Social influence


Dear Artist,

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. It was in the middle ground of “average” songs 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 — so that 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.


print by Andy Warhol

Best regards,


PS: “Toss in a stone and begin your own ripples of influence.” (Joy Cooper)

Esoterica: It may seem contrary, but there is something to 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 that 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.


The Tipping Point
by Lynette Miller, Asheville, NC, USA


“Terra Incognito”
by Lynette Miller

For those interested in a more in-depth examination of social influence and how something or someone becomes “hot,” I recommend The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. His thoughts on how ideas, trends, etc. catch on are intriguing.

(RG note) Thanks Lynette. In a previous clickback, we took a look at Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and also Blink and how some of his observations apply to us.


Baloney baffles brains
by Hans Werner, Australia

Your comments remind me of a 1945 Picasso quote I have hanging on my studio wall: “People who make art their business are mostly imposters, and have lured the wealthy to desire the peculiar, the eccentric and scandalous in today’s art. I have fed these fellows what they wanted and satisfied the critics with all the ridiculous ideas that passed through my head. The less they understood, the more they admired me…”


Pump priming
by Andy Buck, Farmington, CT, USA

Your comment about red dots being contagious reminded me that I’ve always wanted to just put a couple red dots on the wall before or during an opening. I’ve always thought it would trigger sales, but so far, I’ve been unable to talk a gallery owner into doing it. Something about ‘integrity.’

(RG note) Thanks Andy. It’s called “pump priming” and it’s more common than most people think. These days the red dots tend to go up mysteriously anyway—often generated by Internet connectivity—the Internet-telephone axis, and electronic packeting.


Red dots distract from work?
by Amy Dixon, Denver, CO, USA

Recently, at a local gallery, I noted that they stated on the cheat sheet for the show that they “no longer used red dots.” When I asked why, she said they felt they “distracted” from the work. I so disagree. They need to make it a small sophisticated red dot. Red dots create more red dots. And many viewers don’t want to inquire for fear they’ll be bombarded with some sales pitch and have to speak intelligently.


Art at the mercy of social influence
by Mary L. Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“With Love Always”
oil painting
by Mary L. Moquin

It is all true what you say, but does it make me happy? No. My favorite line is — it is all perception. If people perceive that it’s something they ought and must have, it creates a lovely feeding frenzy. If you make it look and sound like your work is selling like crazy, people want to be a part of it — they don’t want to be left out. But sometimes I get concerned by this phenomenon because I don’t want people to buy my art just because it is a trendy thing to do. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “If more than 10% of the people like a painting, you can be sure it’s bad.” And “If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, art will be meaningless recreation.” (Albert Camus) There is sadly no denying that art will always be at the mercy of social influence.


Hype only goes so far
by Karin Richter, Calgary, AB, Canada


“Top of the Heap”
acrylic painting
by Karin Richter

Even though I want to make a living, somehow I have a problem with the idea that people may want to buy my work because of “hype.” I rather let my paintings go to buyers who feel a connection and truly love the work. Hype only goes so far and many of these previously hyped pieces are being dumped later at auction houses.




Fake claim causes ripples
by Ole E. Petterson, Denmark


“Salt Tea Egg”
oil painting
by Ole E. Petterson

Here in Denmark we last year had a young and not very known artist, Steffen Martin, who on the night of 31st of March sent out a press release to the Danish media. In the release he claimed to have sold a painting to the renowned Saatchi Collection in Great Britain. It immediately caused a lot of visitors to his site. According to one source there were a couple of hundred persons wanting to buy his paintings. Later he wrote on his site:

“As reported in the Danish media a painting of mine was sold to Charles Saatchi. This is not true. It was, however, a carefully planned April fools happening designed and constructed by myself. As an artist I find it important to get people to think and react to what I do. By all accounts this has happened! I hope Charles Saatchi will forgive the use of his name. I do still hope you enjoyed your stay here on my site. Steffen Martin”


Up to dealers to do the lying
by Suzanne Partridge, Street, Somerset, UK


“Traditional Cornish”
oil painting
by Suzanne Partridge

Selling your own work is the hardest thing to do. Being so unsure about your art makes it difficult to stand there and say, “I am the next best thing, buy now while stocks last.” And if you do promote yourself, you also have as much chance of becoming yesterday’s bread. Dealers sell work, it’s up to them to lie for us, create a need in the buyer, sell, and pocket half the cash. Maybe I should let them know.




Art dealer must feel sincere
by Heidi Foss, Asheville, NC, USA

How true it is that, as a gallery manager in a very hot art market, when I tell a client or interested shopper about the tremendous sales of this particular artist or that artist, then the interest peeks and another sale is made. If I don’t particularly like the artist or his work then no amount of feigned enthusiasm will entice a sale. It has to be true and it has to be sincere. Same goes for the work itself. If a painting is made purely for making $$ then it will be very difficult to sell. If an artist creates a piece that is truly inspired then the sale is much easier to make. In my opinion and experience has shown that, whether people know it or not, they can see a sincere piece and can feel the sincerity of the salesperson. This is what makes a sale. That is why I make every attempt to personally know each of the 60 or so artists that I represent so that I can understand who they are as a person and what it is that inspires them to create what they do. The artists with the biggest egos are the ones who sell the least in the gallery that I manage. I encourage all to paint what is true in your heart and for you to find a rep who really cares about you and your career.


Deceptive test shows power of group
by Cathy Boyle, Halifax, NS, Canada

I took part in a University Psychology experiment where a group of us had to answer questions on a very simple test. We each had our own computer set up in a cubicle and multiple choice questions would flash up on the screen. We were asked to answer them. We were supposedly able to view the answers that the rest of the group was giving at the same time. I am still embarrassed when I remember that I changed almost every answer that I was going to give simply because the group had given a different answer (we didn’t really have access to others’ answers — the machine generated preprogrammed responses. The questions were ridiculously easy — which line is longer, which box is bigger, etc. Almost everyone in the group (95%) were influenced in the same way. We all flunked the test.

It was humiliating, embarrassing and, at the same time, a valuable lesson. I have never forgotten this and I think I am a little more conscious of the power of the group.


Tribal and cosmopolitan models
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Coquitlam, BC, Canada


“Central Park, Central Park Burnaby”
watercolour painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works and other books has an interesting explanation of the social influence in today’s societies. Basically we are witnessing the struggle between the old tribal and new cosmopolitan model. Traditional tribal model encourages promotion inside the tribe, which can be a village, an art club, Paris Hilton fan base, or even a small country. The goal of an individual is to become known and respected, from which point the job of staying afloat is a bit easier, thanks to the favorable label.

This model is hard to maintain in today’s world where the tribe constantly gets influenced and mixed with the rest of the world. Becoming a top gun in a tribe has lost its value. There are hundreds of artists that have their work in the Smithsonian, and nobody has ever heard of them. I feel totally silly when I list my local awards and titles on my web site — nobody cares except my family and friends (and very few of them). Only a small number of artists can keep up with the expense (time and money) of a global promotion. In the new cosmopolitan, or global model where the tribe has been dissolved, the best strategy is to size ourselves against our peers, and work to improve in that order.

How does that work for collectors? In the tribal model, a collector would listen to the local buzz, and find out who is a good artist to have. In the new model, a collector from anyplace has access to any artist on the planet. There is way too much buzz globally, so the collector has more incentive to look for quality art instead.

Interesting thing is that we are out of the tribal model with one foot only — we are neither here nor there, and we may stay like that for a long time. Both models work somewhat, and we are fortunate that we can make choices. Unfortunately, too many choices are not always a good thing. One can go crazy wasting time going to those international art shows all around the globe and not really getting ahead at all, or schmoozing to the local collector base which keeps moving around and losing focus, overwhelmed with what’s offered on the Internet.


Depression turned to misery
by Karen Ashmore, USA

I’m writing in need of some words of inspiration. I started painting about 4 years ago — I’m 47 now. I was one of those kids that teachers and parents discouraged from art. Back then it seems you either had “it” or you didn’t. I didn’t in their opinion, but I was “smart” and so was steered into more left brain pursuits — where I never quite fit in. So, after 3 children, divorce, and a career primarily in accounting (!) and a lot of depression, I finally got to the place where I didn’t care what other people thought, and took a drawing class at the local community college. It changed my life. I had a wonderful teacher who gave me a great deal of encouragement and explained that inherent talent is only a small percentage of the equation. I started reading every art book I could find, drawing and painting every minute I wasn’t at work. I felt like my whole life finally made sense — the way I look at the world, the things that matter to me, my sensitivity to color and light. I spent hours drawing, then with pastels and more recently painting. By the time I was half way through my second drawing class, the teacher had recommended me to a woman who wanted a pastel portrait done. To my great surprise, I completed it and the lady gave me $300 for it! So now my mind races forward, and I see the possibility of actually making some money doing what I love. Maybe being able to quit my office job. I was walking on clouds. Flash forward 2 years to today. My reality is that I’m a single mom — my kids are 20, 18, and 16. All the time I spent on art started catching up to me — I wasn’t paying attention to my kids, my house, my boyfriend, or my job. So the guilt won out and now I’m lucky if I carve out 4 hours on a weekend for art. I think about it constantly, all I want to do is be at my easel. I can’t concentrate at work. I’m distracted when I’m trying to have quality time with the people I love. I feel as if I’m caught in purgatory. I know exactly what I want to do, what I feel I was meant to do, and yet too many people depend on me. I can’t just drop everything and do it. I feel frustrated when I’m not painting, I actually get sick and anxious and depressed. Sometimes I think I would be better off if I’d never discovered art. I could have just continued in my low-level depression. Now I’m actively miserable! Do you have any words of wisdom for me?

(RG note) Thanks, Karen. For this one I’m going to have to ask (particularly women) artists who have been in your boots. I hope they write to you with ideas or suggestions. I’ve offered glib advice to others in your predicament — with mixed results. For those who have climbed out and thrived, there seemed to be a powerful backlog of desire and an almost foolhardy capacity for sacrifice— including, sometimes, the boyfriend. Where the energy comes from is yet another matter. I truly wish I had a bottle of moxie or a new mantra I could put a stamp on and mail to you.


What to do with digital
by Don Getz, New Albany, IN, USA


“On Salt Spring Island”
watercolor painting
by Don Getz

How do we now classify digital art? Art which has been manipulated by computer up to art which is totally created on the computer. Where does this art get classified as to category in an art competition? Some artists sneak it into the traditional juried exhibitions, such as the American Watercolor Society, while others admit that it is computer generated or manipulated on the computer. Some consider the computer the same as ‘just another painting tool, like a paint brush,’ while some feel it should have its own media category. Also, to what degree are they “originals?”

(RG note) Thanks Don. More and more I’m seeing “digital art” and “digitally enhanced art” and “computer generated art” as different categories in juried shows. When on jury duty I like to be informed of what I’m looking at and judge it accordingly. At the advent of photography it was the private sinecure of professionals and a few dedicated amateurs. Then came the Brownie and it was everyman’s hobby. Something similar is now taking place in the digital world. Everybody and his brother is doing it. With Photoshop and other systems it’s pretty easy. Jurors have to be extra careful. As it has always been in handmade art, it’s easy for beginners to quickly achieve the simpler styles and processes. However, it’s my opinion that some of the great works of the 21st Century are going to be done in this medium. See letter below.


‘Tick’ generates digital painting
by Duncan Long, Manhattan, KS, USA


“Clockwork Woman”
digital painting
by Duncan Long

I’m always surprised when dream-like, subconscious thoughts modify or propel illustrations I’m working on. Often these are more satisfactory than those planned in detail ahead of time (though not always). And they can give the feeling that someone, other than me, created them when I step back and look at them. “Did I create that?” Your “What Makes Us Tick?” inspired the attached picture. It started out as a ho-hum portrait. While fiddling around with the “tick” idea, I had thought of making a transparency (I paint digitally) of clockish gear work. Then I thought the eyes seemed so compelling I should keep them. This led to replacing only the jaw, using the big curve as the chin and little by little this horrifying (to me at least) picture emerged.





Husk And Heart

Giclee print
by Brad Michael Moore, Perrin, TX, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Bob Cook of Dripping Springs, Texas who wrote, “Your letter explains in scientific terms the amazing capriciousness of what goes in art galleries and at what price.”

And also Mitchell Vogue who quoted Andy Warhol: “I want everybody to think alike. I think everybody should be a machine.”

And also Brad Greek of Mary Esther, Florida who wrote, “My job is to get the dealers excited, the dealers’ job is to get their customers excited. The customer’s job is to tell their friends and get them excited.”

And also Victoria Culbertson of Okinawa, Japan who wrote, “In Japan they have this down to a science. Record stores hire people to stand in line pretending to be waiting to buy the latest thing and others join in thinking they are missing out on something.”




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