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.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

24 replies on “Vanity Fair Names the “Six Greatest Living Artists””

  1. Jesus. Never mind that the list are a bunch of overhyped postmodernists–the big sticking point seems to be that they’re all white dudes. Who fucking cares. If you salt in a few women, “people of color” (stupid, disingenuous PC horseshit descriptor), does that make things better? Wah, postmodern fucking wahhhhh.

    1. I fucking care. The list reflects the art world’s appalling lack of diversity. That is an issue (postmodern or not).

  2. Jillian, read the VF article more carefully before you critique it. For one thing, the 100 persons who were invited to vote included artists, art professors, museum directors, and curators – although no dealers for the obvious reason. As far as the western white male bias, of course that is disappointing. But hardly surprising, because a vote for the Best Living Artist is a vote for a lifetime body of work, and we are all perfectly aware of who has had the best shot at producing that over the last half century.

    1. I did actually mention that artists, art professors, directors, and curators were invited to vote. Don’t worry, I read the whole thing twice. I wasn’t surprised either, but lack of surprise does not stop me from pointing out inanity.

  3. Sickening. Undiverse. Grossly ignorant of Contemporary Art. But, if you are looking at a survey of the “Greatest Living Artists” in Vanity Fair than I guess this is what you should expect. Vanity…

    Thanks for the laugh…There are so many artists excluded here that they should have published this on April 1st.

  4. So not surprised only one woman made the list. That is one of many reasons that at many Universities, they actually offer a WOMEN IN ART course. It is ridiculous that Vanity Fair would even host such a thing… let alone only asking 100 people AND leaving out the critics and writers. WTH….

  5. The Vanity Fair article reminds me of the 1949 Life magazine article “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” I enjoy the work of the six mentioned artists, but I am surprised by the lack of new blood. I learned more from the One Vote artist list than I did from the Most Voted list.

      1. I do not imply anything beyond my opinion that the superlative nature of the Vanity Fair article is reminiscent of the Pollock article. I recognize that there are, and have been, many outstanding American artists, but I find it odd that publications are focused on best, richest, etc. It would be great to see more creativity in superlatives… such as the recent Hyperallergic article “The 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World.”

  6. High profile people in the art world are just money launderers…. it makes sense theres barely any women or people of darker toned skins…. this list means nothing to me at all. I know what I like and what I don’t and I don’t like this list.

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