why not art?
And the winner is… “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” … followed by … Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” … followed by … “Spiral Jetty” … followed by … Richard Hamilton’s “Just What is That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” Huh? The last picture—you know, the collage with the bodybuilder in the living room—came in just a nose ahead of “Guernica.”
Economists are irrepressible when it comes to drilling down to the essence of things. They peel away layer upon layer of history, nuance, and context—so much “noise”—to get to the hidden underlying algorithms of societal and human behavior. But methodology can devolve into mind mush—as in the case of asserting that looking at pictures in art history books can reveal much more than, well, the likelihood of finding certain pictures in certain books.
This exercise in solipsistic reductionism is a bit like mistaking the warped reflection in a fun-house mirror with reality itself. Even that may be giving too much credit to the theory. A fun-house mirror does reflect all that is placed in front of it, whereas the mirror of institutional art history has some conspicuous blind spots.
I am reminded of another quantitative economic study, of the auction market, which started off with eliminating the top 10 and bottom 10 percent of all auction results: A perfectly legitimate and common statistical maneuver to cleanse the data of trend-obfuscating outliers—only one that removed from the study all the data points that most people concerned with art values actually care about. Nonetheless, one has to admire the chutzpah, the sheer rationalist braggadocio of it all. Continue reading “Summer readings: The dismal science does art”