Recent studies of young people in the act of choosing music have shed some light on how the art game works. Teenagers in an online study were asked to rate a wide choice of unknown bands and new songs. One test group listened in isolation while other groups (known as “social influence groups”) were allowed to share their opinions and interests as they listened. In most cases the better songs (by industry standards) tended to rate highly, while the poorer songs tended to be lower in the kids’ estimation. The middle ground of “average” songs is where things got interesting. In the groups that shared the experience, a perfectly ordinary song might go to the top if just a few started enthusing about it.
Peter Hedstrom of Oxford University says the study shows that social influence is a major factor in explaining people’s actions. “Popular songs became more popular,” he said, “and unpopular songs became less popular when individuals influenced one another. The more influence, the more difficult it becomes to predict what’s going to be popular.”
Artists who use the gallery system may have noted their work gathering dust while inferior work is going like hot cross buns at Easter. In many cases, all that’s missing is the action of social influence. Also, many of us have noted “runs” where for a while our own work is really ringing the register. This, incidentally, is one argument for having fewer dealers and greater inventory in each — dealers can be ready when the bonanzas happen. Funny how a dealer’s remark, “We sold five of this artist’s work last week” will increase the stampede. People feel better liking things that others also appear to like. Many people simply like doing things that other people do. This is why the convention of the solo show will continue to work for a while yet. People are gregarious. Red dots are contagious.
An extreme example is Andy Warhol and his prints. For a while everyone wanted at least one of his repetitious, inexpensively-done silkscreens of celebrities. Warhol himself was his own best advocate. His art was the art of media — even a trip to his hairdresser was magazine fodder. He engineered events, photo-ops and timed publications that made people aware. Dealers, critics and celebrities got on the bandwagon. People soon saw other people getting his stuff and thought they ought to have some, too.
PS: “Toss in a stone and begin your own ripples of influence.” (Joy Cooper )
Esoterica: It may seem contrary, but something could be said for letting social influence come about by natural causes. Without the benefit of ballyhoo, quality is often quietly noted and acted upon. These days, a high percentage of collectors prefer to think they are making up their own minds. Grants, endorsements, hype, or too much gallery pressure can actually be the kiss of death. The idea is for the artist to be discovered, appreciated and collected–one friend at a time. More art is quietly and subtly sold on Saturday nights in the dining rooms of friends than this world dreams of.
This letter was originally published as “Social influence” on February 14, 2006.
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