NPR delves into some interesting social scientific research that’s been floating around about the role of peer influence on aesthetic values. In other words, do we value the best art because of its inherent qualities or do some works gain popularity through external forces?
Let’s put that more concretely: Is the Mona Lisa famous because it is the greatest expression of artistic genius or did the theft and publicity surrounding the search for the stolen painting at the turn of the 20th century have something to do with its worldwide stature?
Princeton’s Matthew Salganik tried to answer that with an experiment:
“To see the role of chance you need to see multiple realizations of the same process,” Salganik explains. “But we only get to see one outcome. So we see the world where the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings, and it’s hard to imagine that something different could have happened.”
But Salganik is good at computers, so he came up with a plan.
He would create a series of identical worlds online filled with the same pieces of art, then get thousands of people to choose which they liked best.
If the same art rose to the top of every world, then he would know that success was driven by the inherent qualities of that work. If not, he could conclude, success was essentially random.
“We have the chance of really seeing — as much as we possibly can — parallel versions of history. So rather than trying to argue like that, we just said, ‘Let’s just create these parallel worlds and see what happens.’ “
So … what happened? As you can imagine, the results favored chance over inherent quality:
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.