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Why are we ascribing competitive models to art and exhibitions?

Klara Liden, “Pretty Vacant” 2012

Now that it’s early January and the holiday season has dwindled into a plain old winter vortex, I’m back at my desk, hungover from the gigantic amount of “best of” and “predictions for 2015” listicles that have been written in the last few weeks. Did anyone actually read any of these? While writing year-in-review texts has been a perennial form for critics for decades, it seems in recent years–with the rise of online art news platforms–that hastily written “top 10” articles have started to dominate art writing. I can understand why a journalist would be drawn to using this form. Listicles and best-of lists are easy to understand and fast to read and garner a lot of page views (which in turn generates ad revenue). But, being an art writer myself, I know that these articles are oftentimes written to give shout-outs to colleagues and friends, and rarely represent exhaustive research, despite they’re oftentimes confused as such.

Here are a few examples:

ArtReview Power 100 (ArtReview)
Which Five European Museum Directors Are Doing the Best Job? (artnet news)
10 of the Best Artworks at Art Basel Miami Beach 2014 (Artspace)
Europe’s 10 Best Museum Shows in 2015 (artnet news)
25 Art World Women at the Top, From Sheikha Al-Mayassa to Yoko Ono (artnet news)
Best of 2014: Our Top 10 Exhibitions Around the World (Hyperallergic)
Up and Coming: 10 Young Curators Taking on the Art World (Artsy)
Top 10 Contemporary Artists Working With Ceramics (Artsy)
The 2014 ArtNews 200 Top Collectors (ARTnews)
The Greatest Painting in the World: 10 Luminaries Cast Their Ballots (ARTnews)
10 Young Artists To Watch (Harper’s Bazaar)
14 (+2) Artists To Watch in 2014 (New American Paintings)

How do these competitive models effect the way we think about art? I think that it’s human to get caught up thinking about who is the “best” at something (the best young female ceramic artist from New Zealand or the best new cave painter etc.), but I also would hope it’s our task as cultural producers to think outside of normal systems of valuation and judgment that these competitive lists perpetuate. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on this.


This is a rather intelligent outlook, deconstruction at it’s best.
A spectrum of high quality art instead of a race is a bright proposal.

I would be interested in hearing a discussion/conversation on what these lists attempt, and ultimately fail to do (besides high-fiving friends). Which is to identify some meaningful or interesting way of critically gauging a successful exhibition. Without falling into a qualitative pit, as the public/commercial sectors often do. RIP passive observer/critic.

I wonder too! These lists are bizarre to me because the ranking and the use of numbers suggests a certain statistical methodology that nobody actually attempts. That’s why I sort of like the lists that simply list the most expensive artists—there’s a certain objectivity to it. The other lists are like the Princeton Review for colleges: they develop criteria, and then they check that the criteria are correct by making sure that Yale, Harvard and Princeton are in the top three. They allow for a little shuffling and that vouches for their responsiveness to the world. The “To Watch” lists are especially circular since they contribute to their own prediction: by generating press around these artists they make it more likely they’ll actually be successful. That said, I wonder if anyone actually takes these lists to heart, especially the people on them. Anyone who’s anyone in the art world probably has a fair amount of awareness to get where they are, and so probably have a pretty good idea of exactly what their influence is.


15 Badass Art World Heroines Over 70 Years Old: They came. They created. They conquered.”

The jokes write themselves, people!

1 Like

Great question - and very interesting to see this issue come up here. I’ve always been irritated by a competitive approach to music criticism. for classical music it seems to reduce the art to sensationalist extremes of some kind-- displays of technical virtuosity, or pandering to more popular tastes, not that there’s anything wrong with things that are POPULAR (but see the Bjork-MOMA thread).

I do sometimes wonder, though, if (as mentioned above) it isn’t just a way to list some artists you like, or give attention of new ones, or similar.

I also think that competition in itself isn’t problematic or even interesting: it’s kind of a fact. What is interesting to me about the rise of the ranked list is the explicit problems of methodology it creates. As long as everybody relies on a combination of their self-perception and their material successes to assess their competition, there’s a lot of gray area: for example, we all might be thinking that we’re contributing the most interesting comment to this conversation, without any contradiction, since it’s all a matter of perceptions. But when you make it so explicitly public and fix it like so, with a list, then there’s a little less give. Of course, that’s assuming there would be an authoritative list, which of course there isn’t, as even your list of lists shows, so that each of them can be interpreted as just another opinion rather than a particularly heavy opinion, i.e. a fact.

The methodological problem is one of criteria: do you attempt to approximate an objective measure, e.g. through research, and possibly but not necessarily quantitative means–the question of which criteria and how to assign points arises. Or do you rely on intuition–which can very easily descend into nepotism or hype? It’s in a situation like this that straightforward market value is actually very reassuring: http://www.hurun.net/en/ArticleShow.aspx?nid=386

Of course, that would put all of us in art criticism out of what business we have.

To me, these competitive models have a severely harmful effect in our genuine creativity. I affirm this because I understand that the whole reason of existence of such lists is a craving for validation. To validate the actual existence of an “art world” where artists, curators, art writers and so on live. This validation is pretty much based on our own insecurity I think, where art enthusiasts like ourselves are desperate to be validated by an ever-increasing world that do not value art at all. This insecurity is completely understandable, something that, as an artist myself, I need to deal with everyday. However, I don’t think that the creation of such lists and their consequent creation of a boundary around an “art world” and an “artistic class” help to ease this insecurity. Actually, I believe it makes it worse, as it is based on the same model of competitiveness that rules the part of the world that do not care about art. It is a mediocre model that I guess multinationals have, to show what are the best employees of the month. This mediocrity is what I find very harmful to our genuine creativity, because if we carry on with this, what will be the difference between an accountant putting data into a computer and an artist putting paint on a canvas? Thus, I believe that we need a more creative and open model within all the aspects that envolve art, and thrust that there are some people living in the “non-art world” that are tired of that and are looking for something different. However, if they come to the “art world” and see the same model, then really where are they going to go? The best way to achieve a more creative model is to put the actual art back at the centre of everything, as it seems to me that now the “art world” dwellers have deviated their focus more to politics, fame and money. And, at the end of the day, these are the three goals that make everything become mediocre.