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April 23, 2006

Standard Art History Narrative ... As Statistics

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Once every two or three blue moons or so, we Blowhards might grumble about something or other.

One of the things we grumble about is Art History as Revealed by the Art Establishment. And when we do so we're sometimes inclined to shout and wave our arms and assume that you readers know why we're ranting.

As someone with "social science" training, I sometimes think it would be nice to quantify what we're talking about.

Now it can be done. Maybe.

A few days ago I stumbled across of copy of Charles Murray's book Human Accomplishment on a bookstore's remaindered table and scooped it up for $6.98, hardcopy. Murray selected several fields of endeavor including Astronomy, Chemistry, Mathematics, Western Literature and Western Art and sought what were thought to be authoritative books on the subjects that contained plenty of names of people prominent in the fields. He limited his coverage to people whose productive peak was before the year 1950. Combining citations from these sources and performing some other manipulations, Murray came up with indexes of prominance where the top-ranked person was given a score of 100 and others were assigned ratios to that 100 (i.e., 78, 41, 12) based on their number of citations. Then he went on to ask some questions about the settings in which accomplishment might be found. But that doesn't concern us here.

(2Blowhards' friend Steve Sailer has a review of the book here and an interview with Murray here.)

What interests me is that the scores for his Western Art category are based on authoritative accounts which, because they are considered "authoritative," in theory reflect the Art Establishment version of history. This notion can be tested by examining the scores for artists active during the final decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. (Most sources were 1990s editions and can be presumed to reflect late-20th century views.)

Here are the top five artists regardless of era.

Index Artist
100 Michelangelo
67 Picasso
63 Raphael
51 Leonardo
51 Titian

We see that Michelangelo is top dog, so his index score is 100. Picasso is No. 2 with a score of 67, indicating that, after Murray's data manipulations, Picasso got just two-thirds as many citations as did Michelangelo.

Now let's look at the top-ranked artists from the time of Impressionism to 1950. Thirty artists in that era had scores of 10 or greater.

Index Artist Index Artist
67 Picasso 19 Seurat
44 Cezanne 17 Munch
35 Monet 16 Pissarro
34 Van Gogh 16 Toulouse-Lautrec
33 Gauguin 16 Whistler
33 Matisse 14 Ernst
29 Manet 13 Brancusi
27 Kandinsky 13 Leger
26 Degas 13 Malevich, Kasimir
25 Renoir 12 Dali
24 Braque 11 de Chirico
24 Duchamp 10 Chagall
23 Rodin 10 Kirchner, Ernst
20 Mondrian 10 Rousseau, Henri
19 Klee 10 Tatlin, Vladimir

And here are scores for some other artists of the same period.

Index Artist Index Artist
8 Klimt 3 Cassatt
7 Rossetti 3 Gerome
5 Eakins 3 Millais
4 Homer 3 O'Keeffe
4 Hopper 2 Repin, Ilya
4 Morisot 1 Benton, T.H.
3 Burne-Jones 1 Sargent, J.S.

I suspect that the Pre-Raphaelites (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Millais) would have scored lower had Murray's sources been of 1960s vintage. Ditto Klimt, who was not well known 40 years ago. Some Modernist icons scoring under 10 include: Calder (6); Feininger (4); Grosz (6); Kline (5); and Modigliani (6). De Kooning, Magritte and Henry Moore got 9s.

How would some of the artists with an index of 10 or more be rated by a panel whose bias was less committed to Modernism?

My offhand reaction is that Duchamp's index is at least four times as high as I'd like. That goes for Klee, Munch, Ernst, Malevich, de Chirico, Chagall, Kirchner and Tatlin as well. That's because I regard all these artists as "minor" outside the context of Modernism where they indeed have more importance.

And I'd cut in half the index scores for Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Mondrian. Well, these are purely snap-judgments. Maybe I'll think things through more carefully and write a post on what I came up with.

But the important question of the day is: Does Murray's ranking represent the Establishment view of art history (circa early 1990s)? Or is something else in play?

What do you think?



posted by Donald at April 23, 2006


From what I understand of Charles Murray and his book (on scanning it at the bookstore), his main contention is less about certain types of art (or sciences) as much as it is a glorification of the achievements of white europeans and americans as opposed to other racial groups.

Be that as it may, he garners his data from academic references and articles. What the list does indicate is who the academics think is important. And as we know, the academics have favored the moderns over the traditional representationalists for a long time.

By "Establishment", the only one that matters is who has the most money invested in the art objects. Since they pay the piper, they call the tune. And the most money is wrapped up in the painters identified. So I say yes, this is the Art Establishment's list. Its not mine.

If anything else is in play, it is the 1950 cutoff date. I assume he chose that to try to counterbalance the wacky leftists' favorite artists (Basquiat, Kahlo, etc.) and their predilection for anything non-white male-ish, that stance being obviously discriminatory. But that approach has its problems too, in that some excellent work was done after that period by other than white males. Oh well.

Anybody who talks about painters after 1900 and fails to discuss the great commercial illustrators simply has no credibility with me. They are only looking at politics and money and not the quality of the work. That's the way I look at it, at least.

Posted by: Edgar on April 23, 2006 9:23 PM

"From what I understand of Charles Murray and his book (on scanning it at the bookstore), his main contention is less about certain types of art (or sciences) as much as it is a glorification of the achievements of white europeans and americans as opposed to other racial groups."

You're wrong.

In the humanities (art, literature, philosophy, and music), Murray ranks each culture's most eminent figures in separate categories. Thus, Zhao Mengfu is the most prominent Chinese Artist, Sesshu the most prominent Japanese Artist, and Michelangelo the most cited Western Artist.

Only in his categories for Science, Mathematics, and Technology, where more objective standards are possible, do individuals from different cultures compete against each other.

For Western Art, Murray uses the latest available edition of 13 references works (Janson, Gombrich, etc.) The average date of the edition used is 1988.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 24, 2006 12:34 AM

Here's an issue that comes up a lot:

Can we trust these data? The scholars upon whom Murray relies have their personal and professional biases, but, ultimately, their need to create coherent narratives explaining who influenced whom means that their books aren’t primarily based on their own opinions but rather on those of their subjects. For example, the best single confirmation of Beethoven’s greatness might be Brahms’s explanation of why he spent decades fussing before finally unveiling his First Symphony: “You have no idea how it feels for someone like me to hear behind him the tramp of a giant like Beethoven.”

In Paul Johnson’s immensely readable book Art: A New History, you can see how even this most opinionated of historians must adapt himself to the judgments of artists. Much of the book’s entertainment value stems from Johnson’s heresies, such as his grumpy comment on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: “No one ever wished the ceiling larger.” Still, Johnson can’t really break free from conventional art history because he can’t avoid writing about those whom subsequent artists emulated.

For example, Johnson finds Cézanne (who ranks 10th in Murray’s table of 479 significant artists) painfully incompetent at the basics of his craft. Yet, Johnson has to grit his teeth and write about Cézanne at length because he “was in some ways the most influential painter of the late nineteenth century because of his powerful (and to many mysterious) appeal to other painters …” In contrast to Johnson, Murray keeps his artistic opinions upbeat or muted because his goals are scientific.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 24, 2006 12:42 AM

I think there is a large element of "feedback loop" involved in this kind of study. For a couple of years I've been following, which is a sort of artists' stock market keeping track of auction prices, writing-about in books and mags, and so on. They keep busy doing the kinds of things computers do best, like figuring out what the average price-per-square-inch a specific artist's work is worth and what his/her highest auction price is plus what year that was. They also show examples and allow for comments. There are thousands and thousands of artists, almost all American, many not known out of their context (like "California impressionists" or "American West.") Websites are one of the few forces that counter the tendency of the Manhattan media to see the world in terms only of their own knowledge.

When people have a lot of money and want to buy prestige art, they often come from a background that included NO art education, so they turn to the experts -- which they do not find at their local university but rather in the art section of the NYTimes. Once they buy a specific artist, those works ARE prestige art, so when the NYTimes reviewer goes out to look for a subject for an article, that's what pops up. Which is how the idea developed that a pickled shark is worth 8 million dollars.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 24, 2006 6:22 AM

Ever since the Enlightenment (which spawned the scientific revolution which in turned spawned the industrial revolution which in turn spawned the technological revolution) envious social scientists have flailed around for a way to apply Francis Bacon's scientific method to inherently subjective parts of our culture. They have jealously watched the obvious, quantifiable advances of the material sciences and believed as a matter of faith that if they could just ape the methodology, they could produce similar showy results.

In the field of politics, this ambition has led to Marx's "science" of history and the delusional nightmare of dialectical materialism which justifies genocide in support of the immutable "laws" of history. Variations of this brand of violent humanitarianism seem to pop up every time someone concludes that the moral truth, like scientific truth, can be proven by mathematical analysis. Once scientifically proven, an ethical path can justify just about any means to an end.

Fortunately, applying scientific methodology to the equally subjective field of the arts produces a slightly less pernicious result-- a silly masturbatory treatise that may be useful as a sociological survey of the beliefs of a narrow category of pedants and critics, but which has very little correlation to the inherent value of the art itself.

I have not read Mr. Murray's book, but if I correctly glean from Mr. Sailer's and Don's reviews that Mr. Murray attempts to reach beyond a survey of temporal beliefs to draw generalizations about the quality of the art itself, then I consider Murray's effort to be puerile and misguided.

To begin with, the notion of identifying the "top ten" artists is the sort of juvenile exercise one might expect from People Magazine. Why not use Murray's statistical methods to identify the ten sexiest artists? Then you'd really have a list. So Titian is a better artist than Rembrandt, eh? I guess that might depend on whether you prefer drawings to paintings, but I'm sure Mr. Murray's impeccable statistics can tell us which art form is inherently superior. I will accept that Murrays's methodology is internally consistent but he appears to have a shallow understanding of the nature of art, and how the value of an object waxes and wanes depending on the culture and the time in which it is perceived. African art amounted to nothing Picasso pronounced it great. Japanese art received no coverage until it was resuscitated by 19th century western arists. Russian artists like Malevich who invented abstract expressionism but did not have the good fortune to be working in NY post World War II just didn't get their press releases out in time to qualify for Murray's survey. Anyone who is trying to "rate" art the way you would organize a pop chart has likely never been touched by the value that art brings to life.

Finally, as for Murray's noxious epiphany that Christianity is the leading cause of great achievement in the world, am I correct in understanding from from Mr. Sailer's review ("Jews were about six times more likely than gentiles to become significant figures from 1870 onward") that this is because the Christians exterminated and supressed the higher achieving cultures?

Posted by: David on April 24, 2006 8:58 AM

As much as I admire Charles Murray's sociological studies, his methodology here seems dubious for ranking actual performance or quality of work. Even if you basically agree with the performance hierarchy suggested by these numbers, would you say, "I like Chagall, even though he was only one-tenth as great an artist as Michelangelo"?

Yes, the rankings do seem to reflect the views of the modern Art Establishment. That can be summed up as: High Renaissance, bingo! Mannerism, degeneracy. Eighteenth century, Fragonard? Who he? Nineteenth century romanticism, ewwwwww, academic. Impressionism, the light breaks through! Post-impressionism, even more better! Cubism, abstract expressionism, ne plus ultra!

Apparently Corot, Courbet, Redon, and Fantin-Latour were not even 1 percent as accomplished as Michelangelo, or 10 percent as accomplished as Vladimir Tatlin.

Posted by: Rick Darby on April 24, 2006 10:25 AM

It's awfully easy to criticize Murray's list.
But by and large I agree with it.
In modern art especially, an artist's impact relates to how much he brings into being "the shock of the new." Ergo the high rankings of Picasso and Cezanne (whether or not their work appeals).
I suppose that explains the low ranking of Hopper (with which I disagree).

Posted by: ricpic on April 24, 2006 11:47 AM

For a group presumably more literary and verbal than quantitative, you dudes sure hate the idea of even perusing what you're shredding. Donald & Steve gave good reviews, but they can't read you the whole thing like a bedtime story -- work is required, esp if you want to tear it apart. (BTW: it's a breeze to read.)

Re: Donald's main point, 20th C artists' scores are probably higher than they should be due to "epochcentrism" -- the tendency to over-emphasize the importance of the recent past. So, of all the news items that are written in a year, how many will make it through the sieve of history book writers 500 years from now? Probably a couple. Art surveys are like a history book plus "and this year in art..." Eventually, the wheat is separated from the chaff. Michelangelo will likely remain at or near the top, while Duchamp's fame will wane as the fashion changes -- and "sleeper" artists may rise to prominence. So take the 20th C scores w/ a grain of salt.

Moreover, Murray explicitly says his goal isn't to make a Top Ten list but to identify environmental patterns that appear to foster or inhibit creative production -- e.g., does war stifle creativity? Nope: and you wouldn't know unless you had some objective measure of creativity (like how many "significant figures" there are per decade). A better way to think of his scores are to lump them into the 10s, 20s, etc., up to the 90s. As w/ US News' College rankings, it's silly to say that Harvard scores X% higher than Stanford, but everyone recognizes they're both superior schools. So, treat all artists w/in a group of ten as equivalent (tier 1, tier 2 ... tier 10).

As for whether the rankings reflect mere fashion or actually showcase excellence -- read the book. The exact same picture emerges whether you examine scientists (pretty objective), sports figures (like golfers; also objective), or artists. Occam's Razor requires that we not invent a new, idenpendent explanation for why the artists are distributed the way they are. Of course, you have to bear in mind that excellence doesn't always match up w/ you find most agreeable -- in the end, measures of agreeableness are less important in judging work, are more subject to fashion cycles, and are even more subjective. Judging only excellence is more dispassionate.

BTW David: The Enlightenment did not spawn the Scientific Revolution -- off by about 100 years, and in reverse.

Posted by: Agnostic on April 24, 2006 11:57 AM

Donald --

My first reaction is that this is much ado about nothing. One of the things you wrote gets to the heart of the issue for me: “My offhand reaction is that Duchamp's index is at least four times as high as I'd like.” Yes, there is an Art Establishment, but there are also counter-establishments. There is nothing particularly authoritative about your views, except to the extent that you can persuade others that your knowledge and understanding of art is as meaningful as anyone else who claims to be an expert, or at least a talented amateur.

Murray’s index strikes me as a singular feat of intellectual masturbation. As much as he and Harold Bloom and others like to drone on and on about “The Western Canon,” the plain fact is that artistic judgment is both timeless and yoked to the tastes of the time. These writers pretend a continuity to art criticism which (thankfully) has never existed. Any list of the best artists of 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900 based on the critics of the time will include many who have since dropped into oblivion.

Also, there is something odious about trying to reduce art to some kind of “batting average” ranking, even though I know that some people are really in to this kind of thing. And here, perhaps, is the central flaw in Murray’s methods. Imagine that baseball players were ranked solely by the number of citations to their play by sportswriters instead of by their actual on-field performance. Or that they were ranked by their salaries, adjusted for inflation. Would any rational person believe that these indices alone told you anything meaningful about the talent or performance of baseball players?

I value different things in Michelangelo and Raphael, just as I do in Mozart and Brahms and Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker and Buddy Holly. And while I suppose that I could come up with some sort of mental ranking for these artists, there wouldn’t be much point to it, nor would it have anything to do with the level of enjoyment and appreciation that I get from the various works of these artists. And so, the notion that Murray’s task is “scientific” is laughable. It’s just arithmetic. It may tell us something about art critics over time, but it tells us nothing of consequence about art.

What I find really interesting is that anyone would take Murray seriously here.

Posted by: Alec on April 24, 2006 12:01 PM

Imagine that baseball players were ranked solely by the number of citations to their play by sportswriters instead of by their actual on-field performance

You think such a ranking would diverge significantly from how a survey of knowledgeable baseball fans would rank them? The outliers would be Dimaggio and Jackie Robinson - the latter for obvious reasons would rank higher than his stats would suggest and the former because of his mythic status during the Yankees super-glory years. Dimaggio's star diminishes with the passing of every person who actually saw him play.

Posted by: ziel on April 24, 2006 12:36 PM

Rick -- Here are the rankings for the artists you mentioned at the end of your comment:

* 19 Corot
* 26 Courbet
* 1 Fantin-Latour
* 5 Redon

Corot and Courbet were not on my main list because I limited it to the era starting with Impressionism, and they came before that time. My final list was selective, an attempt to indicate where fairly well-known names were placed.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 24, 2006 12:52 PM

The "Art Establishment" is just people who decided to expend their energies trafficking in and analyzing art. I would guess that many of them are not necessarily uniquely qualified to do so, if such qualitites even exist. I will say that some works of art can generate a lot of discussion and debate, while others merely generate "good" or "bad" responses. Much of that discussion and debate may just be projection by the people doing it, but that's the point of art, I think. What the audience brings to the table is half the battle.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 24, 2006 2:13 PM

"The Enlightenment, which spawned the scientific revolution which in turned spawned the industrial revolution which in turn spawned the technological revolution".

No way.

The Enlightenment got going in the mid-18th century. It got going after the scientific revolution had begun (Kepler, Hugyens, Newton, etc.). Moreover, the industrial revolution was contemporaneous with the enlightenment, and it was based not on scientific knowledge, mostly, but on rule-of-thumb "best practices" based on lots of empirical experience with machinery (England led the world in mill technology and gearing and related machiner for centuries) with the massive addition of productive energy due to the introduction of steam power. The roots of both the scientific and industrial revolutions go back centuries before the enlightenment. Moreover, the link between laboratory science and practical innovation which we now take for granted was not nearly as close back then as it is now. The guys working with steam engines -- the most important technology of the 18th century -- were 100 years ahead of the scientific understanding of thermodynamics, which only matured in the mid-19th C. They knew what worked because they tried it. (Sometimes their boilers exploded.)Also, which enlightenment are we talking about? The Anglo-Scottish enlightenment (Hume, Smith, etc.) did not directly implicate science or technology. The Anglo-Scottish enlightenment writers were often in touch with and friendly toward scientific and industrial development, and were socially acquainted with people like Wedgewood who was on the cutting edge of technology in his day. But the two phenomena -- one mostly about books and ideas, one mostly about machinery and manufactured goods -- were distinct and one did not cause the other. The French Englightenment (Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau) was even more remote from science or technology. Diderot and the encyclopedists were advocates, but there is nothing I have seen that suggests they had much impact on actual practices. And in its later developments the French enlightenment was anti-rational and anti-scientific and anti-technological (Rousseau). The English analogs of the later French enlightenment were not guys building railroads and steamships, they were romantic poets.

So, this linear depiction, which one often sees, in one form or another, is misleading and misrepresents the past to a significant degree.

Posted by: Lexington Green on April 24, 2006 6:18 PM

From an essay by Mary Gordon: “A group of scholars, anthropologists, and art historians were assessing the likelihood of a cross-cultural aesthetic standard. The scholars gathered a group of African mask makers, spread a collection of masks before them, and asked them to decide which was the best. The mask makers immediately turned the masks over and looked at the backs. They all agreed on which one was best. When they were asked how they knew, they said they could see which of the masks was most worn on the inside. The most-worn mask was the best because the masks were used for ritual, and the one most often used intrinsically had the most power. It was therefore the best. “

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 24, 2006 6:42 PM

As an (autodidactic, rather than academic) art consultant/gallerist/curator/etc., and thus tainted by tangential affiliations with the dastardly Art Establishment, I always find these threads perplexing, yet somehow predictable. It seems The Grail in this one is to find a theoretically impartial system that will somehow "prove" the art you think is the best IS the best, quantifiably. When various systems that quantify the importance of artists or art objects (Murray's charts or the Fine Art Price Index) produce results that diverge from those sought, the presumption is that the systems must be flawed.

The conundrum you appear caught in is this; seeking means by which to quantify artistic achievement, but finding that the systems available reflect a different aesthetic, one you presume too favorably disposed toward Modernism, you must either deny the value of quantifying systems or accept that your opinions are somehow just that, opinions, unsupported by quantifying statistics. Thus, you return to tacit acceptance of the notion that art is subjective, but also remain convinced that your own views are superior to those of the supposed Art Establishment.

Art has intrinsic power that either does or does not resonate with someone. If it doesn't, no amount of explanation for why it should by an expert (or believer) will suffice. I might offer any number of theoretical critiques or appreciative rhetoric to support my admiration for Cezanne (including his Murray score of 44) but if you don't "get' Cezanne, you don't get Cezanne.

In the end, art is perhaps closer to religion than science, even social science. And so, like with religion, you must ask whether you're a fundamentalist who believes the path you've chosen is the one and only path to salvation and all others must convert or be damned; or you accept the possibility that there are many different paths that might all lead to enlightenment/heaven/grace.

I'm kind of a Unitarian Universalist where art is concerned.

Posted by: Chris White on April 24, 2006 7:46 PM

To agnostic and Lexington Green- I knew I was going to get in trouble on my simplified sequence of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, and my finger hovered over the "send" button this morning but I foolishly hit it anyway before racing off to work.

We are WAY off topic here, but let me try again. If you start the scientific revolution with Kepler or even Copernicus and if you restrict the Enlightenment to the French Enlightenment beginning with Voltaire, you are absolutely right about the sequence. On the other hand, try reading Koestler's classic history of science, the Sleepwalkers, or Leonard Marsak's works on Newton and The Rise of Science in Relation to Society, and you might want to reconsider your categories. You might conclude that Copernicus, Kepler and even Newton were superstitious, religious mystics who did not follow in a systematic way the scientific method that Bacon articulated in Novum Organum and which in fact spawned the revolutions of which I spoke. You might even conclude from Koestler's work that these pillars of the scientific revolution cooked the lab books based on intuition in a way that would get them drummed out of the guild today. On the other hand, if you are trying to put your finger on the beginning of the enlightenment values that later produced the French Enlightenment and led to Kant's famous essay, most people would begin with Descartes' rational skepticism-- the philosophical equivalent of the systematic doubt which Bacon harnessed (and which, by the way, the flat-earth mystics who currently run our country have completely abandoned.) It is that enlightened, rationalist way of thinking that gave us the idea of progress and cumulative knowledge (I recommend J. B. Bury's wonderful book on this) and that-- to get to the point I was trying to make-- is the core distinction between science and art. Scientific knowledge is cumulative. It builds on the past, can be proven by repetition, and can be truly said to "progress" in an objective, quantifiable way. The arts do not progress, they only "process." The cave paintings at Lascaux are still about as great as art gets. Egyptians (who didn't even have a word for art) created sublimely sensitive sculpture, as did the Greeks. And according to Murray's own book, it has apparently all gone downhill since Michelangelo. Would you say the same about science or math or technology?

I am happy to take my beating on the sequence of the fruits of rationalism as long as you will grant me that rationalism neither governs nor evaluates (assigns value to) art. Using statistical methods to measure the quality of art is like trying to use a magnet on a goldfish.

Agnostic, you certainly have a legitimate point that one should noit get too intemperate over a book one hasn't read, but I have to say that I have indulged an awful lot of statisticians by reading their books. I understand their ambitions and they make me weary after a while. If you want a thoughtful analysis of how art is affected by war and misery, read Herbert Read instead.

Posted by: David on April 24, 2006 8:25 PM

I love surrealism and my favorite artist is Yves Tanguy. Also high on my list are De Chirico and Matta.

I also happen to be a fan of Hopper.

I would personally rate them all higher than most of the top ranked artists on Murray's list.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on April 24, 2006 11:05 PM

Thank you Chris White!

You know, my dog creates "artwork" everyday when I come home and let him out into the backyard. I was trying soooo hard to somehow explain to him that, yes indeed, he is an artist. But I lacked the know how. That is, until I read Chris White's explanation of Qualitative Relativism. Everything is artwork, if only you wish it so!

It used to be that the word "art" had some sort of meaning in the English language. It still does, but only as an adverb, as in "that speech was artfully done". But the Qualitiative Relativists have erased the meaning of "art" as a noun, or any association of it to technical mastery. They have replaced it in dictionary with a mirror. So now, instead of being able to survey the vast amount of work done, determine its quality, and make preferential decisions about what is good, better, and best, we have nothing. No identifiable Canon, no truly transferable culture to pass on from generation to generation. We have have a hall of mirrors, where everybody gets to decide upon their own canon.

Of course, one way to solve this dilemma is by making money the yardstick. Or politics. Or the silly notion of newness. Never quality, especially technical merit. No, no, no!

But what do dogs care about standards anyway? They are forever stuck in the present. What a dog needs is a good meal, a warm spot in the living room, and lots and lots of positive affirmation.

Are you done out back, Rover? Are you done? You are! Good, dog, goooood gooood dog!

Posted by: Joe Schmoe on April 24, 2006 11:46 PM

Donald is using Murray's tabulations quite properly -- as a quick, objective summary of the views of the received History of Art as its seen as of the late 20th Century.

A useful next step would be to examine the list for systematic biases. One that I think Donald would agree that there is a bias in favor of Paris-based artists. Paris is by far the leading city in Murray's lists, with 12% of all the eminent individuals in the arts and sciences making their careers in Paris. London is next at only 4%. For painters and sculptors, Paris' dominance might be even greater.

I attended a lecture on Magritte, the Belgian commercial artist and part-time Surrealist, at the Chicago Institute of Art, basically welcoming Magritte to the pantheon because recent research had discovered that he had spent 3 years in Paris and gotten to know lots of big names. When I asked if, not that Magritte was in, would M.C. Escher ever be admitted. The lecturer wrinkled her nose in disgust and said that Escher didn't know anybody. Then she said she didn't want to make it sound like being a great artist was based on who you know, and then kind of dribbled off as she realized that's what she just said.

What's really going on is that art history scholars like to tell stories: that X influenced Y who influenced Z. It helps the plausibility of your story if you can make it sound likely that Y actually saw X's paintings and Z saw Y's. If they all lived in Paris, that sounds plausible, so Parisian artists wind up in art history narratives more.

On the other hand, there really were a lot of great artists in Paris, and the Establishment view of the history of art, as tabulated in Murray's lists, isn't that awful overall.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 25, 2006 4:04 AM

So, Joe, I'm a Qualitative Relativist and your dog poops art?

In my post I was merely looking for internal consistency within the thread's major premise. If the goal here is to find objective, statistical, quantifiable measurement systems by which to judge art, and if such systems exist, then quit bitchin' about the results.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a system to support the position that those experts and aesthetes with whom you agree must be right and those with whom you disagree must be wrong -- not merely of a different opinion but really WRONG ... somehow cynical, tainted by greed, with low IQs and too strong a love of the French &/or Modernism -- then you're merely the party out of favor in art world politics looking for good poll numbers and carping that the other guys should be tossed out so you can do a better job as the Art Police and crack down on what YOU think is degenerate art.

That a single, stylistically cogent Canon no longer dominates the art world is simply observation, not pushing a doctrine of Qualitative Relativism. This is true precisely because those who argue most strongly FOR a Canon (seemingly many among those commenting here) don't like it that the Canon that results from consensus doesn't support their aesthetic.

As to being a Qualitative Relativist, I'm not sure, maybe I am, although I'm not quite sure exactly what it means. I'll accept the idea of being a Qualitative Relativist if it means I believe that artists and art objects need to be judged, not by a single set of aesthetic standards, but relative to the art and artists the works in question aspire to. Within that construct 80% or more of the art created may be dismissed outright. The remaining 20% can be seriously considered as to whether it might be considered Good, Better or Best. Exactly who or what gets which designation and which styles you or I might prefer or dismiss is all part of the game.

Finally, to take the second point, tell you dog "It's been done before."

Italian artist Piero Manzoni packed and sealed ninety cans of his own excrement in May 1961 as a limited edition example of art in the within the dada movement. (pun intended)]

Posted by: Chris White on April 25, 2006 10:42 AM

All -- Thanks for all the comments; I was hoping to provoke some thinking and Blowhards readers are good at that.

In retrospect maybe I should have said more regarding Murray's purpose, which was not to produce a horserace ranking of artists by their quality but instead to examine the settings in which artistic, scientific, etc. contributions are made. The lists, as some commenters pointed out, were the means he selected to attain his end.

A conclusion that I purposely bypassed was my own interpretation of the Western Artists list. I in fact do think that it reflected the consensus of the art historian branch of the Art Establishment as of the early 1990s. (Steve Sailer mentions the "average" -- I'll assume it's the "mean" -- publication date of the references was 1988, but that was skewed by one publication that came out many decades before the others.)

Furthermore, I have a pet theory (that I need to submit to a serious test) that art history in the second half of the 20th century was overly influenced by the scientific model of giving honors to people who were first to do whatever. Closely behind that it might be a tendency to be too fond of artists/movements that intellectualize art. Duchamp is a prime example; his "found objects" are perhaps the most famous early examples of Conceptual Art. Good ol' Marcel pulled off a silly stunt or two and then wrapped it in an intellectualized package that made the intellectoids swoon. What's more, that tactic is working its wonders this very day.

Hmm. I feel a blog post comin' on.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 25, 2006 11:59 AM

Chris White,

My dog does not "poop" art! He thinks very long and hard about it! Much preparation and skill goes into the creation of this work. As we all know, the mammalian body is a fantastic and complex machine evolved over many millions of years. Its all very scientific. I and my neighbors prefer to label his work "found art". Please do not subject him or us to your limited set of artistic standards. You are not the Art Police! As you yourself have pointed out, the Canon has perished. Why may we not profit from its destruction as well?

As Rover's career progresses, I plan to take him to the great cultural meccas of Paris, London, and New York, so that he may meet the dogs of other influential culturati and artistes. Improve his pedigree, so to speak. This cross-cultural hybridization should prove most exciting and productive! Of course, the critcs' dogs will also be notified, even though they are small and yippy. They will be able to sniff Rover's work (and other areas) and then go off on their own to cogitate and more fully assess the experience. And also pee on random fenceposts. It all should be quite fun!

Of course Rover and I are always on the lookout for aesthetic systems to validate what we like best! Isn't everybody? You may not think Rover's creations are so hot (they are, but not for long!), but who cares what you think? As long as I'm making money, butt out! You say your system is somehow objective, then talk about many different systems of standards. Make up your mind. It can't be both. And please put your badge and pop gun away when someone challenges your own views. There's more to life than your bathroom mirror! You may not be sure about that, but everybody else is.

One thing I do know is that things always change. The overthrow of the canon may soon be replaced by the reinstitution of one. You just hope that your favorites are still in it. That may not be the case. In fact, the whole western (white) canon may be overthrown for something qute different, which would exclude Mr. Buonarati, as well as Rover. Something more eastern, probably. I suppose when that happens, you will simply pack your clothes into the carpetbag and take a few language classes. Never thought about that one, huh? Perhaps then you will be excluded too, in favor of a dealer who is, shall we say, less White? We'll see who's "bitchin'" then! Its never fun to be excluded, is it Chris? You may not be sure of much, but you can be sure of that.

All this talk of bitchin' is getting Rover hot and bothered. He has this thing going on with the pretty little female Lab next door. Funny, though--in that case he's not too concerned with being innovative or original! I guess that there are other values in play that might keep people coming back, ya think?

After all, dogs will be dogs!

Good luck with shuffling that pea of truth under your many shells of deceit, Chris. Rover and I aren't buying it. We are practical all the way. Best to make hay while the sun shines, I always say. After all, the one thing consistent about the great "artist" lists is not the paint on the canvas, but the ink on the paper! Its a Race to the Bottom Line!

I would wish you the best, but what the hell is that?


Posted by: Joe Schmoe on April 25, 2006 4:12 PM

Given text on a screen lacks tone of voice it is difficult to be sure, but I do believe Joe has stepped over the line into sheer nasty personal attack here, not something I thought 2blowhards generally allows or encourages.

As in some other related threads certain comments indicate a belief that there is ... or was ... or should be ... some provable means of judging art to be Great. However, when various existing systems that in some way rank art and artists (auction valuations/citations in texts/etc.) fail to match the tastes of the commentators, the thread shifts to assailing the systems, the buyers who pay the prices, the critic/art historians who like something else and then ignoring, or denigrating, anyone who doesn't share the same aesthetic.

As I re-read Joe's first salvo it would appear that his particular yardstick for judging art is "technical mastery." ("Technical mastery" is something I appreciate, by the way.) I suggest he re-read both my original comment and subsequent take on his. I do not think any system is capable of objectively judging art. Art is subjective. It is contextual. What these systems do is give a sense of wahtever the current consensus is regarding art.

I'm with David as he notes that the cave paintings are about as great as art gets, therefore don't buy into the (Modernist) theory of linear progress in art. I have no reflexive need to bow before The New due to its very newness.

I'm mighty baffled as to what Joe means when he accuses me of "shuffling that pea of truth under [my] many shells of deceit." I'm just an art guy who likes what he likes. If you're interested, I can try to tell you why I do or don't like something, if you're not, that's fine. I'm always happy when someone shares their enthusiasm for an artist with me, even if I find the work lacking. And I've even been known to grow to appreciate an artist I originally dismissed.

Rover? Have you a new masterpiece for me to consider?

Posted by: Chris White on April 25, 2006 10:16 PM

Chris -- Joe Schmoe isn't a regular commenter here (or doesn't comment enough that his name rings a bell blog-wise). We try to maintain a friendly, polite atmosphere here and do that by example and moral suasion. Profanity-as-invective will lead to us zapping a comment, but our new friend Joe is in a borderline zone. I'm not sure that he's helping his case by making his points the way he did above, and I hope he'll mull the matter over and do his comments the way most readers do. Otherwise, I'll have to take this up with Michael.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 25, 2006 10:46 PM


Sorry if I offended you! I was just trying to be satirical. but I thought you were obviously disingenuous when you said that there were many different systems to evaluate art, and then proceeded to eliminate everybody's opinion that conflicted with your own. I was also not happy with being called a whiner, or "bitcher", because I think the Murray book and the current Modern Art Establishment that dominates academia, art media, and the auction houses is baloney-ous. I think Donald has been hinting at this in many of his posts, certainly with his excellent Peripheral Artist series, which I think highlights many painters that deserve much more recognition for a variety of factors, with yes, technical merit being one of them.

I would offer some of my favorites, but why bother? If you are well versed in the field, as you seem to be, you know who they are already. I wanted to discuss why we as a culture, NOT as individuals, value what works and artists as we do. The point of Murray's book was to show that, contrary to the claims of the multiculturists, most of the significant works and innovations in many fields of endeavor are indeed american/european males. Whether I agree with that is irrelevant (I do), but the more important question is what work we choose to transfer or teach the next generation about, what work we have and is displayed in museums, etc. In other words, what work really is culturally significant, and what isn't. Please don't say it all is. The list is endless. Just like you can only read and discuss so many books at school in semester, the same is true with other fields. What people are really jockeying for is what will win the Cultural War. What values in the work (craftsmanship being one of them) are transferred to the next generation as significant, and timeless. And your advocates are fighting vociferously for their own views, because impressing malleable minds is very important. We all know this.

I and others are far less interested in what may be popular at the moment (Kanye West, Foo Fighters) than what is truly worthy of our time, our tax dollars, and our common (I hope we still have one) culture (Bach, Mozart). Certainly, nothing as crass as money or fashion can be the ultimate arbiter. Nor anything as idiosycratic as personal whim.

We are not omega men, and as such, whether we like it or not, we must be concerned what is transferred.

I think, being a rather intelligent and educated man, you know this, but find it more convenient to go with the flow, as you do earn your living from it. And the reason I think this is that we all know what the difference is between the great works of the past before Modernism, and Modernism. The debate over whether Modernism is truly a part of this tradition is still on. This is yet another battle between elites and the common folk, over the content of Our Common Culture, not a personal one.

If you want to back out of the debate and claim that you were harmed, so be it. I think the satire is useful for the point I was trying to make. And I think you are being disingenuous when you claim that aesthetic standards are personal, and therefore all equivalent. After all, you took a good whack at us. If you don't want to address my points, please address the original point of Donald's post, which is why so many excellent artists are left out of the new non-Canon Canon.

Sorry again for any personal offense. I will do better next time.

Posted by: Joe Schmoe on April 25, 2006 11:11 PM

Civil behavior is appreciated on this blog. But so are strong feelings, interested queries, and unusual points of view. (As well as more conventional p-o-v's, come to think of it.) It isn't always easy to negotiate all these waters, and nerves and feelings will occasionally get stepped on even when we're all doing our best. So many thanks to Chris and Joe for finding some calm common ground they can at least disagree over. I think it can be useful (especially when pulses start to race) for all of us to keep in mind that nothing's going to be settled at an obscure blog, and political parties certainly aren't taking their cues from us. None of it really matters, at least in any urgent sense. (Maybe in some butterfly-causing-a-distant-tornoado sense, but who has any control over that?) We're here, if/when we're here, for the pleasures of the back-and-forth.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 26, 2006 11:22 AM

My skin is sufficiently thick that I can withstand a few pokes that are sharper than need be without slipping away to lick my wounds.

Joe, you note that Murray's book seeks to show that ... "contrary to the claims of the multiculturists, most of the significant works and innovations in many fields of endeavor are indeed american/european males." You say further that this is a position you support.

If you (generic you, not Joe specifically) are looking for a quantifiable system with which to measure artistic achievement &/or prominence as a monolithic whole, and if you have one in Murray (one furthermore that has seemingly built in a strong whiff of the very bias you favor), then I think it valid to suggest you should either accept the results or the inherently subjective nature of art and thus limits of the exercise. Yet, so many comments on the thread pick nits with the rankings that result. Too many French! Cezanne is overrated! They're blinded by Modernism!

Steve Sailer's comments about Paul Johnson’s book, Art: A New History, pointed out " how even this most opinionated of historians must adapt himself to the judgments of artists." An excellent point; however much the Common Culture at any given point in time agrees or disagrees with them, artists will respond to art that speaks to them. When significant numbers of artists respond to a particular artist or style I think it valid to suggest that there must be some good reason and therefore try to understand and accept it.

Joe says "This is yet another battle between elites and the common folk, over the content of Our Common Culture..." the presumption, given the context, would seem to be that 'the elites' (in this case the supposedly Francophile Modernist Art Establishment) are running roughshod over the common folks and leaving a debased and perhaps degenerate version of art history in their wake.

How does that square with the contention a couple of paragraphs before dismissing the tastes of "the common folk" (Foo Fighters) in support of a "Common Culture" (Bach, Mozart) that would fail to interest the majority of a random sampling of shoppers at the local supermarket? It seems reasonable to suggest that what rankles is rather that "the elites" are no longer completely dominated by white European/American males and the Canon of Western Culture that existed until the late 19th Century.

I'm asked to "... please address the original point of Donald's post, which is why so many excellent artists are left out of the new non-Canon Canon."

Comments above by Donald, Steve, Agnostic and others address this point well enough; there is an 'epoch-centrism' to the means and methods at work; there are aesthetic and practical biases within the field of art history that skew what is written toward satisfying narratives, etc.

One might ask the same question in any field. A scant handful of practitioners have the exact combination of originality, talent, timing, personality, support, genius and luck that catapults them to the top of the heap. It might be argued that nearly all of those left below lack some attributes required for them to rise above their modest stature. If pressed, I would say that most of the specific artists discussed in previous threads as deserving of greater stature possess highly developed technical mastery but insufficient creativity, originality or whatever ineffable label you prefer to warrant their inclusion.

Furthermore, I would note that 'technical mastery' is an ever-moving target. The understanding of 'technical mastery' in these threads regarding painting, for example, seems limited to a painter's ability to use oil paints or drawing implements to depict the real world as a credible three-dimensional illusion in two dimensions. Where does that leave an abstract painter working with newly developed "high tech" acrylic pigments and mediums? These artists are developing a high degree of technical mastery and expertise in painting. If you dismiss them out of hand because they fail by a different yardstick isn't it a bit like dismissing, say, all music not created exclusively on acoustic instruments and thus failing to accept the "technical mastery" shown by Jimi Hendrix ... or Wendy Carlos if you prefer?

Most of the slings and arrows being shot at the Art Establishment here are nearly identical to those that self-avowed Modernists shoot at it. Modernism was replaced as the dominant Art Establishment orthodoxy by the mid sixties. We have been in a Post-Modern phase for an aesthetic generation or two. On the most recent of my very infrequent trips to New York for a gallery opening I overheard nearly identical complaints voiced by a "modernist" painter. A series of shows (most prominently the Whitney Biennial) were dismissed as a waste of time and wall space, an affront to excellence.

Posted by: Chris White on April 26, 2006 11:44 AM

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