Friday, August 8, 2008

Valuation by Illustration?

Do you think a work of art’s valuation is driven by how many times its photo has appeared in 33 art history textbooks published between 1990 & 2003? Economist David Galenson, according to the New York Times (article here), has a new book out ranking the top art works using just that method. Since the most famous works of art are rarely sold, he decided that the next best indicator of a work’s importance was to count up how many times it had been reproduced in textbooks. Explaining his thinking on this, Galenson says, “Important artists are innovators whose work changes the practices of their successors, the greater the changes, the greater the artist.” This seems a bit too black & white for me... but first, here's Galenson's list of the top ranked works:

1. Picasso’s Demoiselles (28 illustrations)
2. Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (25)
3. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (23)
4. Hamilton’s Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (22)
5. Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space tied with Picasso’s Guernica (21)
6. Duchamp’s Fountain (18)
7. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (16)

As you can imagine, many critics don’t agree with this method, saying that it is too limited (among other things). Arthur Danto, for example, points out that there is much more diversity in recent textbooks. Galenson’s answer to his critics is that they “don’t see the value in quantitative methods.” While many of these works may have helped establish various art movements, some of them aren't well known outside art history classes. I won't repeat the whole article here, but there's a pretty lively critical debate if you are interested.

For myself, I can see some merit to this. The art world and its institutions are one big network, constantly reinforcing ideas of what’s “important” or valuable. For better or worse, we all refer back to the same cannon. So, the textbook idea does make sense. On the other hand, there’s so much more going on that makes art influential. Just to round things out in terms of publications, one should include reproductions or citations in academic journals, magazine articles, or other art books. I also think it's odd that he doesn't mention the classical works that formed the basis of our visual language (for example, it's hard to believe the Mona Lisa or the Birth of Venus aren't in the top 8). What about Monet and Turner? Cezenne? What about the rest of the world? Asian & African art was very influential, plus great art in their own right. Galenson doesn't explain his criteria in the NYT article, so I guess I will have to read his book and see if he makes a convincing argument.

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