Tyler Cowen links to a news article about David Galenson, an economist who is “convinced that the type of economic analysis that explains the $4-plus gas at the pump can also explain the greatest artists of the last 100 or so years.” I assume that this line about gas prices is just something that the reporter added: at least, the factors that explain gas prices seem much different than the factors that explain great art.
The article continues to say that his “statistical approach . . . is based in part on how frequently an illustration of a work appears in textbooks.” That sounds cool to me. I’d also like to see some cross-time analysis, since it seems to me that an analysis of textbooks would also be measuring what’s currently trendy in art history. The article says that he analyzes 33 textbooks published between 1990 and 2005; I don’t know if that’s long enough to get enough variation in trendiness. But he should give it a try and not just lump all the years together.
Galenson then says, “Quantification has been almost totally absent from art history. Art historians hate markets.” Whoa! How did he jump from “quantification” to “markets”? It sounds like he’s limiting himself if he doesn’t also apply quantitative methods to non-market situations.
Continuing, Galenson writes, “Important artists are innovators whose work changes the practices of their successors. The greater the changes, the greater the artist.” Who says this sort of thing? Is this a way that art historians talk? It sounds like circular reasoning: it’s his personal definition of “greatness.”
The article then quotes art professor Michael Rushton as saying that in science or art, he said, “innovation really requires a market.” Huh? Wha?? Tell that to my friend Seth, who spent 10 years self-experimentation. Heck, tell that to the cave painters. Or check out the American Visionary Art Museum.
It’s so frustrating: I think much can be learned from quantitative study of just about everything, but why do people have to overreach and say such silly things?
P.S. Galenson’s work on the trajectories of artists’ work by age looks interesting. I’m reminded of Dick De Veaux’s statement, “Math is like music, statistics is like literature“: Why are there no six year old novelists? Statistics, like literature, benefits from some life experience.