In an article published at the end of March on the ArtNews website, Ben Davis presents the concept of “quantitative aesthetics”, that is, the definition of popular taste based on metrics and statistics or how preferences can be quantified —a term that, incidentally, has gained prominence in the world of technology, especially in concepts such as “quantified self”.
Although the idea of quantitative aesthetics is more deeply explored by scientists who actually study the topic of popular taste, what Davis brings to the fore is the way we define what good art or a good artist is based on numbers:
- The amount of streams,
- The number of likes and followers
- The frequency of public appearance
- Presence in playlists
- Sales value etc.
The latest victim of this logic was actress Elle Fanning, who was not hired for a major project because she did not have enough followers on her social networks.
Although this reasoning may seem fragile when exposed in this way, it is quite common among fans and “stans” of artists and works —whether they are franchises based on comics, pop singers, series, or actors.
If you’re in the habit of using Twitter, you’ve certainly seen fights between fans of Anitta and Ludmilla or Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande using numbers as an argument for the superiority of their favorite artist.
But, regardless of that, the reason why these and other artists are so successful has less to do with the talent or quality of their productions than with the commercial strategy.
This was the explanation given by tantrum in a very didactic video that summarizes well the purpose of your YouTube channel that includes semiotic analysis:
In his text, Ben Davis refers to the concept of McNamara’s Fallacy, which says that anything that cannot be quantified or measured is not relevant.
McNamara was a statistician who served in the Vietnam War using the death count as success metric. It didn’t matter to him and the rest of the army and his staff what the culture or history of Vietnam was, as long as American military superiority was properly enforced and proven in the death toll.
To complete the fallacy, data released by the Vietnamese government in 1995 indicate that 200,000 American soldiers died while 250,000 Vietnamese met the same fate. Despite having a lower death count, the United States did not emerge victorious from this conflict that lasted nearly twenty years.
However, as digital technologies advance and their numerical modus operandi prospers, we continue to bet on more or less plausible metrics.
Even because our algorithms and artificial intelligence depend on this type of data to be able to carry out any analysis.
Earlier, I even mentioned a purchase I made of an AI-curated perfume and how this algorithm analyzes photos I’ve chosen in order to relate them to fragrances. In this case, the algorithm analyzes the colors of the images sent, their tonalities, “lightness”, presence of elements of nature, people or animals to then define the perfume recipe.
In the same way that generative AIs look for patterns in the data to determine an average, K-pop also has its formula/algorithm that defines how a song should be composed by taking all the elements that are successful (i.e., numbers that prove consumption).
If writing metric-based sonnets sounded crazy and Parnassianism praised OCD, in the age of algorithms this is the norm.
And then the problem becomes a chicken or egg issue, when we know that certain content is more leveraged on social networks and, therefore, we have more content being produced in that format.
Everything is a remix of the remix, not necessarily because we are self-referential and postmodern, but because we are piggybacking on other hits to create aesthetic frankensteins —by the way, the runner-up of the last Eurovision is a good example of this.
As also raised by Ben Davis in his essay, more and more university students are focusing on technology and business areas instead of studying arts and philosophy, for example.
Between 2011 and 2020, literature and humanities courses reduced by up to two percentage points, and some institutions even decided to remove these courses from their schedules or are getting rid of their buildings.
Is not for nothing.
This change took place with the arrival of smartphones and the economic crisis of 2008. Since then, studying arts or letters in college has become a luxury, while learning to program and create a successful business has become more urgent for its own financial survival.
In the meantime, as Davis suggests, we are less concerned with understanding whether, in fact, a work of art is good and more interested in sampling that can prove it to us.
Many people are guided by the rating on IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes to decide whether to dedicate their precious time to that film or not.
Others prefer to use the box office as a benchmark, while at the same time there are fandom efforts to debunk releases to prove the point that comic book movies are better.
In Brazil, the film’s fateful story about Edir Macedo being at the top of the box office with a ghost audience says a lot about this, as does the NFT fever that exposed what had already been in practice in the art market for a long time. Not every art collector understands what that piece is about, because the important thing is to know how good that investment is to generate profits.
When youtuber Gato Galáctico vibrates when he receives a “physical NFT” from the platform, this has less to do with the image contained therein than the added value it represents.
Davis also cites the case of Sam Bankman-Fried in 2021, who sold an NFT with the word “TEST” for $270,000. His justification was that:
Visual aesthetics is not something I understand or am interested in. In general, I don’t understand paintings. I personally don’t understand what the appeal of a Rembrandt painting is. So when I see NFTs, part of me doesn’t understand their appeal either, while part of me doesn’t understand Mona Lisa’s appeal either.
In the 2000s, hipster fever dictated that the more obscure (with lower success metrics) an artist, the better. It was just the other side of the same coin that criticized those who liked the so-called mass culture, while today not only is it ok to enjoy pop divas but it is also justifiable through numbers.
Since then, as fewer people feel interested in studying art and philosophy (or humanities, in general), for legitimate reasons such as financial survival and adequacy to the requirements of the job market, we also have fewer people equipped to understand art and philosophy ( or humanities in general).
With a smaller referential and theoretical framework, we are more likely to be surprised by any “cheap fun” and to reject any deviation from this norm.
In addition, we are having less and less ability to read books because of reduced attention spans —apart from the proliferation of more or less reliable diagnoses of attention deficit disorder.
Consequently, the TikTok format explodes and multiplies.
Finally, in July, “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” will premiere together in cinemas, which is amazing and symptomatic of our moment. Despite the fact that the titles seem diametrically opposed, both Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan have a film career that runs away from Hollywood pastiche, both being Oscar winners.
It’s going to be fun to watch people’s reactions to both movies. For now, we’re still laughing and producing Peaky Blinders memes asking for tickets to the Barbie movie.
In the era of capitalist realism, self-criticism is part of the recipe, which leaves us even more bewildered – after all, does being aware of our choices and actions make us less guilty? And is there guilt when it comes to artistic taste?
Metamoderns that we are, we accept the blame in notary and we continue proudly vibrating with remix of remix. Only God, not art critics, can judge us.
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