Fame as an Illusion of Creativity: Evidence from the Pioneers of Abstract Art

If you assume that the world’s most famous artists, actors, and influencers are simply the most creative in their field, think again. There’s another factor at play: social networks. A new paper aims to show that greater creativity does not translate into an increased level of fame. Fame correlates statistically to the diversity of your personal and professional networks; it is based on the company you keep, not your product. By extension, who you know informs how people see you. The more cosmopolitan your networks, the more creative people perceive you to be, legitimizing you as an innovator and yielding more widespread fame.

Peer network of the artists in “Inventing Abstraction.” Courtesy of Paul Ingram and Mitali Banerjee.

In “Fame as an Illusion of Creativity: Evidence from the Pioneers of Abstract Art,”Paul Ingram, Chazen Senior Scholar at Columbia Business School, and Mitali Banerjee, Assistant Professor at HEC Paris, examine the link between fame, creativity, and social networks

ABSTRACT: " We build a social structural model of fame, which departs from the atomistic view of prior literature where creativity is the sole driver of fame in creative markets. We test the model in a significant empirical context: 90 pioneers of the early 20th century (1910–25) abstract art movement. We find that an artist in a brokerage rather than a closure position was likely to become more famous. This effect was not, however, associated with the artist’s creativity, which we measured using both objective computational methods and subjective expert evaluations, and which was not itself related to fame. Rather than creativity, brokerage networks were associated with cosmopolitan identities—broker’s alters were likely to differ more from each other’s nationalities–and this was the key social-structural driver of fame. -Chazen and Banerjee

ORIGINAL PAPER: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3258318


Wow, this is super great. I am really going through this now, this is one of the first times I’m seeing a clear [edit: critical] articulation of the the relationship between fame and creativity.

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The authors are still working on the paper of course, but the creativity measures need to be discussed with more humility. Why should we trust art historians surveys? Why should we trust their particular ML-derived embedding of images, how sensitive are those embeddings to things like different photography conditions etc.?

The authors certainly know that there will be glaring holes in any study that tries to tackle a gigantic concept like ‘creativity’. The writing does a pretty good job on focusing on how social status/fame is better explained by brokerage networks than creativity. It would be good to see them try a larger arsenal of diverse ‘creativity’ measures that I don’t think would be prohibitive in terms of cost/work (e.g. surveys of skilled/commercial/amateur artists ) to emphasize that they made a sincere attempt at attacking the problem of measuring ‘creativity’.

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