Thursday, May 8, 2003

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MORE ON DISCIPLINARY BOUNDARIES: Last week I took Megan McArdle to task for asserting that the economic mode of analysis was superior to theories and methodologies that emerged from other social science and the humanities.

Now, just because I thought Megan was exaggerating things doesn't mean I think economists should stick to their disciplinary knitting and never attempt to explain other phenomenon. For example, consider this Chicago Tribune story about a University of Chicago economist venturing into the humanities:

David Galenson, an economic historian who teaches at the University of Chicago, took on the art history establishment two years ago with his book "Painting Outside the Lines: Patterns of Creativity in Modern Art" (Harvard University Press), in which he claimed statistical methods could be used to rank artistic achievements.

That idea was anathema to many art historians, who believe that creativity is fragile and unquantifiable, that using the marketplace to evaluate art would sully the field....

Robert Storr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is on record as declaring art is essentially "unquantifiable." Michael Rooks, an assistant curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, said upon the release of Galenson's book, "There's a real sense that when you start quantifying artistic output in dollars and cents, those things are tangents to what we really should be talking about."

Galenson, who publishes frequently in the leading journals in his field such as The Journal of Political Economy and The American Economic Review, found it impossible even to get his book reviewed by art historians. "To them," he said, "I'm just a nerd with a computer."

The problem, of course, is specialization. Economists are supposed to study economics, leaving the art history to the art historians, and vice versa.

Read the whole piece. Galenson's typology of artists -- "conceptual" and "experimental" -- and his method for appraising their artistic value -- how their work is valued in auctions -- are hardly slam-dunk assertions. But they are pretty interesting, and art historians do a disservice to themselves by pretending they don't exist or are beyond the pale.

posted by Dan on 05.08.03 at 11:07 AM