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Art’s ‘mere-exposure effect’ is not so mere

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, oil on poplar, 21”x30”
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Ever hear of the “mere-exposure effect”? Betcha Damien Hirst has. (More about that in a moment).

Intelligent Life magazine reports that the term, formulated by psychologist James Cutter of Cornell University, means that we tend to favor art that we’ve seen a lot.

In an experiment with his students, Cutter showed them pictures of works well known and lesser known and the students preferred the well-known.

What of all the art experts who tout famous art? Exposure affects them, too. The well-exposed artists hold sway over aficionados and amateurs alike.

Sociologist Duncan Watts has another term for this phenomenon: “cumulative advantage,” meaning that exposure makes a work a favorite and the more exposure, the more favored. Watts cites the “Mona Lisa.”

And when you think about it, both Watts and Cutter have a point. “Mona Lisa” was never a household name until 1911 when it was stolen off the wall of the Louvre. It was so disregarded that no one noticed it was stolen until the next day. That’s when the French police printed its reproduction on 6,500 fliers and blanketed the city with them – “missing person” style.

Familiarity breeds partiality. The fame of the painting has only multiplied over the years, even ending up in mainstream Hollywood movies, like “Mona Lisa,” a 1986 British film with Michael Caine, “Mona Lisa Smile” with Julia Robbers in 2003, "The Da Vinci Code" in 2006 and "Angels and Demons" 2009 with Tom Hanks.

Probably the film that speaks loudest of Mona’s celebrity is the 1990 flick “The Freshman” with Marlon Brando parodying his portrayal of Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” as Carmine "Jimmy the Toucan" Sabatini - down to the hoarse voice and muffled speech, as if spoken through cotton balls. Over the don’s fireplace is the Mona Lisa painting and it’s no copy. As the don’s daughter Tina, played by Penelope Ann Miller, tells new hire Matthew Broderick, “Remember when it was sent over here to tour all of the museums? It never went back."

The scene would never have worked if the painting were less popularly known. As Donald Sassoon pointed out in the book “Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon” Mona’s modern popularity is the result of constant discussion about it.

Which is likely why Damien Hirst with his ever-ready marketing machine hyping him is in such demand. Adding to the hype is a second autobiography written in less than a decade - and he’s not out of his 40’s yet.

“Cumulative advantage” ought to be required reading in art schools.

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