Roberta Sinatra and the algorithm of art

Back in my quiet little village in Italy I was reading my favourite newspaper, “Il corriere della Sera”, and I found an article that particularly got my attention: Roberta Sinatra, an Italian physicist, has found an algorithm to analyse fashions in the art market. In order to do so, she studied almost half million careers of artists worldwide during the last 35 years to determine whether there were some common factors responsible for the fortune (or not) of an artist.
Success in art, like in every human activity whose value depends on individual perception, is strongly influenced by other factors than talent only (that is, de facto, unquantifiable). Recognition and values are determined by a network of experts, collectors, art dealers and institutions that will determine the visibility and prestige of an artist.
From the study Roberta carried out, Quantifying reputation and success in art, published on Science, it emerged that talent alone is not sufficient to reach fame. The most important factor is geography, specifically referring to the network available for an artist. Given the role of the major institutions as art portfolios, the researchers have mapped the network around these cores, finding a dense community mainly located in Europe and North America with access to selected artists frequently exhibited, while more peripheral areas appeared isolated, showing little or no exchange outside their local network. Within these cores, a high correlation was found between their centrality and the economic value of the artworks exhibited.

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Coexhibition network: the map represents the existing connections among countries and institutions, with the cores identifying the the top institutions. (Image taken from the paper)

The beginning of the career, defined by the average prestige of the first five exhibits, is the stage determining the future development of an artist. Artists exhibiting in or connected to prestigious institutions since the beginning of their career had better chances to continue exhibiting and easier access to top institutions. On the other hand, artists starting from a low-initial reputation, i.e. in a peripheral network, had a high dropout rate, although an increasing access to the top institutions was shown for the ones who persisted.
For a deeper comprehension Roberta and colleagues tried to define how the reputation of an artist grows. With a probabilistic model they found out that reputation doesn’t depend on the current exhibit only; an average of 12 exhibits is what defines the “memory” of an artist, determining her/his advancement within the institutions and, therefore, an affirmed reputation.

I think that this study has confirmed with numbers what was already easy to expect (that is the reason about conducting a study, too…). It is unlikely that talent only is enough, in any field, to emerge, few lucky exceptions aside (read about the interview to the collectors John and Stuart Evans and their role in the art world). I also think, though, that the study has considered a period in between the traditional networking and the increasing diffusion and power of Internet and social media, and I believe this will be a new key factor to analyse while posing the same question again. On the other hand, the quantity of (more or less) artistic production has increased dramatically, leading to a higher concurrence in terms of visibility and, therefore, possibilities. Maybe this is just the result of sharing publicly what was hidden before in our drawers or timidly shown to our closest ones. Maybe this is motivating people to be more creative and free with their imagination. Maybe this is moving the conventional networks and spreading to new connections and expressions.

Whatever it is, I personally know the need of create, the calling that never stops: and I think that is the special flame that makes you an artist.

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