The Two Cultures, and some data on the public’s response

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SEED has a set of short video responses to the question “Are we beyond the Two Cultures?”, a reference to the split between the arts & humanities types and the science types. Steven Pinker discusses several ways in which the arts can benefit from working with the sciences, such as gaining a better understanding of human attention, visual processing, and so on. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker argues that one reason that 20th C. art and architecture have been such huge flops is Modernism’s denial of a basic human nature, both in terms of how the mind works and what things push our pleasure buttons. But aside from what has been going on in academia and the art gallery world, where does the art-consuming public stand on bridging the Two Cultures?

If we are to believe Tom Wolfe’s account in From Bauhaus to Our House, in the first several decades after WWII, most of the elite considered it cool to sit in (or at least display) furniture that embodied the Modernist aesthetic. He emphasizes that Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair was particularly sought after. So, some decades later, how much does the public value Modernist design as compared to design whose forms are derived more from nature?

(The latter forms appeal to what E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” or our native apprecation for natural forms. This idea goes back at least to the mid-19th C., when the British architect Owen Jones wrote The Grammar of Ornament, available online in full and in color. It sought to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences by investigating the general laws of aesthetics in ornamentation, and especially by pointing to the central role that nature-based forms play.)

Searching’s home & garden section for Modernist keywords “Barcelona chair” gives 957 results (other searches for this item give fewer hits), “Mies” gives 435, “Corbusier” gives 284, and “Eames” (who is much more palatable) gives 1,258. Contrast this with Art Nouveau keywords: “Tiffany lamp” alone gives 10,381, while the broader “Tiffany -breakfast” (to remove Breakfast at Tiffany’s memerobilia) gives 16,565 hits. Price differences don’t seem to account for this, since the objects from both styles are moderately expensive.

The same order-of-magnitude difference shows up for searches of’s home & garden section too. “Tiffany lamp” gives 2,003 results, while “Barcelona chair” and “Mies” each give about 40, “Corbusier” gives 303, and the less-insane “Eames” gives 466.

Finally, searching gives 147 hits for “Tiffany” (Studios) and 191 for “Gaudi,” compared to only 22 for “Eames,” 38 for “Corbusier,” and 16 for “Mies.”

So, as far as the art-buying public is concerned, most people seem to belong to the Third Culture already. It’s only arts academics, critics, and others in the business of art who insist on a sharp divide between the arts & humanities and the sciences. After all, they have their territory to defend from the ever-encroaching sciences, whereas outsiders are disinterested.

I found something similar when I looked at the under- and over-valuations of composers and of painters as well: most of the art-buying public values mid-late 19th C. music and painting, mostly ignoring the Modernists.

When the elite art world abandoned its interest in the sciences, more or less as a fashion statement, it doomed itself to silliness and obscurity. Science types already read a lot outside of their main area, so we don’t have terribly far left to go. However, arts & humanities types flaunt their ignorance of the sciences — unlike Alberti or Owen Jones — so that the burden of “closing the gap” falls more on them.

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  1. Judging by what Pinker wrote, the culture divide is thriving.  
    Like it or not, 20th C. art was not a big flop. It’s been triumphantly monetized. Picassos sell as high as $90 million and are a significant theme in interior decorating and advertising.

  2. Sure it was a flop, for the most part (the Art Nouveau and Art Deco people seem to still be doing very well, though). You can’t measure demand or esteem here by profit generated, since whose paintings fetch $90 million is based on fickle elite fashions. Looking at how many (reproduced) works are sold, how large the fan-base is, etc., is better. 
    If an avant garde orchestra has 1 ticket-buyer who pays $90 million per ticket, while an arena rock band has 9 million fans who pay $10 per ticket, each group gets the same profits for the same number of performances. However, one is incredibly popular and the other is a total flop. 
    As one example, has 800 items available by Picasso but 1,100 items for Klimt. Similarly,’s home & garden section (where the decorative stuff is) has 5,648 items by Picasso but 9,614 for Klimt. 
    Klimt is 20th C, post-Impressionist, and often not incredibly representational. But he knew what the fundamentals were for pushing people’s buttons in terms of subject matter, color, line, form, ornament, composition, bla bla bla. 
    And that’s despite Picasso having enjoyed probably 1,000 times the P.R. that Klimt ever got.

  3. For Christ’s sake, agnostic. You and Pinker are just venting. Please operationalize the term “flop”.

  4. There is a huge divide looking at it from at least one angle. If your approach to the arts is informed by science, art-consumers and other artists think you’re a total weirdo. See this post of mine from yesterday for an example – – artists in general just don’t think and operate like that, or anything even remotely close to that. 
    Of course if your approach to the arts is informed by economics, then you’re just plain evil. Ha.

  5. “Flop” = below expectation, perhaps in the bottom X percentile, for some sensible measure of success — number of works available, number of works bought, etc. 
    Looking at all artists from roughly 1914 onward, they’re clearly low-scoring. Compare to painting or music from the late 19th C. 
    Now, why something was a flop is up for debate — maybe the audience is boorish and the artist brilliant, or maybe they’re discerning and the artist is a fraud. Separate question. 
    But just seeing that it was a flop? Not too hard.

  6. Jesus fucking Christ, Agnostic. “Below expectation”? Whose expectation, when? Picasso dominated the art world for as much as half a century. And even though you (n=1) don’t like him, he’s been very popular at various levels.  
    Maybe tastes have changed and Klimt has pulled ahead, but you know, shit happens and nothing lasts forever. Calling Picasso a flop is just imbecile.

  7. May be the two cultures debate is obsolete, we are more likely in an era of three “cultures”, art, science and bling. 
    Furthermore on almost every scale the bling overwhelms anything else, re The Civilization of Illiteracy.

  8. Expectation as in average. I don’t know why you keep cherry-picking Picasso when we’ve been talking about Modernists, 20th C artists, post-1914 artists, etc., in general
    For example, if you compared the Cubists as a group, the Surrealists as a group, the Abstract Expressionists as a group, or all three as a group — vs., say, the Impressionists as a group, who do you think would win? Or the Modernist architects compared to the Art Nouveau ones? 
    I’m sorry that you can’t follow the argument or see the big picture.

  9. Other forms of post-1914 art have been tremendously successful: modern novels, pop art,etc. I’m not even sure you’re correct about modernist architechture. After all, the modernish glass and brushed metal aesthetic of Ikea is everywhere.  
    The only way this hypothesis works is if you engineer your comparison groups and your metrics to make it work. I’m with Emerson on this one–it sounds like something from a mirror-universe version of The Fountainhead.

  10. I like how the guy handled “agnostic” is always the one most convinced of his infallibility.

  11. What Pinker says is that 20th C. art and architecture have been flops. I can’t speak to architecture, and I like the Blowhards when they write about it, but my criticism of 20th c. art is that it’s too decorative, too gimmicky, and too commercial — hardly a flop. Impressionism is usually considered part of modernism — usually people bitch that modern art isn’t representational enough, and impressionism isn’t (look at Cezanne).  
    We’ve had our frank exchange of views now. I guess I just don’t think that buying a Tiffany lamp has much of anything to do with an end of the Two Cultures divide.

  12. Tonio, 
    I congratulate Agnostic – and other bloggers here – of having intellect to come up with novel ways of exploring data associations, then going to the trouble of working up the data and having the cajones to post the results, whatever they may be.  
    Whether you like the results or not is immaterial, they certainly are comment worthy and often spur further analysis and discussion, which IMO is the reason to post in the first place.

  13. Plus Tonio has never heard of availability bias — he never observes me when I’m baffled because I don’t post in that case, saving posts for when I’ve already got a pretty good idea of what’s going on. 
    Unlike Matt Yglesias, or whoever, who reflexively post about the 150 ideas that pop into their mind during the day, whether they know anything or not.

  14. Check out how the CIA promoted abstract expressionism to battle communism sometime. Interesting stuff.