Saturday, January 22, 2005

Art: Popularity vs. Quality, Mathematically Speaking

On the one hand, evaluating art by statistical popularity seems pretty stupid -- nothing to do with the art.

But someone should go back and index these statistical popularity charts, which are based mainly on the annual number of exhibitions in major, public museums, with the relative value of the artists' works that are sold. I have a sneaking suspicion that the monetary value of an artist's best work correlates positively with popularity, even if the people who actually buy and sell very expensive works of art are about as distant from the 'masses' whose opinions are feeding these websites.

I say best work, because people like Andy Warhol and Paul Klee made lots and lots of art. Most of it isn't for sale, or it's relatively inexpensive. Their best work, however, is much more limited in quantity, and sells for lots of dinero.

The interest of thinking in this way is that it could potentially make art critics somewhat irrelevant as determiners of value. Are they already? What is the real value of their mediation? The same questions could and should be asked of literary critics and film critics. What is the value of formal, institutional literary criticism in an era of Amazon sales rankings and DIY reviews? What is the value of film criticism in an era of "Rotten Tomatoes"?

These questions suggest a tilt towards market fundamentalism. Do I really subscribe to that ethos? No, this is more of a thought-experiment. Even if the aesthetic value works of art is directly indexed to market value, there might still be ways to value the role of criticism. One such might be to think of critics as themselves market players. That is what an index like Rotten Tomatoes does -- it creates a statistical value that averages the opinions of film critics. Because those critics are pretty reliable, it represents a reliable stat. We'll have to see if the index that is the inspiration for this post will be as good...

Ok, enough half-assed economics.

Surprises from the chart: Paul Klee (#3), Gerhard Richter (#5), and Joseph Beuys (#6). I like these artists (Klee and Richter moreso than Beuys), but I didn't imagine that other people liked them as much. Perhaps Klee and Richter are more popular in Europe than they are here?

Also, how is Nam June Paik so low (#89)? And Marcel Duchamp is only #27?

Art-class lesson for today -- the painting above (Richter's "Woman Descending the Staircase," 1965) is a response to the painting below (Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," 1912). Write a 50 word (ok 25 word) compare-and-contrast essay in the comments. (Note, you might also consider another Richter painting, called "Ema, Nude on a Staircase". And a hint: it has something to do with Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction").


JD said...

I've got a lecture on the construction of value, oriented around a single artwork, Eva Hesse's "Untitled or Not Yet". I've got to say, Deep, that I think it works exactly in the opposite way. Value has to do not with popularity, but with more basic economics to do with supply (the less artworks there are, the more they're worth--this is why an artists works triple in price the moment they die), and how an institution means to construct its own "cultural capital". Artworks that have become locuses of such "value" become objects of interest because of how much is invested in them.

Paik is not as high because he's still alive (he may move higher when he dies); Duchamp is low because before he died he made a huge number of multiples of all of his key works, thereby "flooding the market".

Artworks are "luxury goods" like any other (Faberge eggs?); their interest to us is incidental to their "worth" per se

See Joseph Leo and Lisbet Koerner's "Value" in Critical Terms For Art History for more

Amardeep said...


Thanks for the comment (sorry to be slow to reply). I'd be curious to hear or read your lecture about value sometime. Admittedly, I need to read a lot more about this before I could dream of saying anything that other people hadn't already said more correctly 100 times before.

I guess here I've been interested in the possible links between aesthetic value as determined by critics and the idea of monetary value, as determined by economic/market forces.

The interesting thing about these indices is that they purport to represent a range of aesthetic ("critical") values, but they do so using market-determined criteria (popularity).

It's all quite circular...