May 3, 2012
An unidentified buyer purchased Edvard Munch’s The Scream for nearly $120 million at auction on Wednesday. Despite the phenomenal popularity of The Scream, it's likely that few people outside of Norway could name another Munch painting. Are there one-hit wonders in the world of fine art?
Yes. Plenty of painters have managed to capture the public’s attention with a single work of genius, while their other work remains relatively unknown. The best known to Americans is Grant Wood, who painted American Gothic, but Théodore Géricault (The Raft of the Medusa) and Antoine-Jean Gros (Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa) are also classic examples. These artists produced plenty of other work before and after creating their masterpieces, but none earned them much public notice or critical acclaim.
University of Chicago economist David Galenson has compiled a list of one-hit-wonder artists in recent history, based on the number of mentions their masterpieces have received in scholarly literature, compared to mentions of their lesser works. According to this approach, the sculptor and landscape artist Maya Lin might be the classic one-hit wonder. When she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. while still a college student in 1981, her work was absolutely revolutionary. Before Lin, war memorials almost always featured statues of soldiers. (Think of the Iwo Jima Memorial.) Today, they almost never do. And yet, Maya Lin hasn’t produced anything else that's been deemed worthy of much talk in academic circles.
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