In the art world, the debate rages on over who are the greatest artists and under what qualifications does an artist necessitate the prefix “great.” In Who are the Greatest Living Artists? The View from the Auction Market, author David Galenson attempts to show that the art auction market is directly related to an artist’s greatness. While others pronounce that the art market is irrational and has little to do with artist’s importance, Galenson uses art auction data combined with an analytical look at certain artist’s contribution to the art world to create a list of the top living artists. These artists tended to be conceptual, radical and young when their great works were produced.
Employing the auction market for a signal of who the greatest artists is a controversial topic. While many would argue that the selling price of an art piece isn’t correlated with the greatness of the artist, Galenson claims that the market is the greatest critic, and only museum quality works receive the due attention. With much of modern art being radical and upending embedded art traditions, a high price on a piece justifies its greatness to its critics. Those willing to pay the steep price for a great piece of art have more reason than “it looked nice.” “You’re never going to be anywhere until one of your paintings goes for over $500K,” (4) acknowledged artist Elizabeth Murray. The higher the price, the more prestige and seriousness is attached to the work.
Using only artists who have earned over $1 million on a single painting, Galenson generates two important lists: ranking of artists by (1) their single highest-priced work and (2) number of works sold for more than $1 million. From these two lists, Galenson draws the connection that artists who sold works for a large sum usually repeated that feat many times. This includes artists such as Gerhard Richter that sold one piece for $5.4 million and 53 pieces above $1 million, and Jasper Johns who sold one piece for $17.05 million and 39 pieces above $1 million. To connect these auction numbers to greatness, Galenson discusses the qualities that make the artists great. For Galenson, the greatest artists are those whose works have had the greatest importance. This importance comes in the form of influence. Without those great artists, succeeding artists couldn’t have done what they did. The artist has such ground breaking innovation that he changed the conception of art.
In particular, eight artists are highlighted as great living artists: Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Lucian Freud, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst. With each of these artists, Galenson stresses the contribution each artist had to the art world. Including the top eight, most of the artists are on the list are conceptual artists, where radical concepts drive a much planned out piece. Instead of the experimental artists, such as Jackson Pollack, of the generations before, these new artists take novel ideas and deliberately arrange the piece before hand to best convey the idea. Because this new type of art requires new ideas, many of the greatest pieces were created by younger artists before their minds were trapped by traditional thinking. In addition, most of the top artists went to art school, unlike the experimental artists.
By looking at the top sellers by price, quantity and artistic influence, Galenson makes the argument that art markets are rational and can help identify who the greatest living arts are.
The idea of attacking such a subjective matter through concrete economic data was what attracted me to this paper. I was interested to see how Galenson would use the data to support his claims and connect that concrete data with intangible theories on art. The very nature of this paper, a difficult topic to explain in concrete terms, that made this paper interesting is also the reason behind many of my objects to Galenson’s paper. While Galenson made a solid case for prices being important to an artist, I am unsure how reliable art pricing is. With so few sales of the same piece, convergence of price at the equilibrium probably never happens. Each sale of the piece could be an outlier, which ruins the entire data set. In combination with this is a follower theory, where if one buys a painting, more people want it. If one buys a painting for a high price, the next painting sells for more. If these two ideas work together, art prices could be pushed unnecessarily high, beyond rational reasoning. Similar to the idea of an economic bubble, like the tech bubble, these prices are inflated, but unlike the stock market that has a lot of liquidity and volume movement each day, art prices do not readjust as quickly.
In addition to the market aspect of art pricing, the theory behind great artists being those that are the highest paid isn’t the strongest one. As we have seen in the past, many artists are discovered posthumously, meaning these artists wouldn’t appear on these charts. Also, art types go in and out of style. An art deco piece many not be worth as much now as it did when it first arrived. Besides the huge names in art, the lesser known artists might make more when their art style is popular, but make less when the style becomes tired. This would mean that the “greatness” of an art piece changes as the price changes over the long-term. Because greatness is a term of longevity for Galenson, this scenario doesn’t work within Galenson’s theory.