Following on from my post about Charles Murray’s survey of historically outstanding figures, including artists, I note there’s a similar book for the Wiki and Google Age. Who’s Bigger:Where Historical Figures Really rank uses statistical data based on use of the English version of Wikipedia. This is Murray’s page counting metrics transposed to the hyperlinking, wiki-building generation.
The brains behind the project, Steven Skiena and Charles Ward said to the Independent. "We analyse the Wikipedia pages of over 800,000 people to measure quantities that should correspond to historical significance. We would expect that more significant people should have longer Wikipedia pages than less notable folk, because they have greater accomplishments to report.”
Hmm, what about the qualitative aspect of this. Is it really wise to base eminence, or human accomplishment to use Murray’s majestic term, on the habits of Wikipedians. Nothing against Wikipedia, but as a metric of outstanding historical players?
Jesus heads the field just below Napoleon! Interestingly, Murray didn’t include military or political figures like this, as he was keen to stress the humanistic achievement, and war and deception hardly come into this category.
Unlike Murray, Skiena and Ward divide their artists into Pre-20th century and Modern Artists, thus we avoid the awkward placing of Picasso just below Michelangelo. Based on the Wiki count, Michelangelo doesn’t come top this time; he’s in second place (overall ranking 86th). Leonardo takes the top old master’s place with an overall rank of 29. Unsurprisingly, Van Gogh comes top in the modern list ( overall ranking 73) followed by Picasso whose overall grade is 173.
Who’s Bigger has attracted its fair share of criticism, too Eurocentric, too geeky, too centred on Wikipedia. I’m not against number-crunching or quantative analysis but the question of validation and experts is an important one. As a professional art teacher I don’t forbid my students to use Wikipedia but it must never be a substitute for the books and articles that are the substance of the discipline. I suppose computer scientists instead of art historians determining the ranking of artists is a symptom of our time. I’m not entirely comfortable with it……
Sherlock Holmes famously said to Dr Watson that he didn’t know the earth went round the sun. From time to time in the canon of stories, Holmes's ignorance of astronomy is refuted. There was a clever use of this in the BBC’s Sherlock where the outcome of a case, as well as somebody’s life, depended upon Holmes deciphering a painting like a connoisseur. After scanning the signature, the facture and other parts of the canvas, it suddenly hit the detective that a series of paint splotches were arrayed in the shape of an astronomical cluster. The fraudster-artist having a penchant for astronomy, had painted a supernova or an exploding star in the sky; but the snag was it was only visible in 1858, over a hundred years after the work was supposedly executed. A stellar performance in more ways than one.
Now, this blend of astrophysics and art history is no longer in the realm of fiction. An astrophysicist and his team say that they can use their expertise to date Monet’s paintings to the exact minute. Read all about it in the Independent.
The link between painting and celestial bodies is fascinating. My favourite example is William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent, A Recollection of October 5th, 1858. If you look hard you will see the trail of a comet, Donati’s Comet, observed on June 2nd of the same year by an Italian astronomer. Maybe our astrophysicist friends can detect the exact minute Dyce painted this?
I wonder if the producers of Sherlock had Donati’s comet in mind when they dreamt up their version. Both comets, one fictitious of course, appeared in 1858.