While people travel around the world to see famous paintings like the Mona Lisa or Guernica, Monet’s Lillies, most people will admit that they’re not entirely sure what separates “good” art from “great” art. And it might be there isn't much difference, artistically. It may be mostly luck that elevates some pieces of art over others.
“For some essentially random reason, a group of people decided that the thing in question was really good and their attention attracted more attention until there was a herd of people who believed that it was special mostly because all the other people believed that it was, but the successful thing wasn't in fact that special,” writes Alix Spiegel at NPR.
The nature of history makes this kind of thing hard to study empirically. We can’t go back in time and create alternate experimental scenarios. But Spiegel spoke with Matthew Salganik, a professor at Princeton who has spent a lot of time thinking about this problem and has figured out a way to create alternate art histories—not with a time machine, but with a computer. Spiegel explains the 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.
Salganik recruited 30,000 teenagers and split them into nine groups, each directed to an identical world of art. Each group of teenagers listened to 48 songs from artists they had never heard of before. When they were done, they could download the ones they liked the best.
In one world, the teenagers listened to the songs and picked their favorites. Done. But in the other eight worlds, the teenagers could see what their friends were choosing to download. Simply being able to see what other people were picking had huge effects on what got popular and what didn’t.
"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."
So, in a slightly different universe, maybe Salieri was considered a greater genius than Mozart. The world is full of Marlowe festivals instead of Shakespeare festivals. And some artist you've never heard of, who lived in obscurity, has work hung in the Louvre, with hordes of tourists clamoring for a glimpse.