Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
The masters, truth to tell, are judged as much by their influence as by their works.Emile Zola, 1884
Important artists are innovators: they are important because they change the way their successors work. The more widespread, and the more profound, the changes due to the work of any artist, the greater is the importance of that artist.
Recognizing the source of artistic importance points to a method of measuring it. Surveys of art history are narratives of the contributions of individual artists. These narratives describe and explain the changes that have occurred over time in artists' practices. It follows that the importance of an artist can be measured by the attention to his work in these narratives. The most important artists, whose contributions fundamentally change the course of their discipline, cannot be omitted from any such narrative, and their innovations must be analyzed at length; less important artists can either be included or excluded, depending on the length of the specific narrative treatment and the tastes of the author, and if they are included their contributions can be treated more summarily. The judgments of different authors can of course differ. Surveying a large number of narratives can reduce the impact of idiosyncratic opinions, and serves to reveal the general consensus of expert opinion as to the relative importance of the artists considered.