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Getting Attention By Avoiding Attention

Recall Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), America’s “archprude” and upholder of Victorian morality. Comstock devoted his life to denouncing art he deemed "obscene, lewd or indecent." In response to a New York City gallery that displayed nude French photographs, his 1887 pamphlet, Morals Versus Art, warned parents in the United States that, “the morals of the youth of this country are endangered by obscenity and indecency in the shape of photographs of lewd French art -- a foreign foe.” Today, the eponymous noun “Comstockery” describes overzealous moral censorship to supposed immorality in the arts. 

Comstockians were crucial for the percolation of modern art into everyday culture. By denouncing provocative art they drew more attention to it, thereby giving artists free press and, often times, monikers for their movements. The Fauvists got their name from critic Louis Vauxcelles, who described their 1905 exhibition, Salon d’Automne, with the phrase “Donatello au milieu des fauves!” (Donatello among the wild beasts!) Vauxcelles once mocked a Braque picture, saying it is “full of little cubes.”

Some postmodernists have taken a cue from Comstockians. Andres Serrano took a photograph of a crucified Jesus floating in a jar of his urine - Piss Christ is one of the most talked about photographs in the last two decades. Chris Ofili painted The Holy Virgin Mary with elephant dung, promoting Rudy Giuliani to threaten to cut annual funding to the Brooklyn Museum. If you want to baffle and provoke, combining the worst of our bodily functions with sacred religious images is a good start. 

Literature experiences similar moments. An old Christopher Hitchens’ review of The Annotated Lolita by Alfred Appel, Jr., drew my attention to Brian Boyd’s lengthy account of Vladimir Nabokov. Boyd reports that after an initial run of 500 copies Lolita sales appeared dead. Giving the book a second life was not praise by Graham Greene in the Sunday Times during the winter of 1955-56 but John Gordon’s (editor-in-chief of the Sunday Express) raucous response to Greene. Venting about Greene’s undesired praise, Gordon said Lolita was “the filthiest book I have ever read.”

Nabokov was “vexed” that Gordon and others deemed his book pornographic but ultimately grateful, for the exchange between Greene and Gordon influenced Éditions Gallimard (France’s most prestigious publishing house) to publish his provocative novel in French. Today Lolita is considered a classic. 

So, a heuristic: if you’re looking for a good book (or art) check the list of the most frequently banned books. I recently came across a Kierkargaard quote. He once told a friend that he was only going to read “writings by men who have been executed.” Precisely. The publishing industry believes that blurbs from notable authors help push books. I’m sure they do. But if a publicist is wily he will include scathing blubs from eminent authors. 

This brings me to a new question: What is the opposite of a Comstockian? A few months ago I came across a paper by Kimberlee Weaver (Virginia Tech) and two colleagues titled “The Presenter’s Paradox.” It opens with a narrative about one of the authors sitting in a crowded airplane waiting to take off. The plane is delayed for two hours until a mechanical issue forces everyone to switch aircrafts. To compensate disgruntled passengers the airline issued three things: a coupon for future travel, an amenity coupon for a meal, premium beverage or mileage bonus, and a 25-cent phone card. The phone card was good for maybe 5 minutes of free long distance, so its uselessness added to the author’s frustration. “Is it possible” Weaver and her colleagues ask “… that from the customers’ perspective [the thrifty coupon] actually detracted from their evaluation of the package as a whole?”

Consider one of their seven studies. They asked participants to create packages containing an iPod Touch. They had two options: bundle an iPod Touch with a protective cover or bundle an iPod touch with a protective cover and one free music download. As predicted, a group of evaluators were willing to pay more for the former package - the later appeared cut-rate, even though it was more valuable.

I discovered that I have been intuitively using this “less-is-more” rule in the social media world for years. The other day a Facebook friend advertised on his wall for people to follow him on Twitter because he is “hilarious”. I de-friended him and knew, in that second, that he was not funny. The opposite of a Comstockian is, therefore, someone who draws attention away from something by trying to draw attention to it.[2]

Arrogant to the point of vexation captures the essence of the anticomstockian. Just imagine the difference between someone who introduces himself as a Nobel laureate versus a new friend who you discover, independently, and well after meeting him, that he is a Nobel laureate. The difference is more than humility; the latter appears wiser. Psychologists talk about “halos” – the idea that specific judgments (e.g., he tells funny jokes) spill over into general judgments (e.g., he is intelligent). This explains why, despite his acclaim, we might consciously avoid the boastful laureate in the future.

If Comstockians increase sales and attention by deeming something offensive then here’s an anticomstock heuristic: if you want to decrease sales and draw attention away from something tell people it is “good” or, worse, “really good.” Nothing is more unappealing when a string of adjectives ending in “ly” is attached to it. 

There is a third category. This person neither promotes nor denounces; he receives attention by avoiding attention. Let’s term this person a Banksian, after the pseudonymous British graffiti artist whose wily career focuses on stencil street art. Nobody knows who Banksy is, what he looks like or how old he is. We just know his artwork. The fact that he goes lengths to conceal his identify – to avoid attention – is one reason he receives so much attention (the other being his obvious talent). Daft Punk also comes to mind. Since the mid 1990s the French DJs preform in costumes equipped with masks that completely cover up their face. It adds to the intrigue. (Of course, the opposite of a Banksian is someone who strives for attention and gets it. Kim Kardashian and her cohorts are easy examples – shock artists as well though their motivates are categorically different.)

What can we learn from Banksy? Praise inflation has set in on the social media world, and everything is fascinating. This is especially true in the cognitive science sphere, where every new paper or article is ostensibly spellbinding. This is an inherent problem of Twitter and Facebook: why would anyone share the mundane? And despite the banal advertisements clicks are at an all time high – it’s difficult to resist a “groundbreaking idea.”

We’re forgetting a simple axiom: if you want to draw attention towards something that you’ve created focus on the quality and originality of your creation, not on drawing attention towards it. The cliché that great art speaks for itself is true, but I’d revise this old chestnut slightly: experts will (nearly) always recognize art that is novel and demonstrates expertise. (Colloquially, game recognizes game.) Focus, therefore, not on attracting every last eyeball but impressing the experts.

I’m guessing there is a bias at work here. There is a tendency to look back in the history of art and assume that attention and praise immediately follow presentation or performance. This distortion is a product of hindsight, and it explains why some impatient bloggers, artists, writers, etc., feel anxious when their ideas do not percolate through social media platforms and into the world the moment they click “publish” or, worse, “tweet.”

The world of ideas is oddly fair: it keeps the good ones and ignores the bad ones. We learn from Banksy that if something really is good, the rest will take care of itself. Quality over quantity, less is more. 


[1] This prompted Greene to establish the John Gordon Society “to examine and if necessary to condemn all offensive plays, paintings, sculptures and ceramics.” If it weren’t for the satire, Comstock would have been proud.

[2] Comstockians are typically critics whereas anticomstockians are typically artists, but the reverse is possible.

Image via Veerachai Viteeman/Shuttershock

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