The New York Times last week ran a blurb, in its “things we liked on the web” column, about this piece on “A Nerd’s Guide to Art,” at the “explainer” site FiveThirtyEight. The Times’ description: “worth the time if you don’t think of art as art but as a collection of differently sized frames acquired at various times”
In fact, the article’s pretty interesting, and the Times’ characterization is unfair. True, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to do statistical analyses of the sizes of canvases in the museum’s collection, even when graphed against acquisition dates. Such numerical analyses can’t really tell us anything interesting about art or art history. I suppose they could help us understand the implications of events like when a museum became more ambitious, or when its endowment started to run dry, or changes in the style preferred by painters the museum preferred. But all of those are trivial.
But it could be pretty interesting just to see what those dates of acquisition were. The original FiveThirtyEight post has one example: a chart graphing the year in which each painting in MOMA’s collection was completed, against the year in which MOMA acquired it. It’s a pretty dense blob of dots, for the most part, and—at first glance, at least—doesn’t tell us much about anything much at all. But look close, and you see that MOMA concentrated pretty heavily on a very few decades, near the beginning of the modern period, for a very long time. Only in the past fifteen years has acquisition of those “classic” modernist painting slowed. (I don’t think the data distinguishes between acquisition by purchase, and that by will or gift, which might show something different, as early collectors die or otherwise thin out their holdings.) And there was a long period, after the 1920s and before the late 1940s, from which MOMA bought very little at all. The Depression and the Second World War itself probably had something to do with that, causing less art to be produced altogether. But it’s also the case that left-wing and populist art, a broad trend in the 1930s, was long thought to be ideologically opposed to the more art-for-art’s-sake Big-M Modern movement: a sense that possibly wore off as the wish to collect the best innovative art of that period increased.
A viewer could get a sense of these changes just by walking through the galleries or flipping through a full catalog of the museum’s holdings. But it takes actual numeric data to show that such a “sense” has a basis in fact. My “sense” is that an astonishingly large number of pieces of what are considered the world’s best modern art is held by MOMA—that a large number are also held by, for example, the Centre Pompidou, in Paris—and that there are noticeable differences between the kinds of art each of those museums holds—but I could hardly make that argument, before, unless I’d painstakingly flipped through each and every acquisition record at both of those institutions. Nor could I confirm (or refute) my sense that the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, has built its collection around a number of paintings collected, presumably by J. Paul Getty himself, very early in the twentieth century, and that those paintings have certain characteristics in common (a lot of paintings of isolated towers, it seemed to me, as I browsed), which the later-acquired paintings sometimes share.
It’s easy to make fun of people who try to combine math with art. (Though the idea that mathematicians and scientists are uniformly hostile or indifferent to art is not, let’s say, empirically grounded in the data.) Even if I were to confirm my feeling about trends in museums’ different collections of different sorts of art, the end result wouldn’t amount to much, by itself. It wouldn’t be an especially valuable or interesting consideration of any of the art I’d counted, and it wouldn’t be a convincing argument in art history, or even the sociology of art collecting. But it’s also much too easy to forget that the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” applies to scatter charts, too.