Summer 2007 – TANK Magazine |

Tank Magazine | Paint by Numbers: the Quantification of the Art WorldIt has now become an annual event, celebrated like the announcement of the best picture nominees for the Oscars, or the finalists for the Turner Prize. Who will grace the upper echelon of Art Review ‘s Top 100 list that comes out every October? And who will have dropped off? (subtext: who is to blame?) This list has become the honor roll of an industry that has always viewed its products as subjective, a view of art introduced by Kant and other theorists. How can art, and its producers, promoters, buyers, sellers and commentators be rated in such a pedestrian, uncontingent, absolute way? Top 100! How absurd! Where is the eye of the beholder? Where is the rapture of individual taste (for which, as the Latin proverb cajoles, there is no accounting for)?

But as the contemporary art market mushrooms out of control, as investment banks acquire significant art collections to leverage their assets and as art fairs have become the Columbian Expositions of the 21 st century, an entirely new accounting system has sprung up to feed the market’s demand to know: what is the best art? claims to know. On this website, visitors are greeted with a friendly question: “Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the sheer variety of contemporary art production?”   The question is aimed at (wealthy) neophytes looking for guidance about potential purchases – surely art types would never admit feeling “overwhelmed.”   The site then explains its elaborate ranking system for contemporary artists, which sets out to “predict an artist’s career using econometrical methods.”   Could it be that the same number-crunching method used to score university admissions tests, calculate insurance liability and project pharmaceutical companies’ revenue might also yield a verifiable result in the nebulous art world? (Here we envision a puff of smoke emerging from the mountainous machine depicted in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and a soot-faced laborer bringing us a tabulation sheet.)

Using a custom-designed algorithm, calculates the top artists, based on a formula that takes into account how much art they have made, how often they have shown internationally and, most importantly, the quality of the institutions at which they have exhibited. So an artist who shows at Tate Modern and at the Centre Pompidou will automatically leapfrog over one who has a twenty-year record of shows at Cork Street galleries. Pablo Picasso is, predictably, at No. 1, while strange anomalies abound. Gilbert and George rank higher than Yves Klein? Gerhard Richter is 51 names ahead of Anselm Kiefer? The site derives its theoretical authority from George Frank, who wrote a book called The Economy of Attention in which he argues that attention, or fame, operates in a market similar to capitalist economies.   Fame is a commodity we can quantify. But is contemporary art?

‘This kind of quantitative ranking … reflects a particular problem of contemporary art,’ said Professor Paul Mattick, author of Art Works: Money and other books about aesthetics. ‘Since there are not generally-accepted criteria for quality in this

field, decisions about exhibitions and pricing are made on the basis of guesses about what art will turn out to be “significant”‘.

That is indeed the key word. public relations director Safia Dickersbach explained her site’s algorithm in relation to another’s: ‘In short, measures the significance of the artist in a curatorial environment, whereas measures the significance of an artist within a commercial environment.’   Even in the nonprofit world, where a profit motive is lacking, there is an imperative to rate the artists in an absolute hierarchy. What is the purpose of the ranking system in the non-profit, curatorial scene?   If a hyper-reductive quantitative system is not created for profit, then what is it about? The head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, Tobias Meyer, pointed out that if these ranking systems were “just about money, then these people would be playing the stock market.”

At this year’s American Bacchanal: Art Basel Miami, the magazine Flash Art produced a report from hundreds of interviews with art critics and gallerists that set about establishing another series of lists (as if December’s incessant year-end lists weren’t enough). The critics Top 100 artists. The Galleries’ Top 100 Artists. They then speculated about the differences between the two. The results will be published in a book: The Top 100 Artists According to the Art Critics and Dealers. And most likely it will not concord in the slightest with, which, by ranking artist Dan Graham as the   No. 35 artist in the world, greatly overrates him according to Flash Art, which reports that only five critics and no gallerists think he is worth mentioning. This may all be fun, and some may find it fascinating to see who graces the top few positions, but isn’t it all a silly charade of objectivity? is willing to wager another bet that the ranking systems are a great way to organize the chaotic art world. This website is almost the inevitable by-product of the surge in new galleries flooding Chelsea.   It creates a daily calendar that lists exhibition openings and links to any relevant reviews in the New York press.   Jonas Almgren used to work for a Silicon Valley tech startup, but is now responsible for the data navigation and reports published on the site.   He thinks that the trend toward quantification and ranking systems can only be good for the art market, which has tended to guard its information possessively.   ‘I believe this is about to change,” he said, ‘and this trend will ultimately transform the art market as we know it: It will become more inclusive, more transparent, and more efficient.’

University of Chicago economist David Galenson has also tried to measure and quantify the art world. He looked at the number of times certain paintings show up in art history textbooks in order to rank the top artists and paintings of all time. No surprise — Picasso’s 1907 Demoiselles d’Avignon holds the top spot. He also used econometric research methods to show that the YBAs are more successful their American rivals: both Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili have sold individual art works for more than $1 million, a benchmark that no young American has achieved to date. Galenson also claims to have proven that art markets are not irrational, as critics have contended. After he identified artists who had sold one work at auction for at least $1 million, he then ranked them by the highest price for which any of their works had sold, and by the number of times their works have sold for $1 million or more.   These rankings correlated with qualitative ratings of great artists: the ones the critics raved about and the ones that collectors esteemed: Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, and Jeff Koons, among others.

When my friend described her job at a Manhattan investment bank by saying, ‘I’m a quant — I crunch numbers for our investors to know what to buy,’ I suddenly felt an eerie chill across my shoulders.   Will the art critics of tomorrow tell their friends, ‘I crunch numbers to tell people what art they should care about?’   As for me, I wonder if the greatest living artists will soon be the ones painting by numbers.