How Artists Get Famous: A Physicist Reveals How Networks (and Not Just Talent) Contribute to Artistic Success

“The inhab­i­tants of fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Flo­rence includ­ed Brunelleschi, Ghib­er­ti, Donatel­lo, Masac­cio, Fil­ip­po Lip­pi, Fra Angeli­co, Ver­roc­chio, Bot­ti­cel­li, Leonar­do, and Michelan­ge­lo,” writes tech investor and essay­ist Paul Gra­ham. “Milan at the time was as big as Flo­rence. How many fif­teenth cen­tu­ry Milanese artists can you name?” Once you get think­ing about the ques­tion of “what hap­pened to the Milanese Leonar­do,” it’s hard to stop. So it seems to have been for net­work physi­cist Albert-Lás­zló Barabási, whose work on the dis­tri­b­u­tion of sci­en­tif­ic genius we fea­tured last month here on Open Cul­ture. Gra­ham’s spec­u­la­tion also applied to that line of inquiry, but it applies much more direct­ly to Barabási’s work on artis­tic fame.

“In the con­tem­po­rary art con­text, the val­ue of an art­work is deter­mined by very com­plex net­works,” Barabási explains in the Big Think video above. Fac­tors include “who is the artist, where has that artist exhib­it­ed before, where was that work exhib­it­ed before, who owns it and who owned it before, and how these mul­ti­ple links con­nect to the canon and to art his­to­ry in gen­er­al.” In search of a clear­er under­stand­ing of their rel­a­tive impor­tance and the nature of their inter­ac­tions, he and a team of researchers gath­ered all the rel­e­vant data to pro­duce “a world­wide map of insti­tu­tions, where it turned out that the most cen­tral nodes — the most con­nect­ed nodes — hap­pened to be also the most pres­ti­gious muse­ums: MoMA, Tate, Gagosian Gallery.”

So far, this may come as no great sur­prise to any­one famil­iar with the art world. But the most inter­est­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of this net­work map, Barabási says, is that it “allowed us to pre­dict artis­tic suc­cess. That is, if you give me an artist and their first five exhibits, I’d put them on the map and we could fast-for­ward their career to where they’re going to be ten, twen­ty years from now.” In the past, the artists who made it big tend­ed to start their career in some prox­im­i­ty to the map’s cen­tral institutions.“It’s very dif­fi­cult for some­body to enter from the periph­ery. But our research shows that it’s pos­si­ble”: such artists “exhib­it­ed every­where they were will­ing to show their work,” even­tu­al­ly mak­ing influ­en­tial con­nec­tions by these “many ran­dom acts of exhi­bi­tion.”

This research, pub­lished a few years ago in Sci­ence, “con­firms how impor­tant net­works are in art, and how impor­tant it is for an artist to real­ly under­stand the net­works in which their work is embed­ded.” Loca­tion mat­ters a great deal, but that does­n’t con­sign tal­ent to irrel­e­vance. The more tal­ent­ed artists are, “the more and high­er-lev­el insti­tu­tions are will­ing to work with them.” If you’re an artist, “who was will­ing to work with you in your first five exhibits is already a mea­sure of your tal­ent and your future jour­ney in the art world.” But even if you’re not an artist, you under­es­ti­mate simul­ta­ne­ous impor­tance of abil­i­ty and con­nec­tions — and how those two fac­tors inter­act with each oth­er — at your per­il. From art to sci­ence to insur­ance claims adjust­ment to pro­fes­sion­al bowl­ing, every field involves net­works: net­works that, as Barabási’s work has shown us, aren’t always vis­i­ble.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Does It Take to Be a Great Artist?: An Aging Painter Reflects on His Cre­ative Process & Why He Will Nev­er Be a Picas­so

An Inter­ac­tive Social Net­work of Abstract Artists: Kandin­sky, Picas­so, Bran­cusi & Many More

21 Artists Give “Advice to the Young:” Vital Lessons from Lau­rie Ander­son, David Byrne, Umber­to Eco, Pat­ti Smith & More

An Ani­mat­ed Bill Mur­ray on the Advan­tages & Dis­ad­van­tages of Fame

Why Ein­stein Was a “Peer­less” Genius, and Hawk­ing Was an “Ordi­nary” Genius: A Sci­en­tist Explains

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Sal Restivo says:

    This is not physics spec­u­la­tion, it is emi­nent­ly soci­o­log­i­cal sci­ence. See Ran­dall Collins, The Soci­ol­o­gy of Philoso­phies (Har­vard, 1998); Sal Resti­vo, Einstein’s Brain:,Genius, Cul­ture, and Social Net­works (Pal­grave, 2020); Helene Mialet, Hawk­ing Incor­po­rat­ed (Chica­go, 2010). Social net­works are the cru­cibles of ideas, not indi­vid­u­als or brains. Genius­es emerge in genius clus­ters, and genius clus­ters are asso­ci­at­ed with declin­ing and ris­ing civ­i­liza­tion­al areas.

  • Gene Cooper says:

    Good ideas to think about

  • Maxim says:

    Visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion devolved through the 20th cen­tu­ry from art back into graph­ic design. Post war, the art mar­ket moved from Europe to New York, & NY did what it does best — mar­ket­ing. Cre­at­ing tastes & cater­ing to them. Some folks are not afraid to say it —

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