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May 02, 2006

More Art Metrics

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yes, yes, I know they don't tell you everything. And they can mislead you. Still, if it's possible, I like to see things reduced to numbers: even arty stuff.

Not long ago I wrote a post based on data collected by Charles Murray in which I hypothesized that Murray's citation-ranking of Western artists was a proxy for the views of the Art History Establishment.

While I was working up that post I was reading a recent book by University of Chicago economist David W. Galenson that also attempts to quantify art. In Galenson's case, it's the age at which an artist attained peak excellence (he used the word "creativity") along with the related matter of the lifetime quality profile of the artist.

The book in question is "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity" (Amazon listing here). A review by Kyle Gann, which gives you the flavor of Galenson's research is here. Galenson has written extensively on his topic; two related books are "Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art" (see here) and "Artistic Capital" (see here).

Galenson measures "creativity" by looking auction prices of art, art included in retrospective exhibitions, and art otherwise exhibited by museums. Galenson finds that these alternative measures tend to agree in terms of the age of the artist at the time the highest priced, most frequently displayed works were created.

From his data Galenson denotes two types of artists, those who innovate at a comparatively young age and those who slowly improve their skills over their careers. (He used Picasso and CÚzanne as prime examples. For instance, paintings Picasso did in his twenties are worth more than those done thereafter, and the price curve falls off steadily with age.) Having set up his classification, Galenson then goes on to enumerate working practices and other characteristics of the artists (some of this analysis is based on the work of art historian Robert Jensen). See Gann's review for more details.

The use of exhibited paintings as data is akin to what Murray did. But expressing art in terms of auction prices was something that I though was nifty. Well, Galenson's an economist, for heaven's sake, and reducing things to dollars is what they do.

This interests me because, for some time, I've been mulling over the idea of using prices to measure how currently-active artists taking the representational, abstract, and PoMo routes are faring -- espcially when location of the gallery or buyer is taken into account. For instance Carmel, California is loaded with galleries and representational art seems to predominate there. But I see proportionally more PoMo up in San Francisco. It would be nice to quantify this, though I haven't yet looked into just how I might do that.



posted by Donald at May 2, 2006


"It would be nice to quantify this, though I haven't yet looked into just how I might do that."

Several websites quantify auction sales for American artists of all kinds and even reduce it to "price per square inch" of painting. Probably the most extensive is They also publish bios and "best price" as well as listing the works.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 3, 2006 6:37 AM

Does the calculus take into account that Picasso, for instance, dramatically increased the number of paintings he did after he realized anything with his signature on it was worth money? Towards the end of his life he was dashing off seventeen profitable squiggles before breakfast. This behavior must have diluted his average price.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on May 3, 2006 8:04 AM

Mary -- Thanks for the tip: I'll look into it.

Robert -- The same thought crossed my mind. As far as I could tell, Galenson made no attempt to correct for market-flooding. Kinda surprising for an economist....

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 3, 2006 12:29 PM

Another product of economists is the Moses Mei Art Index. If you're looking for quantifiable data this is one of the better sources.

Posted by: Chris White on May 3, 2006 2:18 PM

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