The $2 Million Urinal: Why Hard Work Doesn’t Cut It

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp walked into a plumbing supply store in New York City and selected what’s known as a Bedfordshire-style urinal from the array of bathroom fixtures on offer. When he returned to his studio with his gleaming porcelain find, he laid it on its back, signed it “R. Mutt,” named it Fountain, and called it art. Displayed at an angle and out of its normal context, it was oddly beautiful, but aesthetics weren’t really the point. Duchamp submitted the signed urinal to the Society of Independent Artists—which he served as the founder and director of—for exhibition. The society was so forward-thinking that its stated purpose, in fact, was to avoid the highbrow selectivity of stuffy museums. Instead, curators vowed to accept works by anyone who wished to be included, as long as they paid a small membership fee. The exhibition was the largest of its kind, and it nonjudgmentally featured art by big names and complete unknowns in the same space.

But Fountain was too much even for the society’s open-minded curators. Not only did Duchamp anonymously submit a functional, premade object to an art exhibit, which was unheard of at the time, but he chose a deeply impolite urinal. The society balked, refusing to display the piece. And so Fountain met an unceremonious end. Only a single photograph of it, by Alfred Stieglitz, survives. The urinal itself was presumably discarded in an early-twentieth-century trash heap, buried among the flotsam and jetsam of a bygone era.

The point Duchamp was making, though, lives on. The piece was an in-your-face provocation, one that shook the very foundation of the art world. Today, many art historians consider Fountain to be the single most important work of modern art. To give you a sense of its importance, Dimitri Daskalopoulos, a Greek collector, forked over almost $2 million in 1997, and not even for the discarded original. He paid that sum for one of seventeen replicas released fifty years later by Duchamp’s dealer. “For me,” Daskalopoulos said, “it represents the origins of contemporary art.”

Fountain illustrates how difficult it is to understand success in areas where quality and performance are inherently absent.

Fountain illustrates how difficult it is to understand success in areas where quality and performance are inherently absent. As an art collector myself, I’m choosing my words carefully. But I do mean to say that there is no quality in art. I’m not being disparaging. I make time to visit contemporary art museums and stop by galleries in every city I travel to. Still, I’m also taken aback by the extraordinary value of some of these pieces, especially considering these price tags do not reflect inherent quality. The simple truth is we have no way of objectively determining the value of any work of art or the performance of its maker. And so all forms of art—poetry, sculpture, novels, even a badly executed interpretive dance—are, essentially, priceless. So how, then, do we explain the myriad of masterpieces that have fetched more than a hundred million dollars in recent decades?

The art world is a wonderful illustration of the First Law of Success:

Performance drives success, but when performance can’t be measured, networks drive success.

If we have metrics to use—on the tennis court, say, or in your business’s quarterly reports—it is performance that drives success. It’s easy to spot the difference between a professional athlete and an amateur when they play the links side by side. We respond by rewarding excellent performers financially and socially, often in disproportionate measure. But if you hang a piece of modern art next to a child’s finger painting, grumpy uncles are wont to say that they look exactly the same. I don’t agree, but they do have a point: determining which work is “better” is sometimes a tricky proposition. We can take cues from context and make an educated guess. One hangs on a kitchen refrigerator, the other on a gallery wall. One hangs in a small-town gallery, the other in New York’s MoMA. One sells for $50, the other for $5 million. The Duchampian reality is that these cues shape our perception, frame our understanding, and set the market price. They are also shaped by networks.

The key to success in the art world? Networks, networks, networks

I have spent the past two decades documenting how networks work in numerous realms from genetics to business, but until recently, anyway, art was not one of them. That’s because the art world is as secretive as the Swiss banking system. So much so that even art world insiders—the very people whose job is to help particular artists on their path to success—often have a limited understanding of why a particular work lands in a major museum or sells for dazzling sums at auction.

Luckily, data is a genie that’s hard to keep stuffed in a bottle. When I dropped in on a meeting with Chris Riedl, a young faculty member at the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University, and his postdoc, Sam Fraiberger, I expected to learn more about Chris’s research into T-shirt sales. But my ears perked up at the end of the meeting, when Sam mentioned that he had access to a massive trove of data pertaining to the art world.

And according to Sam, here it was: really big data, capturing the careers of roughly half a million artists working worldwide from 1980 to 2016. It contained details on hundreds of thousands of exhibitions at more than 14,000 galleries and close to 8,000 museums over the thirty-five-year time frame. It also included information about the nearly 3 million artworks sold at auction during that same period. The data was provided to us by Magnus Resch, a German art historian living in New York, who built Magnus, an app designed to help art lovers recognize and price artwork in galleries and museums.

The Magnus data allowed us to pull up an artist at random and examine his or her full artistic career. For example, I was curious about Mark Grotjahn, an abstract painter featured recently in the New York Times for doing something unusual in the art world: he took an active role in managing his own career, sidestepping dealers and setting his own prices. That’s taboo—but, at least in his case, highly effective. Using Magnus’s data set, I could look at Grotjahn in isolation, observing the rapid increase in prices that his tactics induced. Grotjahn sold only one painting at his second solo show—for a lowly $1,750—and none at his first. In the mid-2000s, he started exhibiting very aggressively, which boosted his sales. His best sale to date, in 2017, was for almost $17 million for a piece on auction at Christie’s in New York. This is helpful information if you’re interested in Mark Grotjahn and curious about the worth of his art. But if we want to capture how Grotjahn got where he is, we need to look past his specific individual career and examine the unseen network responsible for his success. Because that network isn’t specific to Grotjahn. In fact, all artists’ success relies on it.

Examples of work by abstract painter Mark Grotjahn. From left to right: Untitled (Pink Butterfly MO2G), Untitled (Three-tiered Perspective), and Untitled (Full Color Butterfly for Hillary 47.22)/Gagosian

Multiple dependencies govern how the art world places value on an individual work. Artists derive prestige from their affiliations with specific galleries and museums; in turn, the prestige of these institutions stems from the perceived importance of the artists they represent and exhibit. In other words, there’s a symbiotic relationship between artists and institutions, and it’s based on little more than mutual belief in one another. Artists want nothing more than to have their work exhibited at esteemed galleries, and galleries succeed or fail by attracting well-regarded artists. That means that prestige in the art world is as subjective as it is valuable. And value is created by invisible and visible influences; numerous, often conflicting interests; and lots and lots of money.

The Magnus data set offered us a way to observe and analyze the millions of tacit transactions that determine the emergence of influence in art. By reconstructing the exhibition histories of half a million artists, we could unveil the network that offered access to coveted institutions. We did so by mapping the unseen links that shape how artists move among galleries and museums. Two institutions—say, Museum A and Gallery B—are linked if an artist who exhibited at Museum A moves next to Gallery B.

Why is this a meaningful way to link institutions? Because curators look to one another to validate their decisions. If a gallery sees that an artist is exhibited by other institutions whose instincts it trusts, it’s far more likely to take that artist on. So moving your artwork from A to B is not merely a transaction. It’s preceded by a lot of research, consideration, and valuation on the part of gallerists and curators.

No matter the field, discipline, or industry, if we want to succeed, we must master the networks…The harder it is to measure performance, the less performance matters.

The outcome of our effort was a map that captured how art moves around the world. There were a few major hubs, which represented the few institutions that were linked to an exceptional number of other institutions. The network’s hubs were, without exception, the art world’s most influential galleries and museums—New York’s MoMA, Guggenheim, and Gagosian Gallery, trailed closely by the Pace Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.—all American exhibition spaces. These were densely linked to European institutions like the Tate, Centre Pompidou, and Reina Sofia.

If your work is exhibited at one of these hubs, it’s as if you hop onto a merry-go-round of success, looping around and around to other major institutions with ease. Your sales and the skyrocketing price tags on your work also become a foregone conclusion. These hubs are the conduits of artistic success. By showing at major galleries or museums, you’re guaranteed to be a superstar in the art world.

But as we looked more carefully at artists’ routes to success, we found that there are only a select number of galleries that will catapult your career to superstardom. Instead, most galleries and museums are part of tightly knit communities that are so busy networking among themselves that they hardly connect to the main cluster. If you’re an artist working with one of these “island” galleries, and another one of its institutions opens its gates to you, you can easily access all other galleries on that island. But you’ll be trapped there—none of them can teleport you to the mainland, where the action is.

Reframing how to get to the top

Performance needs to be empowered by opportunity. It’s time to reframe the all-too-frequent assumption that aiming for the top means scraping our way up from the bottom. If performance in all professional realms were as cut-and-dried as in tennis, that might work. But climbing the corporate ladder isn’t realistic if we can’t prove we’re the best at what we do. Instead, we need to bring the corner office or that prestigious gallery or that hoped-for interview closer to us.

The Gamble by J.K. Rofling

How? Replace the corporate ladder with a social bridge. We never work in isolation—even when we think we do. Our collective definition of success requires us to think about the ways that our work impacts others. If we want to bring the world-up-there nearer to our doorsteps, we need to find the hubs that can accelerate our trajectories and reach out to them. We need the ambition to aim for the top right away. That’s what Ivy League applicants and skillful young tennis players do. That’s what the big names in the art world do. And that’s what good networkers do. No matter the field, discipline, or industry, if we want to succeed, we must master the networks. Because as the First Law of Success reminds us, the harder it is to measure performance, the less performance matters.

Adapted from The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success. Copyright © 2018 by Albert-László Barabási. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.