Categorical Commensuration

One of the claims about commensuration is that it helps to resolve comparative issues by transforming quality into quantity. The art project I’m working on challenges this pretty fundamentally.

When I think about commensuration, I usually do so following Espeland and Stevens’ – it is an external, metric-type measure that mediates between two disparate objects. Private school 1 and public school 2 can be made comparable via test scores, percentage of kids who go to college, racial composition, etc. These measures allow us to take two qualitatively unique schools and bring them into tension. In fact, it allows us to transform qualitative qualities into quantitative qualities. Very useful for a woman deciding whether she wants to go to Wellesley or Wesleyan. Different schools, different experiences, brought into tension and comparison via rankings of matriculating students’ SAT scores, classroom ratios, reputation. If at the end of all that Wesleyan scores a 17 and Wellesley scores a 5, well, then you know what’s better.

But I think the quantitative part of this has too much importance. The critical element here is not the quantification – though that is a phenomenon in its own right – but rathe the fact that this third category can be constructed to bring them into comparison.

For instance, we can commensurate birds without a quantitative measure. Comparing robins and penguins, we can say that robins are more ‘bird-y’ than penguins are. That is, they are more central to that particular category. Likewise modern or impressionist art. Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, goes the argument, is quite literally at the center of modern art. Other pieces can be measured as a distance from that center.

This may imply a sort of quantification in principle, though not in practice (we could construct a bird-ness scale, which would re-quantify it). But the important thing is not the measure but that it can be brought into the same set of criteria via this third category or concept.

This process is not antithetical to quantification, but it encompasses quantification. Take, for instance, this discussion of art valuation from a private art advisor:

The main criteria in determining the value, like if Vincent Van Gogh goes for eighty-four million dollars in 1989, that set a world record for the most expensive painting ever bought at auction. It was bought by a Japanese banker. Well, we studied that as a case [in graduate school] and we analyzed why that, why that particular painting went for the highest price and at that particular time. Portrait of Dr. Gachet So you are understanding the market economy, okay? There was a ton of money coming in from Japan. These buyers were just inundating the market. So the timing, historical timing or economical market timing. Then you have the actual piece, which was an extremely important painting in the artist’s career. That year happens to be the year that he, I think, started, I’m probably making this up at this point, but he decided to use this yellow and this changed his entire color pallet for the rest of his career. There was like, a moment in his painting career that this was a turning point. So that makes it a critical, critical point you want to look for when you’re trying to determine the value of a piece and how it fits into the art historical context. The author is very important, so that’s the third thing. For example, artists’ historical context meaning is this painting a portrait of one of his collectors. This painting style shows a lot of movement, and this is after he was doing a lot of landscapes and it was more pastoral, and here he’s doing portraiture, and so it’s all about knowing the whole context and knowing how it all fits in.

The Portrait of Dr. Gachet went for $82.5 million in 1990 to a wealthy Japanese industrialist. [Side-story, for those who dig art-world intrigue: no one knows where this painting is today, or whether it exists still].

The point she makes here is that a picture’s monetary value will be relative to its centrality – it turns out that almost all of the respondents so far have used the expression ‘important’ to describe the objects they are valuing. A turning-point picture, from a turning-point artist, etc etc. This may be similar to the reputational rankings that we see in schools, programs, and the like, but here the commensuration exists without the ranking. There is quite a bit of uncertainty as to what is most important, but the ways that experts here are doing valuations is clearly relational and commensurative without being necessarily quantifying.

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