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

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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…

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Lidia Zuin

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