The Rules and Rationale of the Infinite Tournament

The Infinite Art Tournament is an interactive, democratic, long-term exercise in art appreciation.  In form, it is an unnecessarily complex double-elimination tournament in which 596 diverse artists are placed in more or less arbitrary pairings.  Blog readers or passers-by are encouraged to express their preference between the two artists paired; artists who get more votes will advance in the tournament, while those who get fewer votes will eventually be eliminated.

Please note: It is in no way important to understand the rules.  The rules and the bracket technicalities are, for me and for a handful of like-minded readers, kind of fun in a mock-serious sort of way.  But that is a sideshow.  Their entire function is to serve as a sort of randomizing element that, two or three times a week, brings the work of two artists together.  At that point, you are invited to look at some paintings and say which ones you like better.

But if you're curious, here's what goes on under the hood.
I: Basic Tournament Rules
II: Advanced and Rather Dorky Bracket Details (I recommend skipping this part)
III: Questions and Answers 
I. Basic Tournament Rules

1. Participating Artists  Five hundred of the tournament artists, who are evidently thought to be "great" and/or "important," come from a preexisting list.  I did not create this list myself.  It is somewhat conservative, slightly dated, and, like any such list, has its share of quirks.  It unquestionably privileges "high art" over "popular art," and the Western tradition over all others.  It exclusively features identified, individual artists of whom at least a name is known.  Most artists on the list are painters, with a scattering of sculptors among them.  It is, for its flaws, a pretty good list.

To supplement the original list, and to bring the number of participants up to a total that works well in a bracket system, a supplementary list of 96 additional "Play-In Artists" was compiled from reader nominations.  It includes a number of photographers, land artists, and other non-painters and non-sculptors.  It brings many contemporary artists and a handful of identifiable but anonymous artists to the field.  The "Play-In Tournament" has its own unnecessarily complex set of rules; by the summer of 2014, it will have generated 12 winning artists who will enter the main tournament at the same level as the original 500 participants.

2. First-Round Matches  Most Saturdays, two artists from the original list are matched against each other. Each artist is represented by two paintings, one of which is "automatic" -- externally dictated -- and one which is chosen by me to represent, as best as I can make it out, the artist's overall output or claim to fame.

3. Voting  Anyone can vote.  Votes are usually given in blog comments, but they are occasionally cast on the Facebook repost, by email, or even by postcard.  Voters may advocate for their artist, suggest links or provide additional information, praise or denigrate one or both artists, or just indicate their preference.  It is also permissible to change or withdraw one's vote at any time before votes are counted.

The one requirement for voting is that a name or internet alias must be provided.  Obviously, you don't need to divulge your real name.  However, purely anonymous votes are not counted.

Voting is left open on any given match for at least a month.  In practice, this is usually more than two months and often very much longer.  No formal notice is given prior to the determination that voting is closed.

4. Winning and Losing  The artist who gets the most votes wins.  He or she will continue from the First Round to the Second Round, from the Second Round to the Third Round, and so on.  As an artist progresses into the tournament, the number of paintings representing his or her work is gradually increased.

When an artist loses for the first time, he or she moves to the "Left Bracket."  Voting is the same in the Left Bracket as it is in the Right Bracket.  However, when an artist loses in the left bracket, he or she is eliminated from the tournament.

II. Advanced and Rather Dorky Bracket Details

(Again, I recommend skipping this part unless you find this kind of thing diverting.)

1. Movement through the Brackets  The Right Bracket is quite simple to understand: by winning their matches, winners progress from the First Round to the Second Round, from the Second Round to the Third Round, and so on.  Here's an example in which the "upper" artist in each pairing always wins:

The "Left Bracket" is what would sometimes be called the "Losers' Bracket," where the artists with one loss apiece struggle to remain in the tournament.  Winners progress in the brackets moving leftward; losers in the Left Bracket have had two losses and drop out of the tournament.

2. "Elimination" in the Left Bracket  After a First Round contest, no artists leave the tournament.  The First Round losers enter the Left Bracket in "First Round Elimination," which features artists with a 0-1 win/loss record competing against others who are also 0-1.  (First Round Elimination matches, unlike all other rounds, are held in pairs -- two matches in a single post).  This round "eliminates" half of the left bracket participants, who leave the tournament with a record of 0-2.  The winners of those matches have now won one match and lost one match.

Meanwhile, in the Right Bracket, all 1-0 artists compete in Round Two.  Those who win will have records of 2-0 and advance to Round Three.  Those who lose have records of 1-1, and enter the Left Bracket Round Two against the winners of Left Bracket First Round Elimination.  When moving from Right Bracket to Left Bracket, Artists are always swapped between adjacent brackets (as per Artists #3 and #7 in the Second Round of the diagram above, or Artists #5 and #13 in the Third Round).  This is to avoid an excess of "Grudge Matches," in which artists who have already been matched meet for a second time.  Grudge Matches are still possible (eg.: Artist #3 beats Artist #1 in the Second Round, Artist #1 beats Artist #6 in the Left Bracket Second Round, and Artist #1 and Artist #2 meet for a rematch in Left Bracket Second Round Elimination) but should be relatively uncommon.

As I mentioned above, you don't need to understand any of this to enjoy the tournament.

Several people have challenged the need for and the nomenclature of the "Elimination" Rounds.  No, really, I get it a lot.  Here's the deal: In the Left Bracket, when losers from the Right Bracket enter, they double the number of artists in the bracket.  The artists then pair off, and half of them exit the tournament after losing their second match -- but this means that the total number of artists in the Left Bracket is unchanged.  In order for there to be the right number of competitors still standing to meet the next wave of Right Bracket losers, there needs to be an extra round of contests to "eliminate" half of the Left Bracket.

This makes the Left Bracket hard to survive in -- you have to win twice as many contests to stay in the Tournament.  On the other hand, the Right Bracket presumably gets more difficult to stay in too, as it involves competing exclusively against unbeaten artists.

3. Handling Ties  Ties are declared if both artists have the same number of votes at the moment when I happen to make the official vote count.  Once declared, they may not be resolved by an additional vote, or the retraction of a prior vote.

Ties are handled differently in the First Round than in all subsequent rounds.

First Round: When a tie is determined in the First Round, the pairing is temporarily removed from the bracket, and all subsequent pairings are moved up one spot (which can make random but potentially meaningful changes in which artists meet in the Second and subsequent rounds).  Then, as the twelve winners from the Play-In Tournament are determined, they will play their first game in the general Tournament against these tied First-Round participants.  These matches will be placed as the first of the four possible matches in bracket clusters of eight (eg. the Artist #1/#2 match or the Artist #9/#10 match in the diagram above).

This process will re-enter the twelve artists from the first six ties in the First Round.  The first artist from the seventh First-Round tie will be held in suspension.  The first artist from the second tie will then compete against the second artist from the first tie; the first artist from the third tie will compete against the second artist from the second tie, and so on, in a simple offsetting process.  These tiebreak games will occupy the same spot in the brackets as the play-in games -- the first of the four matches in a bracket cluster of eight -- and will be played no sooner than three months after the discovery of the most recent tie involved.  The exception will be a contest between the second artist of the last tie and the artist brought back from suspension; this will be the last First Round contest of the entire tournament.  If that's a tie, it will be resolved by removing my personal vote.

Remember, none of this is in any way important.  The point is to look at and enjoy the art.

All Other Rounds: When a tie is determined in any other round, that match is placed on hold.   Any other open matches that depend on its resolution to determine the next opponent for their winners or losers are kept open for voting until the tie is resolved.

Resolution of the tie may occur when there is a second tie in the same tournament round.  When that occurs, a match is scheduled between the two "upper" artists of the two ties, and this match is considered to occupy the bracket location of the "upper," or original, tie.  The two "lower" artists similarly compete in the bracket location of the "lower," second tie.

As the tournament enters its later stages, if it appears that there will be an unresolved tie in a particular round,  the final match of that round will not be held, but will be treated as if it were a tie, and its artists played against the artists from the unresolved tie in the manner described above.  If one of those contests results in a tie, it will be resolved by removing my personal vote.  (If both were ties, however, the normal tiebreaking mechanism could still be used.  I probably should have gone to law school.)

4. Selection of Images  As mentioned above, each artist is represented in the first round by two images, one of which is "automatic" -- externally dictated -- and one which is chosen by me to represent, as best as I can make it out, the artist's overall output, claim to fame, or shtick.  In each of the Second, Third, and Fourth Rounds, in either the Right or Left Bracket, an additional image is added to represent the artist.

Exception: in tie-break matches, or First Round matches for the play-in artists, each artist will be represented by one more image than normal for that Round.

I have a system in place for selecting these additional images that limits or in many cases eliminates the element of personal choice, and a standard procedure for the order in which the images are presented; this keeps me from being able to manipulate the presentation of images for the benefit of an individual artist.  Whenever my personal choice must be involved in image selection, I simply make a good-faith effort to represent an artist to his or her best advantage.  If it becomes possible to replace a poor-quality image with a superior one of the same piece, this can be done at any time, even during active voting.

III. Questions and Answers

Q: Why is there an Infinite Art Tournament?
A: Because it amuses me. Because I hope that it might amuse others. Because art, and knowledge and appreciation of art, leads to a modestly enhanced experience of life. Because it’s refreshing to approach Art History, with its reasonable but sometimes tedious preoccupation with schools, regions, and centuries, from the randomizing flight path of alphabetical order.

Q: Doesn’t being the artist that comes first on the page give that artist an unfair advantage/disadvantage?
A: Perhaps.

Q: Do YOU vote, Michael5000?
A: Yes.  I usually wait for several days after a match is posted, to make sure I'm not putting too much personal spin on the voting.

Q: What if a whole bunch of new people started showing up just to vote in the tournament?
A: That would be cool.

Q: Do you really intend to see this thing through?
A: If contests began regularly attracting fewer than ten voters, then the project would probably be mothballed or terminated.  Otherwise, as long as it’s fun to me and to a modest quorum, and I’m able to do it, I imagine I’ll keep pushing it along.   I think it's fun.

Q: It's not really "infinite," you know.
A: Yes.  I exaggerate for comic effect.

Q: This is silly! / pointless! / shallow! / methodologically flawed!
A: Yes and no.  Like most things, it is what you make of it.

Q: This is like comparing apples and oranges!
A: That's three in a row that aren't really questions.

Q: Fine.  Isn't this like comparing apples and oranges?
A: Yes, it is much like comparing apples and oranges. They are different things, but in that they are both similarly sized tree fruits, they are much, much more similar to each other than they are to almost all other things. On this basis, it is very reasonable to compare them, as in fact people do all the time. People do not stand in the produce section complaining that the store is asking them to choose between apples and oranges; they simply select the fruits that they prefer.

Q: But that's just sophistry!  You know that I mean, like, isn't this like comparing apples and oranges in the metaphorical sense, meaning comparing two things that it does not make sense to compare?
A: It is like that only to the extent that it involves comparing things in a way different than the way they are usually compared.  I do not see why this should be a problem.  For me, it is a strength -- the whole point, perhaps -- of the exercise.  Art History as it is usually presented is tremendously shaped by schools, categories, and classifications.  This is very valid!  Studying art this way often helps a person understand and appreciate it better.  But at the same time, taxonomy can become a filter between the viewer and the art, replacing the desire to see, experience, and engage with a piece with the impulse to categorize it correctly.  Placing the work of two artists chosen essentially at random in juxtaposition is, well, an invitation to see the work itself, outside of its usual contexts.

Q: This is cool.  Can I help?
A: Sure!
1) One way is to let me know when you see errors, broken links, inconsistencies, typos, and the like.  This thing has a hell of a lot of moving parts, and it's hard to catch all the mistakes.

2) Obviously, if you have friends who like art, or ought to like art, or who are simply process junkies, you might suggest that they join the voting community. If you have students, you might consider forcing them to join the voting community, although we should probably talk first.

3) If you're serious, and have some hours to kill, an internship wouldn't be out of the question.  Contact me at InfiniteArtTournament, at the leading free internet email provider offered by the Google Corporation, to discuss.

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