In a bold example of art journalism, Vanity Fair has attempted to answer the question that’s been burning a hole in everyone’s brain for ages: Who are the six greatest living artists? If you haven’t been wondering this, you clearly aren’t reading enough Art Review.
To answer this “provocative” question, Vanity Fair conducted a poll. The magazine asked 100 “professors of art” (art historians? scholars? people interested in mostly dead artists?), curators, and living artists themselves to name the six most important living artists. Why six was chosen as the magic number is anyone’s guess. Why they, a magazine, didn’t ask any writers or critics, is also mystifying. Don’t worry, though: they didn’t include any art dealers, because those people are too biased. Unlike living artists and museum curators.
The magazine, it should be noted, asked 100 people, only 54 of whom responded. With that in mind, here are the results:
1. Gerhard Richter
2. Jasper Johns
3. Richard Serra
4. Bruce Nauman
5. Cindy Sherman
6. Ellsworth Kelly
Crazy, right?! No one saw any of these coming. The fact that this list is all white, five-sixths male, and five-sixths American is totally unsurprising!
To be fair, the final, comprehensive list beyond the top six “reveals an astonishing lack of consensus. The 54 people who voted came up with a total of 140 artists.” That is a reassuringly large number, and as you get to the bottom of the list, things get more diverse. But moving from the top 6 to the top 15, only one more woman enters the field (Kara Walker), only two more non-Americans (Ai Weiwei and William Kentridge), and only three more people of color (Walker, Ai, and David Hammons). If anything, I’d say the list reveals a disheartening shortsightedness, made all the more depressing by the fact that it was compiled by some of the most high-profile people in the art world today, including Guggenheim Director Richard Armstrong, MoMA Director Glenn Lowry, Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin, and Serpentine Gallery Co-Director Julia Peyton-Jones.
Vanity Fair chose De Kooning biographer and art critic Mark Stevens to write up the results, and following the revelation of the list, he meditates on the connections between the winning (because that’s what they really are, right?) artists. Stevens concludes that they all share an “uneasy and provocative quality” of some kind of postmodern “I.” This, my postmodern I would argue, is a bit like saying they all share the quality of being an artist. Stevens does rightly point out that the list seems to reflect the ongoing marginalization of certain media, namely photography (Sherman is one of very few photographers on there) and performance art.
Undoubtedly the best nugget of information in this latest example of the banality of lists is a little buried, so I will pull it out for you: Richard Serra voted for himself. So, too, did the Bruce High Quality Foundation — which we can only hope, but never say with certainty, was a joke.