[Dixielandjazz] Should we rank artists? If so, HOW?

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Jan 22 06:29:23 PST 2005

With all the past discussions on the DJML about ranking jazz artists, here's
an interesting take on how a British Corporation ranks those in the visual
arts. Picasso is #1, followed by Andy Warhol. Their web site is immensely
popular and fun to navigate.

It may be that if jazz musicians were ranked this way, Armstrong would be
#1, followed closely by Kenny G. :-) VBG.

Steve Barbone

January 22, 2005 - NY TIMES- By SARAH BOXER

Picasso and Warhol... Neck and Neck

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

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 basis."

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

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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