Here’s a sad thought, courtesy of scientific inquiry: What if quality has absolutely no bearing on artistic success? We tend to think of famous art as popular because of its inherent value. Crowds hover around the Mona Lisa all day every day because of the superiority of its form and composition, no?
In reality, what separates world-famous artwork from average art that’s left to rot in the dustbins of history may have a whole lot to do with mere chance. That’s according to Matthew Sagalnik, a Princeton professor of sociology who’s been studying whether popularity is related to inherent qualities that make something successful, or whether it’s all a crapshoot.
To figure out the difference, Sagalnik used nine different virtual “worlds” of influence online in which 30,000 teenagers were asked to evaluate new songs by unsigned, unknown musical artists. After listening to these 48 songs, the participants could download their favorites for free. In one world, this happened completely independently, and none of the participants could see what everyone else was downloading. In the others, social influence came into play. The teenagers could see what everyone else was downloading, so they knew what was popular.
Every world started with the exact same initial conditions. The initial download counts started at zero, and the participants were placed randomly in the different worlds. Contrary to the notion that some of the songs would be inherently better and rise to the top of most of the rankings, social factors seemed to play a huge role in popularity. In the different worlds of social influence, what songs were considered good varied widely.
“For example, we had this song ‘Lock Down’ by the band 52 Metro,” Salganik told NPR. “In one world this song came in first, in another world it came in 40th out of 48th. And this was exactly the same song. It’s just in these different worlds, history evolved slightly different. There were differences in the beginnings and then the process of social influence and cumulative advantage sort of magnified those small random initial differences.”
Naturally, there are a bunch of factors at play with why something becomes a popular piece of art. Class, culture, even our perception of the artist can affect our appreciation of certain art. Not to mention, as a group, teenagers have been found to be more susceptible to peer pressure than other groups.
There’s little chance dumb luck would allow a truly hideous painting to eclipse the popularity of the Mona Lisa. To some extent, merit does matter. But in a world where total amateurs can get work accepted by national museums, it’s not hard to imagine that chance might play a small role.
Learn more about Salganik’s research from NPR.