David Leonhardt has another one of his reliably fascinating articles in the New York Times today (Nov. 15, 2006): The Art of Pricing Great Art
. It profiles Prof. David W. Galenson
, an economist at the University of Chicago. He has become famous -- and infamous in some circles -- for developing what amounts to an economic theory of great art
or artistic genius.
Prof. Galenson's theory, in a nutshell, divides great artists (btw, he has extended his theories to non-visual artists, including writers) into two basic categories (based on statistical analysis and economic reasoning): "conceptual innovators" (or "conceptualists"), like Gaugin, Picasso, and Van Gogh, who tend to do their best work when they are young and tend to produce their works at a rapid clip; and "late bloomers" (or "experimentalists"), like Cezanne, Jackson Pollock, and Beethoven, who tend to arrive at their innovations gradually (experimentally) and often make major contributions later in life. To people who are familiar with the 'life cycle theory of consumption and savings' from economics
, Prof. Galenson's 'grand unified theory' of art should sound familiar and, perhaps, comforting.
David Leonhardt's article is generally favorable towards Prof. Galenson's approach. Others who are 'pro' Galenson include Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker who gave a lecture at Columbia University on Prof. Galenson's theory entitled Age Before Beauty
(audio from that lecture can be heard from that page). Wired Magazine has a detailed article on Prof. Galenson (by Daniel Pink) titled What Kind of Genius Are You?
Not surprisingly -- considering the fact that Prof. Galenson is encroaching into a territory that isn't typically considered to be math
friendly -- the economic theory of art has taken quite a bit of flack from art experts. According to Prof. Galenson, "The art historians and art critics won't look at my work. They just assume I'm an idiot."
The intensity of the opposition is best illustrated by the treatment that Malcolm Gladwell, a respected staff writer and editor for The New Yorker, received from his magazine. Mr. Gladwell -- who I consider to be a genius (conceptualist or experimentalist???) in the world of non-fiction writing and who is not accustomed to rejection -- received his first rejection from The New Yorker when he tried to submit an article about Prof. Galenson's theories ... a rare, triple sigma event indeed!
Readers of this blog may expect that I would give my unqualified support to Prof. Galenson's views. Unfortunately, I will have to disappoint expectations somewhat. It's not that I'm not fascinated by nor approve of Prof. Galenson's novel and creative approach in applying quantitative tools to seemingly unquantifiable issues (I am very fascinated and I wholeheartedly approve). It's just that I think fans of Prof. Galenson are being too optimistic about his theories.
For example, the Times article draws analogies comparing the Galensonian theory of art to other attempts at 'quantitative colonization' like evidence-based medicine (i.e., data driven medicine) and sabermetrics
(applying mathematical statistics
to baseball data). I think these analogies are imperfect because art -- unlike human biology / medicine and baseball statistics -- really
does involve things that are unquantifiable and it is precisely those unquantifiable factors that are often the key
factors (especially with 'great' art) that distinguishes art, music, and creative writing from run-of-the-mill drawings & figures, noise, and jumbles of words.
I want to make it clear that I'm not
opposed to Prof. Galenson's (or anyone else's) attempts at quantitatively analyzing art (or other endeavors that have at their heart unquantifiable factors). In fact, I encourage trying to take the positivist (empirical and/or deductive) 'project' as far as possible ... but no farther (i.e., don't over do it!). In this context, I'm reminded of what Ludwig Wittgenstein said about his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
-- perhaps in response to positivist 'fans' of the Tractatus
who erroneously thought that Wittgenstein was elevating the verifiable (i.e., quantifiable) to the exclusion of the unverifiable (i.e., unquantifiable) -- "My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one."
In keeping with Wittgenstein, I believe that we can (and should) analyze the quantitative aspects of art but it is the unquantitative aspects of art that may well be the more important of the two.