(Roughly) Daily

“An uninspiring canvas becomes a glamorous masterpiece when it is reattributed to a better-known artist”*…


Cornell psychologist James Cutting wondered why it is that when a work of art is considered “great,” we too often stop thinking about it for ourselves…

The intuitive answer is that some works of art are just great: of intrinsically superior quality. The paintings that win prime spots in galleries, get taught in classes and reproduced in books are the ones that have proved their artistic value over time. If you can’t see they’re superior, that’s your problem. It’s an intimidatingly neat explanation. But some social scientists have been asking awkward questions of it, raising the possibility that artistic canons are little more than fossilised historical accidents.

Cutting wondered if a psychological mechanism known as the “mere-exposure effect” played a role in deciding which paintings rise to the top of the cultural league. In a seminal 1968 experiment, people were shown a series of abstract shapes in rapid succession. Some shapes were repeated, but because they came and went so fast, the subjects didn’t notice. When asked which of these random shapes they found most pleasing, they chose ones that, unbeknown to them, had come around more than once. Even unconscious familiarity bred affection.

Back at Cornell, Cutting designed an experiment to test his hunch. Over a lecture course he regularly showed undergraduates works of impressionism for two seconds at a time. Some of the paintings were canonical, included in art-history books. Others were lesser known but of comparable quality. These were exposed four times as often. Afterwards, the students preferred them to the canonical works, while a control group of students liked the canonical ones best. Cutting’s students had grown to like those paintings more simply because they had seen them more.

Cutting believes his experiment offers a clue as to how canons are formed. He points out that the most reproduced works of impressionism today tend to have been bought by five or six wealthy and influential collectors in the late 19th century. The preferences of these men bestowed prestige on certain works, which made the works more likely to be hung in galleries and printed in anthologies. The kudos cascaded down the years, gaining momentum from mere exposure as it did so. The more people were exposed to, say, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, the more they liked it, and the more they liked it, the more it appeared in books, on posters and in big exhibitions. Meanwhile, academics and critics created sophisticated justifications for its pre-eminence. After all, it’s not just the masses who tend to rate what they see more often more highly. As contemporary artists like Warhol and Damien Hirst have grasped, critical acclaim is deeply entwined with publicity. “Scholars”, Cutting argues, “are no different from the public in the effects of mere exposure”…

Get the complete picture at “Why the Mona Lisa Stands Out.”

* Arthur Smith


As we cathect on connoisseurship, we might send fantastic birthday greetings to Roger Zelazny; he was born on this date in 1937.  Probably best known for his Amber series, Zelazny was a prominent member– with Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Harlan Ellison– of the American “new wave” science fiction movement; he won three Nebula awards and six Hugo awards.  In 1976, Zelazny helped Philip K. Dick, who wasn’t able to continue on his own, finish Deus Irae; having learned in the process of Dick’s financial straits, Zelazny voluntarily reduced his royalty from one-half to one third. 



Written by LW

May 13, 2014 at 1:01 am

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