Over Christmas I read a book by Charles Murray called Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950. In this volume its author attempts to define eminence since 800 BC until 1950. By the use of statistics and the science of historimetry- the practice of measuring genius through historical trends or by data-, Murray draws up lists of the most outstanding individuals in the arts and sciences.
Tabulating the Lexicons of Art History.
The tables and written sections on artists will be of most interest to people reading this blog, though his explorations throw up some interesting questions about the trajectories of music, literature and the hard sciences too. By counting the frequency of inclusion, as well as coverage (pictures, index listings etc) in a series of encyclopaedias and art history survey texts, Murray was able to construct a statistical picture of the eminence of artists. Murray also analysed Chinese art with this method, but here’s the list of core texts that he used for Western Art.
- · E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, 1995
- · H, Honour and Hugh Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History, 1982.
- · Instituto Per la Collborazione Culturale, 1959, Enciclopedia Universale Dell’Arte (trans), 17 vols.
- · H.W. Janson and A. E. Janson, History of Art, 1997
- · J Marceau, Art: A World History, 1998.
- · S Sprocatti, A Guide to Art, 1991.
- · W. Stadler, Lexikon der Kunst, 1990, 12 vols.
- · M Stokstad, Art History, 1999, 2 vols.
- · J Vinson, International Dictionary of Art and Artists, 1990.
Though Murray’s method earned his censure when his book came out in 2003, especially for its page-counting approach, it is probably the nearest thing we’ve got to a statistical evaluation of distinction and genius in art history since the early renaissance. I won’t go into how his quantitative analysis works- there’s an explanation at the back of his book if you decide to read it, or just Google human accomplishment- but his number crunching resulted in a score being given to each “significant figure” ranging from 0 to 100. After identifying 479 artists, these were further whittled down to a super-elite of 20 based on their appearance in the likes of Gombrich, Janson and Fleming/Honour. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Michelangelo comes top with 100, though you might find Picasso second (77) an unexpected runner-up. Below Picasso is Raphael with 73, Leonardo with 61 (Leonardo actually appears in four tables reflecting his “polymathic sweep”, to use Murray’s apt phrase), Titian with 60, and Dürer tying with Rembrandt with 56.
The Top 20.
In case you’re interested, Poussin is way behind at 27, but that figure doesn’t strike me as strange. Apart from the odd exhibition and appearance in the art market, Poussin’s status has been in steady decline due to the field losing momentum in the 1980s and coming to a full stop at the end of the last decade. We’re now two decades on and Poussin isn’t as eminent as he used to be, which probably merits a book or a long essay in itself. Don’t tempt me! Compared to Poussin’s white dwarf, Caravaggio is presently shining brightly in the art history firmament. He scores 43, comfortably into the top echelon. But note that Caravaggio scholarship is historically recent- dating from the early 20th century. Here are the top 20. If you go to Wikipedia you can see the results for the other disciplines too.
Pablo Picasso 77
Leonardo da Vinci 61
Albrecht Dürer 56
Gian Lorenzo Bernini 53
Paul Cézanne 50
Peter Paul Rubens 49
Diego Velázquez 43
Jan van Eyck 42
Francisco Goya 41
Claude Monet 41
Vincent van Gogh 40
Paul Gauguin 38
Apart from other numbers, 41 seems quite high for Masaccio, but surely Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca would be higher? Most of all that top 7 jars with me, especially with Picasso way above Rembrandt. For me that isn’t an accurate reflection of the current status of Rembrandt which should be, at least equal to Titian’s status given the number of exhibitions, mentions in the press, and general coverage the Dutchman gets. Yet none of these are criteria used by Murray since he associates the encyclopaedia form with professional authority and validation by experts.
Picasso’s unexpected ascent elicits a defensive comment from Murray:
“The presence of Picasso in second place will surprise and perhaps outrage readers. The amount of space accorded to him reflects not just the high regard in which his art is held, but also his seminal role in several phases of the break with classicism that occurred in late 19C and early 20thC.”
Metainventions or Black Swans.
The break with classicism is what Murray calls “meta-inventions” which might be understood as conceptual breakthroughs which result in seeing the world differently. Here are the 14 “meta-inventions” noted by Murray, both western art and other disciplines and intellectual fields.
· Artistic realism
· Linear perspective
· Artistic abstraction
· The novel
· Arabic numerals
· The mathematical proof
· The calibration of uncertainty
· The secular observation of nature
· The scientific method.
In western art, one of the greatest “meta-inventions” would be the invention of linear perspective by Brunelleschi and its generalised use throughout the renaissance period. Picasso and the Cubist breakthrough certainly reoriented the world, but wether this justifies such a high placing is open to question. Then, of course, there is the Black Swan factor. Does Michelangelo’s Sistine marvel fall into that category for example?
Strip away all the statistical paraphernalia and Human Accomplishment is a long essay on how we define achievement in the arts and sciences throughout history. As far as the sciences go, Murray doesn’t believe that the story is ended, though he believes that the rate of accomplishment in the sciences is declining steadily. We’re not getting another Galileo or Einstein any time soon. He’s much more pessimistic about the future of accomplishment in the arts which he regards as the victim of “greatness fatigue.” Is our capacity for absorbing great novels, great music, great art declining? Murray talks about the concept of “epochcentrism”, the notion that we place more importance on the recent past. You can see this effect in those lists of 100 best novels, increasingly containing more books from the last 50 years than the last 300 or more.
Epochalism and the Arts.
If like me you listen to Radio 3 (for non UK readers, the BBC classical music station) you will hear/see the impact of epochcentrism there too. It’s significant that over the last few years, more pop and 20th century film music has appeared on that station. leading to accusations of dumbing down, one from our own Brian Sewell no less. I’m a great fan of pop, but R3 was originally earmarked for primarily classical music from roughly Bach and Mozart’s period up to the period of Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Early music (Monteverdi onwards) was only incorporated into R3’s schedules as the station developed, so perhaps it’s not surprising to see a fair chunk of that disappearing. There is still modern avant-garde music on R3, but it also seems an endangered species too as the corporate hierarchy tries to attract a different and more malleable audience by filling the airwaves with vacuous chatter and adverts. This cultural shift (IMHO) might be explained by the epochal factor, though there may be other aspects at work such as neoliberal economics influencing programming. Another way of considering this shift is to think of memory. Some memories aren’t easily retrieved and unless you devise strategies for improving the memory process, you’re in danger of forgetting a lot of things. Our historical memory seems feebler these days.
Concepts like “greatness fatigue” and “epochcentrism” are more difficult to apply to the visual arts, as Murray acknowledges. One of his theories is that “greatness fatigue” was not experienced by the public between 1900 and 1950, but by publishers, gallery owners, impresarios who rejected this art thus depriving the public of the chance to read, see, or assess this kind of art. It did get me pondering the lateness of the Tate Modern phenomenon in this country, the first real attempt to establish modern art in the public mind which occurred rather late in the 1980s. Museums in London back in the 1940s even relegated Turner to outside the toilets in the Tate because he was considered “too modern” for certain curator’s tastes. The less said about the disposable rubbish that passes for art in the Turner Prize the better, not much human accomplishment there. Should we therefore pin our hopes on some unknown modern genius trashed by the critics but likely to be resuscitated to challenge Picasso’s high position on the lists? It seems a remote possibility.
Though I didn’t agree with everything Murray said, his book got me pondering art history as a phenomenon in western history. Though we still revere the classics like Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Bach and Beethoven, we see them through the filter of novelty and fashion which is surely a side effect of epochalism. I long ago gave up watching art history on T.V. and really find it difficult to appreciate art through the big neoliberal museums anymore. Epochalism certainly drives the art market which is based on modern forms of connoisseurship which I’ve commented on before. It would be interesting to consider the epochal factor in relation to this more…
I will return to this topic of human accomplishment via Michelangelo in another post. He wasn’t always so revered. None of his paintings were in the top 4 works in Rome on the Grand Tour in the 18th century which might surprise some. Murray’s survey doesn’t really take account of these anomalies and historical variations, but then how could such a statistical approach account for every historical variable….