Portrait of David Galenson

Ask David Galenson to name the single greatest work of art from the 20th century, and he unhesitatingly answers “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a 1907 painting by Picasso.

He can then tell you with certainty Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on, as well.

…His statistical approach has led to what he says is a radically new interpretation of 20th-century art, one he is certain art historians will hate. It is based in part on how frequently an illustration of a work appears in textbooks.

Here is the full profile.  Here are previous MR posts on David Galenson.  Here is Galenson’s home page.


In Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray used essentially the same metric (textbook page share) to rank the achievements of artists and also scientists, inventors, writers and philosophers.

How has Galenson come up with a "radically new interpretation of 20th-century art" when #1 is a picture so famous that the heroine in "Titanic" owns it?

The crucial point is that art history is a story, written in this form: X influenced Y who influenced Z.

So, if painting A is on display in the Louvre and painting B is hung in a reclusive billionaire's bedroom, painting A is going to be more influential on subsequent painters. So it will be more part of the story of art history.

This is analogous to the history of golf course architecture, where the courses that host the major championships are much more influential than ones that don't. Thus, over the last 75 years, Augusta National, host of the Masters, has had more influence on art of golf course design than, say, the National Golf Links of America, which hasn't hosted a big tournament since 1922. The NGLA is a great, great golf course, but it's never on TV and you have to know a member to visit it.

There are worse ways to evaluate art work. One of the worse ways is throwing up your hands and saying evaluating art work can't be done.

The opinion of Elderfield seems spot on: interesting, but hardly the whole picture. The opinion "I don’t buy that there is a difference between artistic and economic value." seems to be one of a person who doesn't like paintings, sculpture (or even books, if market value and quality of the writing are the same thing according to this guy).

Why limit this method to art? Using Google as a meta-bibliography, I have determined that the twinkie is greater than the cannoli.

Once upon a time the venerable Consumer Reports rated the national parks, giving each a numerical score (I am not making this up!). If my memory is correct, Everglades National Park came out two points behind Glacier Bay National Park. And so on. It took me a while to realize they were serious -at first I thought it was just a self-parody.

Other than the fact that it is very clear that the art of the Twentieth Century is totally insignificant in comparison with that of the previous seven centuries or so, we are too close to it to say anything very interesting.

One of the problems is the fact that art history text book editors/authors choose the closest example they can get. That is to say, the Art Institute of Chicago collection is overrepresented in Gardner's Art Through the Ages or was until about 3 editions ago (Helen Gardner taught there); Janson was all Met all the time; Honour and Fleming, British Museum and National Gallery.

Well, at least Galenson has determined which works were most fashionable among textbook authors between 1990 and 2005.

Incidentally, my Google search on the phrase "jump the shark" just fetched 720,000 results. Congratulations to David Galenson for provoking this comment, which will make him #720,001.

Why don't we ask Deidre McCloskey for her take on Galenson.

it must be worth a lot of money

It is enlightening!

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