Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 19, 2007

Art’s New Box Scores

We rank baseball players by their batting averages and Hollywood films by their box office receipts, but what about artists? Can we judge their performance by equally objective standards? According to Artfacts.net, a website that provides news about the international art scene, the answer is an emphatic yes. It has ranked over 80,000 artists according to “a special algorithm” that examines their international reputation. The list makes for fascinating reading, all the way from Andy Warhol at the top to a certain Mr. Håvard Øyen, who has earned the boasting rights that come with being the 81,750th most celebrated artist in the world.

Mr. Øyen has nothing to be ashamed of. Weak as his showing may be, it is still far better than Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, none of whom make the list. In fact, the oldest artist in the top one hundred is Edgar Degas (52), who was born in 1834. Otherwise it is dominated by contemporary celebrities such as Bruce Nauman (3), Robert Rauschenberg (7), and Cindy Sherman (11). But this dominance is inevitable, given that the ranking is based on the overall exhibition activity of artists rather than, for example, the sales figures they command—a criterion that would favor the Old Masters.

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We rank baseball players by their batting averages and Hollywood films by their box office receipts, but what about artists? Can we judge their performance by equally objective standards? According to Artfacts.net, a website that provides news about the international art scene, the answer is an emphatic yes. It has ranked over 80,000 artists according to “a special algorithm” that examines their international reputation. The list makes for fascinating reading, all the way from Andy Warhol at the top to a certain Mr. Håvard Øyen, who has earned the boasting rights that come with being the 81,750th most celebrated artist in the world.

Mr. Øyen has nothing to be ashamed of. Weak as his showing may be, it is still far better than Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, none of whom make the list. In fact, the oldest artist in the top one hundred is Edgar Degas (52), who was born in 1834. Otherwise it is dominated by contemporary celebrities such as Bruce Nauman (3), Robert Rauschenberg (7), and Cindy Sherman (11). But this dominance is inevitable, given that the ranking is based on the overall exhibition activity of artists rather than, for example, the sales figures they command—a criterion that would favor the Old Masters.

The thinking that generated the list of artists is perhaps more remarkable than the list itself. It is based on the ideas of the German economist Georg Franck, who argues that the behavior of consumers in an information age can be analyzed by traditional economic tools. Instead of allocating our finite supply of money to purchase goods, we allocate chunks of our finite amount of attention to various types of media—a process that Franck calls the economy of attention.

One might admire the concept without necessarily admiring the results. The batting average of a baseball player is not an inexact proxy for his quality; it is his quality. But Artfacts, by measuring the amount of exhibition activity an artist creates, calculates his celebrity rather than his quality, and if there is any relationship between the two, the algorithm that would measure it has not been invented yet. If there is any doubt on this point, one might take a look again at Artfacts’ top 100 and ask: if Carl André (56) had not been tried for murdering his wife, would he still have a higher rank than, say, Claude Monet (58)?

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