A recent story in Intelligent Life provides some interesting context for the upcoming AGO exhibit on Michelangelo. Like many artists who have achieved postumous fame, Michelangelo Buonarroti wrestled to find commissions and acceptance during his lifetime. The show which opens in October this year promises to provide visitors with a unique opportunity to discover the story behind the myths that have grown up around him.
In Intelligent Life’s “Overexposed” writer Ian Leslie takes a fresh look at what defines a classic work of art. He asks the reader if he or she has ever sought out a renowned painting or sculpture in an art gallery only to wonder what all the fuss was about. Leslie reports that in 1993 psychologist James Cutting asked himself just this question and set out to find out how a work of art comes to be considered “great.”
The obvious answer is that some works of art simply are inherently superior. Or in some cases they come to stand as a symbol of the cultural zeitgeist in which they were conceived. Cutting however pondered whether a psychological precondition known as “mere-exposure effect” might play a role. In a classroom experiment Cutting was able to show that students liked paintings more because they had seen them more. He argued that scholars and critics are equally susceptible to exposure.
I have to admit that the first time I went to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting the “Mona Lisa”, I really didn’t get it. Apparently I was not alone. Sociologist Duncan Watts was equally mystified. Watts believes that the Mona Lisa benefitted from a phenomena he calls the “cumulative advantage.” It’s something we in our Twitter universe clearly get: the more followers you have, the more followers you get. Leslie reports that according to Watts, the “Mona Lisa” was essentially neglected until it was “discovered” early in the twentieth century and only after was stollen! The instantaneous publicity brought critical reevaluation.
Leslie notes that contemporary artists like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst have clearly grasped that critical acclaim is “deeply entwined with publicity.” This is true in almost any artform. How many musicians get get discovered on You Tube while others languish?
As I reflected on all of this I had a moment of acute professional parallysis. I thought I understood the role of public relations can play in shaping opinion. But who knew we could weild so much power in defining what is perceived as culture or art? Scary.