Blog / 2021 / Scientific Proof That an Artwork’s Success Is Arbitrary

May 25, 2021

We’ve suspected it for some time, but now we know it for really realz:

As long as an artwork displays a basic level of quality, its success is dictated by mostly uncontrollable social factors.

This truth—at once enormously soothing and the source of still more potential angst—comes to us from Princeton University sociologist Matthew Salganik. A few years ago, he started giving teens access to indie music and tracking their downloads to determine which songs were most popular, but not before randomly placing participants in nine online worlds. These worlds were identical, except that, in one world, the teens weren’t shown what other participants were downloading. The eight other worlds all displayed the songs’ stats, and that tiny marker of popularity changed everything.

Differences in download number that were small at the beginning of the experiment became magnified as participants were influenced by their peers. The songs that eventually rose to the top in each world tended to be those that earned approval first, as selected by whichever participants happened to make download decisions early on.

In other words, we are deeply social creatures, and we like to like what other people like.

U is for unicorn, an illustration by Gwenn Seemel
process GIF

This definitive evidence of the randomness of success could be grounds for giving up, but I prefer to see it as liberating.

If the success of art is mostly arbitrary, then all that’s left to drive our creativity is joy.

We’re brought back to our initial artistic impulse. The marketing, the making money, and all the rest still matter to artists who aren’t independently wealthy, but there’s absolutely no reason why our main focus shouldn’t be on loving what we do and sharing that love with others.

Which is exactly what I’m doing this summer at the Princeton Public Library! Starting June 1st U Is for Unicorn and my entire ABC book will be on display.

Princeton Public Library
65 Witherspoon
Princeton, NJ 08542

Open: June 1st through August 31st
Hours: open most days, check PPL site for specifics
Pride Artist Talk: online June 23rd at 7p EDT
Artist Talk with Mic Boekelmann: online July 20th at 7:30p EDT

black unicorn with rainbow hair
Gwenn Seemel
U Is for Unicorn
2019
acrylic on panel
14 x 14 inches
(For prints of U Is for Unicorn, go here.)

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