Some social scientists are asking the “awkward question” about whether the pieces of art we consider great are intrinsically superior or whether they have risen to the top for other reasons. Cornell university James Cutting, for one, has looked at the role that exposure plays in our conceptions of canonical artworks.
“[Cutting] points out that the most reproduced works of impressionism today tend to have been bought by five or six wealthy and influential collectors in the late 19th century,” Ian Leslie writes in Intelligent Life. “The preferences of these men bestowed prestige on certain works, which made the works more likely to be hung in galleries and printed in anthologies. The kudos cascaded down the years, gaining momentum from mere exposure as it did so. The more people were exposed to, say, “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, the more they liked it, and the more they liked it, the more it appeared in books, on posters and in big exhibitions.”
As for the Mona Lisa, Leslie says it was its famous burglary that made it famous, not its subject’s mysterious smile. When the painting was rediscovered, newspapers around the world reproduced it, making it “the first work of art to achieve global fame.”
That being said, Leslie concedes that exposure can help people become more discriminating discerners. “The more we’re exposed to the good and the bad, the better we are at telling the difference,” he writes.