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3,344 People May Not Know Art but Know What They Like

Posted By Administration, Friday, July 04, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

If you ask 100 people to guess the number of jelly beans in a big glass jar, few will come close. The average of their guesses, however, will be almost exactly right.


That, in a nutshell, is the lesson of "The Wisdom of Crowds," the best-selling book by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker magazine's business columnist. When it comes to quantifiable judgments and practical decision-making, the aggregate intelligence of a large, diverse group of people apparently is usually better than that of any given individual, even if the individual is an expert on the question at hand.

So what about art? If you could capture it in a manageable form, would the collective judgment of all visitors to a major art museum be better than that of the people with Ph.D.'s, the curators or, heaven forbid, the professional critics? That is what "Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition" at the Brooklyn Museum invites us to ponder. The results are inconclusive, at best, and the exhibition itself is not very interesting to look at, but the issues it raises are fascinating.

In consultation with Mr. Surowiecki, Shelley Bernstein, the project's organizer and the museum's manager of information systems, devised a selection process intended to be as objective as possible. (Derek Powazek, a founder of jpgmag.com, and Jeffrey Kalmikoff, creator of threadless.com, were also consultants.)

Ms. Bernstein began by inviting people to submit photographs (one per person) electronically relating to the theme "Changing Faces of Brooklyn." The 389 images received were displayed on the museum's Web site without the photographers' names attached. (There are some professionals included, but basically it is an amateur contest.) Members of the public then evaluated the images one by one on a scale from "most effective" to "least effective." Judgments were cast by 3,344 people.

After the evaluation period, the top 20 percent, or 78, of the photographs were selected for the exhibition. They were printed in four sizes — from 20 by 30 inches to 5 by 7 — with the larger sizes for the higher rankings. Then all were put on display, unframed, in a random, salon-style distribution in a small gallery. Laptops are provided to explain it all to visitors.

What you see is an array of competent, traditional, magazine-style photography — mostly cityscapes, riverscapes and portraits. One of the top-ranked works, a shot by Donna Aceto of three girls in headscarves on a Coney Island roller coaster, is like a Life magazine photograph, and so are many others. One by Claudia Sohrens showing a vast, colorful field of trash filling a vacant lot is like an Andreas Gursky. Marcia Bricker Halperin's richly complicated black-and-white picture of people in a cafeteria with reflections from the front window glass layered over them has the aura of mid-20th-century Modernist photography.

Conspicuously absent are photographs that aggressively challenge mainstream taste and ideas about photography. This may have to do with who will respond to the kind of open invitation put out by the Brooklyn Museum, which is to say, people who have yet to achieve significant fame or commercial success and, probably, people who have pretty conventional ideas about photography.

In any event, whether the show proves that the crowd is better than the individual at picking quality photography is hard to say because you don't know what to compare it with. You could look at all 389 submissions yourself — they are still online — and judge whether you would have made a different selection. Or the museum could have an expert — a professional photographer, critic, curator or dealer — make another selection to compare with the crowd's picks.

But then who's to say whether the expert's show is better? You could have another crowd vote, or you could have yet another expert judge the two shows. But those judgments would also be subject to further judgment. And then, after all, maybe picking 78 images at random could make as good a show as any.

The big question is, what are the appropriate criteria for determining whether judgments, by individuals or groups, are good or true? With jelly beans, there is an exact number against which to compare guesses. With art it is less clear. The popularity of exhibitions can be measured by ticket sales; auction sales can tell you what individual artworks are worth. But what if popularity or sales are not your immediate or ultimate measures of success? The artists who make the most money are not necessarily the best artists.

What if you favor exhibitions designed to appeal not to crowds but mainly to discerning, well-informed individuals? What if you go to museums to learn from experts who have devoted long, deep and careful study to certain subjects? What if one of the things you value most in contemporary art is its resistance to mainstream taste, its willingness to forgo popularity in pursuit of ideas and experiences that few have already had?

How people arrive at consensus in the art world is worth studying. So is the tension between experts and nonexperts, which can extend to the highest reaches of the culture industry. So it is possible that Mr. Surowiecki's ideas might yet prove fruitful for the business of art. But it will take a lot more persuasive reasoning to convince anyone with a serious interest in artistic quality that "crowd-curating" is a good idea. The best you can say for "Click!" is that it's a good conversation starter.

By Ken Johnson
For The New York Times

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