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The Above-Average Effect

June 24, 2010

The Above Average Effect or Wishful Thinking

There’s an academic think-tank at Cornell University named the Self and Social Insight (SaSI) Lab. Their work focuses primarily on the accuracy with which people view themselves and their peers. They’ve developed the idea of the “above-average effect” in an attempt to explain why people tend to hold flattering opinions of themselves when that observation can’t be justified from any objective viewpoint.

The idea of the “above-average effect” is tailor-made for the art world. The questions the SaSI group asks go straight to the heart:
how accurate is self-judgment?
do people recognize their own incompetence?
do people overplay their beliefs about their own artistic superiority over others?
how does self-deception work?
does wishful thinking happen automatically before it leaves a conscious trace?

If you ask a group of artists how good their work generally all will say that it’s way above average. Most artists innately hate and distrust criticism: they cling to any message consistent with their own high opinion of their talent. Even some observation as non-committal as “INTERESTING” (my personal favorite)confirms the thought: damn, I’m good. My own bias leans heavily towards artists who attempt to achieve more than a pallid imitation of the style du jour.

Loners have no traction for art critics or historians. Loners are invisible, at work in a vacuum: like Lee Bontecue who ‘disappeared’ after she left New York City. Donald Kuspit defines aesthetic significance by the numbers: at least 50 artists living in the same city have to be hammering away at the same initial idea. This idea must have exert a strong centrifugal force, pulling an ever-increasing numbers of artists into its orbit. It’s preferable that satellite artists live in same city so they can become part of a category like “New York School”. The closer an artist adheres to the group standard, the more positive their self-assessment. A fellow-traveler earns their ‘above average’ because they confuse quality with reproduction. This is only one reason for the high level of conformity in the arts.

Once upon a time an artist in Greenwich Village hung out a placard in front of his studio. It read “World’s Greatest Artist”. He produced hundreds of small scale abstractions, little still lives and portraits. Where the ‘above average’ self-assessment is concerned, he was the King.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 25, 2010 4:41 pm

    You’ve hit the nail on the head here, Kay! Artists (we) are among the most vain and insecure of all the makers creatures and will cling to any thread of positive reinforcement as justification of our “brilliance”. Ken Payne (and my father) were very helpful in teaching me humility and being the best is a pointless goal. Admittedly, I think my moltern iron drawings are very good and I will continue on as such, but I’m fully aware that the greater art world may not share my enthusiam and expect to receive some negative feedback. Petah Coyne told me that you know you’ve made it when you get your first bad review in the NY Times. I hope to make it there someday! Thanks again for your positive reinforcement.

    All the best – Mike D.

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