Will wallflower artists have their day in the sun?

Michael Kline shared an NPR story on facebook that was very interesting. The comment discussion on both the website and the fb thread were also insightful and engaging. Apparently there are issues out there that get artists talking!

The NPR story is “Good art is popular because its good. Right?“, and the idea it explores is that given the same relative starting point, the things that become successful are essentially either due to inherent quality or a matter of chance. Its a study on the nature of success (not the same thing as ‘popular’, but connected to it) but also of the psychology behind making choices of a certain kind. The essay sets the problem up like this:

The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because people believe there is something profoundly special about it, some quality so distinguishing that it deserves to be as famous as it is.

But is that true?

Several years ago, Princeton professor Matthew Salganik started thinking about success, specifically about how much of success should be attributed to the inherent qualities of the successful thing itself, and how much was just chance.

The dividing line between inherent quality and chance could be picked apart by looking at the following phenomenon:

For some essentially random reason, a group of people decided that the thing in question was really good and their attention attracted more attention until there was a herd of people who believed that it was special mostly because all the other people believed that it was, but the successful thing wasn’t in fact that special.

The way this hypothesis was tested was pretty ingenious. The experimenter set up nine groups of teenagers to review and download music from bands that were essentially unknown. They wouldn’t be influenced by previous experience of the music, so the variables affecting the study could be narrowed to other influences. Of the nine groups one was a control that could not see what other test subjects were choosing, and the other eight groups could each see what others in their group were doing. The design model was an experiment creating separate worlds with independent histories. If the control group matched the other groups then social influence would be discounted. If the same songs rose to the top in every group it would make a case for inherent qualities leading to success, the ‘right’ one would win out consistently. But if different work emerged in each of the different worlds then the conclusion would have to be that random chance and social influence have a significant role to play. And if there is such a thing as inherent quality it is either ignored, too obscure, or subsumed in different factors.

The experiment showed exactly that: In different groups widely different work became popular. If inherent quality was essentially the driver of success then the same things should have manifested in all possible worlds. But if different senses of quality emerge with different histories it says something quite other. Here’s what he found:

Different songs become popular in different histories — and not in small ways, either.

“For example, we had this song ‘Lock Down’ by the band 52 Metro,” Salganik says. “In one world this song came in first; in another world it came in 40th out of 48th. And this was exactly the same song. It’s just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings, and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small, random initial differences.”

Now obviously there are many different things that have an impact on success and failure — money, race and a laundry list of other things — and after this work, which one person in the field described as a seminal paper, Salganik went on to do similar studies with parallel worlds that suggest that quality does have at least a limited role. It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.

Chance is the thing.


Micheal’s fb thread had some great discussion, and a few of the commenters took up the suggestion that chance and marketing account for some of the same influence, and this seems right. Success and popularity are related in the sense that to become professionally successful it requires that one be recognized for one’s work. That need not be widely or to the mainstream necessarily, but at least ‘popular’ among those on whom success can be built. And this means that marketing does play a role in the wider success among art professionals. Chance plays its own part, but is not identical with it. My thoughts on that connection were:

Marketing and chance overlap in the sense that you can do things to position yourself for opportunities. You make your own luck, to an extent. If you don’t enter shows you may never be seen by ‘the right people’. If you don’t network with people in the industry you may remain anonymous to them. The article is right in pointing out that there are things besides quality that lead to professional success, and success rarely has that much to do with just the quality of the work. The art world is not by any means a meritocracy. Chance is also different from marketing in the sense that of the people who do their due diligence getting their work seen some will benefit more than others. In other words, its not just marketing. The success of marketing depends heavily on chance. Who was the juror that day? Who was in the right position at the right time to see your work? Take for instance the history of the Mona Lisa itself. It was merely a fine painting before in made the news by getting stolen about a century ago. The hype around this incident made it that much more famous. An accident of history put it in the position it now has. Doesn’t that tell us something important?

In the wild hurly burly of actual life chance does seem to dominate. It randomizes who we see, what gets seen, when its seen, in what circumstances it gets seen, and also the contingent history of its associations. But there does seem one dedicated opposition to chance: Gatekeepers. It is the job of gatekeepers to put the right things in front of the right people at the right time and in the right context. Its the job of gatekeepers to insure that the associations of what gets seen are always in the proper setting (gallery, museum, critical reviews and accreditation, sanctioned reputations, connoisseur status) and have the correct weight and value. Gatekeepers offer the preselected best of the best. Don’t they? Its what they claim, at least, and its how they get paid. Gatekeeping is an industry designed to preserve and promote standards that fly in the face of random chance. They are a point of stability in the happenstance of ordinary chaos. Right?

So the question becomes whether gatekeepers are truly the last stand against randomness or whether this is simply a calculated pose. Does the function of gatekeepers offer a guarantee that poor quality will have roadblocks and that superior quality will always have the upper hand? Doesn’t inherent quality shine through, at least where gatekeepers are concerned?

It seems so on the surface. But isn’t this precisely the same problem explored by the many worlds experiment at one step removed? How did the gatekeepers acquire their wisdom? What chain of events happened to put the standards by which they judge in place? If we start from the idea that there is such a thing as obvious quality then a possible history is revealed that brilliance simply stood out from the rest and these standouts were merely gathered into the appropriate cannons of taste and quality. Neat, simple, but also slightly absurd.

Gatekeepers are no more immune to human psychology than any other people. Not only are they the same victims of ‘social influence’ but they are in fact disciples and protagonists of ‘cumulative advantage’.  Whoever gets to pick the winners actually becomes a shortcut in that many worlds experiment. And the accidents that put them in charge of the gates are as historical and contingent as those affecting any other person with taste. They may have no greater insight into some objective sense of quality, but they certainly have their sensitivity to quality marinated in the stream of influence that the institutional setting has provided.

In that many worlds experiment over time institutions would emerge and different gatekeepers would appear with their own completely justified agendas. As I said in another post, our sense of quality is tied up in the game we think we are playing, what we aim for, and what sense of values is represented by following certain specific rules. Gatekeepers simply have the world specific tradition of contingent institutional backing that the rules they are following are the ones that count. The institution itself, however, is built from the historical accidents and random chance that brought it into being. Its evolution is anything but an example of rational intuition. Objective quality is no more represented in their hallowed halls than anywhere else….. We root for the things we have grown to love, but what those things are depend entirely on the experiences we have had, and what things our world has put in front of us with what set of values attached.

So, how are we to navigate ‘success’ when the odds are stacked in ways that aren’t even remotely measured by quality? How do we get our day in the sun?

The system of the art world has a structure. That structure is like a house built by many architects, all adding what they think is important, tweaking parts, demolishing others, but continually adding new and divergent things to the mix. Corridors loop back on themselves and dead end. Bizarre rooms are stacked against equally confounding closets. There is no consistency except that it is all somehow tied together in one place, though what happens at one end has no bearing on the things going on in other places. Its a hodgepodge of inconsistency and contradiction. The art world is home to Miley Cyrus and Stravinsky, Van Gogh and Banksy, Peter Voulkos and Michael Simon, Stephen De Staebler and Andy Goldsworthy,…….

The one lesson we should draw from the history of art is that there is anything but objective underlying quality. Universal certainty is for simple minds. The things we identify as quality are the things we learn to accept as representing quality. And as the experiment cited above demonstrates, we see the world according to what we believe we see (Check out this fascinating podcast on the placebo effect for an interesting parallel to the above study). The idea of quality carries a momentum whose trajectory is influenced by everything from gatekeepers to the marketplace, historical accident to designed marketing, social influence to cumulative advantage. And underlying all this randomness and accident is the fact of chance itself. The only consensus in art is the deafness of those shouting so loud they can no longer hear the voices of others. Art itself is a study in divergent possibility.

And maybe that’s a lot for success to fight against. Its a current in which it is difficult to swim up stream. The odds are not in our favor, even if we become expert at gaming the system, running the deeps and shallows, and hurdling the rapids. Chance has its tendrils wrapped around just about everything we do. Our studio’s can burn down or collapse in an earthquake. Our patron galleries can close their doors. Collectors can lose their expendable income or move away. We can get bored by what we are doing or need to spend more time with our families. Bad weather can drive our customers away from events. We can injure ourselves. The market can crash and the economy go belly up. Building a career is often a case of rebuilding our opportunities. Its not always a single precise track to success, but more often adroit sidesteps and long leaps into the unknown.

But the only thing that is guaranteed not to work is not making your art, not being persistent, and not giving it your all. Half assing it will only get you so far. Wimping out and being lazy are not the courage and perseverance you require. Daydreaming alone won’t put food on the table. Maybe you don’t need to be gung ho 100% of the time, but you at least have to put yourself in the position to take advantage of the opportunities when they arise. Does this have implications for those of us who are shy and who shy away from public acclaim? Do wallflowers have any chance at being seen for their hidden qualities?

Unfortunately, the art game is not something every artist is comfortable with. If success involves being seen, some artists prefer to hide out at the back of the room. People who thrive in the limelight are infinitely better suited to being seen. If you are not comfortable in front of crowds of strangers, or suffer from stage fright, you won’t be at your best doing workshops or serving on panels at conferences. You might not be at ease introducing yourselves to the gatekeepers. And you may not even be comfortable recognizing that the easier path to career ‘success’ often leads through these extrovert oriented circumstances. Shy people and wallflowers don’t always stand out because they are not in the business of standing out…..

If that experiment demonstrated that popularity accrues to what things get seen, and snowballs from there, just think of the difference between your high school class president and the nerds, geeks, and other assorted losers that I for one used to hang out with. There is a difference between wide popularity and popularity among friends. The class president was captain of the lacrosse team and the cheer leading squad, led the debate team, volunteered at the homeless shelter, dated the quarterback or some other jock, was the homecoming queen, hosted the best parties when their parents were out of town, did their homework and all the extra credit, and got straight A/B’s….. They played by the popular rules and mostly excelled. They went above and beyond, socially. They succeeded where so many others failed or dared to even go.

The one good thing about gatekeepers is that the rules they play by are not the tame social standards of the masses. Gatekeeping may be no less influenced by random chance, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of quality they support isn’t also valuable. Gatekeepers aren’t as interest in who wins class president as who is in the Math Club. Gatekeeping delights in our eccentric qualities. Its interested in the popularity found among nerds, geeks, wallflowers and many others abandoned by society’s norms. Lets face it, many folks become artists in the first place because they prefer the solitude of their studio and internal life, their imagination and the quiet time making things, to the hustle and bustle of gregarious socializing and ‘fitting in’.

The lesson? Success is too loosely defined to be a serious mantra for artists. ‘Success’ may not even be what you are after. Or, it may be the brass ring that drives your practice. You may be doing your thing because this is what you want to do, this is what you need to do, or this is what is necessary to be successful. Out art can be an ends and also a means. It may be part time or your only source of putting bread on the table. We won’t all be able to aspire to rock star status, but professional success for artists isn’t just to be found in the limelight. Sure, there are the big names that everyone knows, and if you want to be one it may take something outrageous and noteworthy to get you that attention. But there is also space for us quiet types. The games that specific gatekeepers play can be things we become good at. We don’t all need to run for class president.

And there are games besides the ones they play. We can learn to live comfortably finding our own subtle path through the marketplace. Chance doesn’t simply play one game. If there is a deep lesson here, its that we can make the best of our opportunities by also exploring new directions that get us seen by different people. Randomness itself is a doorway to new possibilities. ‘Success’ isn’t written in stone, or authorized only by the certified authorities. We can build clientèle in home sales in our neighborhoods, sell our work at local restaurants and coffee shops, do commission work for interior decorators, make work for landscaping contractors, put our art in local businesses, doctors’ offices, law offices, waiting rooms, etc. ‘Success’ can be built around so many different circumstances that don’t all require the outgoing extroversion of wide scale popularity or even the confirmation of gatekeepers. Wallflowers CAN have their day in the sun. Discover where it is shining and plant yourself there. Make chance work for YOU.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

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