[Paleopsych] NYT: Picasso and Warhol... Neck and Neck

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Picasso and Warhol... Neck and Neck
NYT January 22, 2005

How should we rank artists? Forget about quality. Forget
about sales. Let's pretend we're in junior high and rank
artists by popularity. Let's see how much attention they're
getting and whether it's coming from the cool kids.

That's what Artfacts.net, a privately owned, London-based
guide to modern and contemporary art, has tried. In 1999
Artfacts.net began publishing information about art
exhibitions in 40 countries culled from 2,500 museums,
galleries, art fairs and dealers' associations. The
database included more than 20,000 artists, 600 current
shows and 18,000 past ones.

But, as the keepers of Artfacts.net confess on their Web
site, they "weren't totally satisfied with the system of
ordering artists alphabetically." So they devised a new
system ranking 16,000 of the artists in the database
"according to their recognition in the eyes of
professionals (i.e., curators, gallery owners)." In
addition to a current rank, each artist would get a graph
showing the ups and downs of his or her ranking over the
last five years. And the most popular artists at any given
moment also get a slot on the Top 100 chart. You can view
it at www.artfacts.net/ranking/Page2_EN.php.

This is not the first artist-ranking scheme. Safia
Dickersbach, the public relations director at Artfacts.net,
said in an e-mail message that the oldest and best-known
ranking system is Kunstkompass, developed in 1968 by the
writer Willi Bongard and still published every year by the
German business magazine Capital.

But while Kunstkompass is based on hundreds of shows,
Artfacts.net's list, which was originally generated from
information provided by the German Art Dealers Association
and the Cologne Art Fair, is based on several thousand and
is "calculated entirely by a machine," she said.

"No human being interferes," Ms. Dickersbach continued.
"The ranking is based on a transparent set of equations and
is recalculated by the Artfacts.net server on a daily

To shore up the new ranking system intellectually,
Artfacts.net points readers to a translated excerpt from
the German book "The Economy of Attention" by Georg Franck,
a professor at the Institute for Architecture Sciences in
Vienna. The excerpt outlines a new kind of wealth:
attention income, otherwise known as fame.

"Attention by other people is the most irresistible of
drugs," he writes. Just as the rich get richer, the famous
become more famous: "Nothing seems to attract attention
more than the accumulation of attention income, nothing
seems to stimulate the media more than this kind of
capital, nothing appears to charge advertising space with a
stronger power of attraction than displayed wealth of
earned attention."

Does the Artfacts.net Top 100 chart bear out Mr. Franck's
homily about fame? Yes and no.

According to his theory, you would expect the most popular
artists to stay popular, and some of them do. Picasso has
been No. 1 in the database for the last five years, which
is as far back as the ranking goes. Behind him is Andy
Warhol, who has been No. 2 for five years.

You would also expect plenty of smooth rises, like those of
Carl Andre (rising to 47 from 363), Lawrence Weiner (52
from 473) and Vito Acconci (85 from 482). And there would
be lots of steady slides too, like Douglas Gordon's (from
35 to 12).

But spikes and troughs are more common than regular curves.
Just check out the graphs that track each artist's
fortunes. Nan Goldin hits a high in 2001, as does Jeff
Wall. Sam Francis spikes in 2002, along with Ellsworth
Kelly. Ed Ruscha and Robert Rauschenberg dip in 2003. In
2002 Constantin Brancusi, Cindy Sherman and Philip Guston
all sag. These jagged lines probably represent big
exhibitions and lulls before and after them.

It's fun to compare artists' five-year graphs. Who could
have guessed that 99 would be the lowest rank for Damien
Hirst and the highest for Paul Cézanne? Or that Fernand
Léger would share a V-shaped career with Paul McCarthy, or
that Gordon Matta-Clark and Marcel Duchamp would both have
W shapes? But it's not clear what can you really read into
these coincidences.

As the years add up, the curves will become more
meaningful, and Mr. Franck's theory may have a truer test.
Right now, though, with only five years' data, you can't
really tell a trend from a burp.

And you may never be able to tell. The system appears to
have some big kinks in it.

When I looked at Joan Miró's chart last weekend, he was
shown steadily occupying the No. 3 spot for the last five
years, but Tuesday's chart for Miró showed that he was
never there. Over the weekend, Antoni Tàpies's chart showed
that he was ranked No. 8 five years ago and had risen to
No. 4 by 2004. Given Mr. Tàpies's middling reputation, that
seemed hard to believe. On Tuesday, history had changed:
his highest rank in the last five years wasn't 4 but 46.

Even if you believe the latest numbers, you can't tell at a
glance how precipitous any artist's rise or and fall is
compared with that of other artists, because each artist's
graph has its own scale, exactly spanning his or her own
high and low marks.

For example, the graphs of Olafur Eliasson and Alberto
Giacometti from 2000 to 2004 look almost identical. Both
show a steep rise, then level off. But they indicate quite
different things. Mr. Eliasson chugged nicely uphill to 17
from 94, while Giacometti practically scaled a cliff,
climbing to a high of 12 from 1,703 in that period.

Where do these numbers come from, anyway? The Web site
itself offers only a hint of its methods. And those methods
are quite arcane.

Ms. Dickersbach explained some of the rules. To begin with,
she noted, the only artists eligible for the list are
"international artists," those with long-term ties (that
is, representation by galleries or having a presence in
permanent collections) in at least three countries.

To rank these international artists, the staff of
Artfacts.net starts by looking at exhibition announcements,
newsletters and Web sites. Then the point toting begins.

Solo shows are worth more than group shows or art fairs.
Documenta, in Kassel, Germany, is worth more than the
Venice Biennale. Public museums count more than galleries.
And different museums have different weights. Those in
cities like Paris or New York count for more. Small museums
and university museums count for almost nothing.
"Exhibitions held in a museum with a great collection of
famous artists, like the Centre Pompidou, will receive more
points than a relatively unknown private gallery," the Web
site says.

And how is a famous gallery or museum defined? Circularly.
An institution with famous artists is famous, and a famous
artist is one who shows in a famous institution.

In all of this there's more than a hint that Artfacts.net
is playing a role in the economy of attention: it is not
merely recording fame but also contributing to it. The Web
site notes that curators planning shows and collectors
buying art always want "a return on their investment in the
form of more attention (reputation, fame, etc)." The
subtext is clear: to catch an artist on the upswing, please
turn to our tables.

As with many Web sites that deal with rank or sales (think
of Amazon.com), Artfacts.net seems far from scientific. But
no matter how unreliable or irritating it may be, a ranked
list is an irresistible object. How irresistible? We shall
see. As of the beginning of 2005, Artfacts.net said it was
getting 10,000 visitors and 90,000 page visits per day.
Check that number again next week.


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