I recently read a book about big data called Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture by Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel. The book details the creation and potential uses of an algorithm the authors created to determine the frequency of particular words occurring in books over the last few hundred years. Although the book had plenty of diversions and digressions, it did make the point that big data can be used to determine certain trends from world history. Here is a chart I created, for example, that records the frequency of appearance (and allegedly, correlational popularity) of particular artists: Monet, Manet, Bouguereau, Renoir and DaVinci. There are some major problems with how these charts work, most glaringly the fact that authors may refer to Monet as Claude Monet, while referring to Leonardo DaVinci as simply DaVinci. There is no way to correct for this. However, if we can assume that the likelihood of using an artists full name is equivalent and independent of historical period and the particular artist, this chart is of some use and interest:
Monet fought his way (mostly post-humously) from Paris salon outcast to archetype of painter in the western imagination. This happened just after oil painters like William Adolphe Bouguereau achieved a technical mastery that sucked some of the soul out of representational oil painting, and during (not coincidentally in my opinion) the advent of photography. This makes me wonder if there might be some larger sociological effect that we might apply to other forms of media to make predictions about the legacies of particular artists? Perhaps we can look at artists operating with incredibly high technological precision, and then at alternative approaches by their contemporaries.
For example, I believe we have just had the good fortune to live through the golden age of western popular music, and we are now experiencing a moment of uncertain consensus regarding the cultural memory of particular bands and performers. Recording engineers and software have achieved sonic mastery–frequency curve perfection. Again, this may mean the media has been essentially exhausted of possibility and will be pushed to the margins, in the way representational oil painting was pushed to the margins by photography, film, et cetera. I think we can assume that the sonically perfect but emotionally vapid music of the early 2000’s will be remembered like the paintings of Bouguereau, while the sonically and conceptually hazy works of The Beatles and Nirvana will endure.
While I’m not a technological determinist (and I know this is too teleological) I have begun to think pretty broadly about media technology, and it’s hard not no notice patterns. Perhaps Hollywood is next? Hmm…those superhero movies look pretty amazing! Just as buzz about virtual reality is growing…
You can make your own chart (and your own predictions) here.
For a quick overview about Monet, Bouguereau, aesthetics and popular taste check out this post by Rachel Van Wylen.