Scene from the series Swarm

Show me the numbers and I’ll tell you if this is good

The concept of quantitative aesthetic is dictating much of our personal taste. It’s about the number of streams, of followers, of tickets sold that will tell whether something is worth our precious time or not

Lidia Zuin
6 min readMay 16, 2023


In an article published by the end of March at ArtNews, Ben Davis presents the concept of “quantitative aesthetic”, that is, how popular taste has been dictated by metrics and statistics or how preferences can be quantified — a term that, by the way, has been popular in the tech world if you consider concepts such as the quantified self.

The idea of a quantitative aesthetic is more deeply studied by scientists that specifically research about popular taste, but what Davis discusses is how we are defining what is good art or a good artist based on numbers: the number of streams, the number of likes and followers, the number of public appearances, how often you’ll find them on official playlists, their revenue etc. The latest victim of this new mindset was the actress Elle Fanning, who didn’t get a major role due to her social media stats.

Though this reasoning seems senseless when explained like that, it is very common among fans and “stans” of artists and works — be them comic book franchises, pop singers, series or actors. If you are used to Twitter, you probably have seen fights between fans of Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande using numbers as an argument for the superiority of their preferred artist.

But, in spite of that, the reason why these and other artists are successful has less to do with their talent or the quality of their productions than it is about their commercial strategy as explained by Bira in this video (in Portuguese).

In his article, Ben Davis also refers to the McNamara Fallacy, which says that anything that cannot be quantified or measured is therefore irrelevant. McNamara was a mathematician who contributed to the strategy of the American military during the Vietnam War. He suggested that body count could be a metric of success. To him and his team, Vietnamese culture and history have no value, provided that the American superiority was granted and proved with body counts.

Rounding up to this fallacy, in 1995 the Vietnamese government released a document that pointed to a death toll of 200,000 American soldiers versus 250,000 Vietnamese soldiers. Though less Americans died in the conflict, it wasn’t the U.S. who won this war that lasted almost twenty years. However, as digital technologies advance and its mathematical modus operandi carries on, we keep betting on metrics that are more or less plausible.

After all, our algorithms and artificial intelligences are counting on that kind of data to do any analysis. Previously, I have shared my experience buying an AI-generated perfume and how its algorithm analyzes photos sent by customers in order to provide a recipe. In this case, the algorithm analyzes the colors, the shades, the “lightness” and the presence of nature, people or animals on the images sent.

As much as generative AI tries to find patterns in data to provide an average, so does K-pop use a formula/algorithm to tell whether a song will be successful or not — and success here is about revenue, streams etc. If writing sonnets with metrics seemed crazy and parnassianism an ode to OCD, in algorithmic times, that’s the norm.

Then we end up in a chicken-and-the-egg kind of situation since we know that some kinds of content are more engaging in social media and, therefore, we are going to produce more content in the same format. Everything is a remix of a remix. Not necessarily because we are self-referential and post-modern, but because we are enjoying the buzzy ride when creating aesthetic Frankenstein monsters — by the way, this year’s Eurovision second place says much about that.

As also addressed by Ben Davis in his essay, increasingly more college students are enrolling in technology and business courses rather than studying art and philosophy, for example. Between 2011 and 2020, graduate courses in literature and humanities have mingled up two figure percentages, while some institutions decided to stop offering those courses at all or repurposing their buildings.

It is no wonder. That all happened after the advent of the smartphone and the economic crisis of 2008. Since then, studying arts in university is taken as a luxury, while learning how to program or founding a successful business is much more relevant and urgent for the sake of financial sustainance.

In the meantime, as Davis suggests, we are less worried about understanding whether an artwork is really good and more dedicated to checking the sample that gives us numbers to prove that. Many people check IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes before dedicating their precious time to a movie. Others may use the box office numbers as a reference, though we know that there are actual efforts among fandoms to bump releases in order to prove that their favorite title is indeed better.

In Brazil, the evangelical bishop Edir Macedo had his biopic on the top of box office charts for weeks, though you would never meet anyone who watched or was watching the movie. Likewise, the NFT craze also made the mindset of the art market more transparent to outsiders. It is not that every art collector knows what their artworks mean, provided that they can tell whether those pieces are a good investment or not. When the Brazilian YouTuber Gato Galáctico celebrated his “physical NFT”, it is less about the image minted in NFT than the aggregated value that the piece gifted by YouTube represented.

Davis also mentions Sam Bankman-Fried who, in 2021, sold an NFT with the word “TEST” for US$ 270,000. His argument was:

Visual aesthetics are not a thing that I understand or that appeal to me very much. Paintings in general, I actually don’t get it. I don’t personally understand the appeal of a Rembrandt painting. So when I see NFTs, part of me is like, I don’t get the appeal of some of these; but part of me is like, I also don’t understand the appeal of the ‘Mona Lisa.’

In the 2000s, the hipster fever dictated that the more obscure (i.e. with worse metrics) an artist is, the better. It was just the other side of the same coin that criticized those who enjoyed mass culture, while today it’s not only fine to like pop divas but it’s also explainable through numbers.

Since then, as less people are interested in studying art and philosophy (or humanities in general), for legitimate reasons such as financial sustenance and adequation to the market demands, we also have less people equipped to understand art and philosophy (or humanities in general).

With a smaller set of references and theory, we are more prone to be surprised by any “cheap thrills” and to reject any deviances. Besides, we are increasingly more unable to read books due to our reduced attention spans — something that is also evident in the proliferation of sketchy ADHD self-diagnostics. Consequently, the TikTok format perseveres and succeeds.

Finally, in July, Oppenheimer and Barbie will be released together in the movies, a fact that is both amazing and symptomatic of our times. Though the titles seem to be completely opposite, both Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan have a history of independent productions and both are Oscar winners. It is going to be really fun to see the reaction to both films. For now, we’ll keep on laughing and creating memes of Peaky Blinders characters ordering Barbie movie tickets.

In the age of capitalist realism, self-criticism is already a feature of the product and something that makes us even more confused: after all, being conscious of our choices and acts makes us less guilty? And is there such a thing as guilt when we are talking about personal taste? Metamodern as we are, we can only accept that this is how things are and enjoy our remixes of remixes. Only God, not art critics, can judge us.



Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.