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Simply Speaking: Success is a subjective phenomenon where the network matters beyond its measure

Success is networked, collaborative and functions as a reputational feedback loop.

By  Shubhranshu SinghJul 11, 2022 7:45 AM
Simply Speaking: Success is a subjective phenomenon where the network matters beyond its measure
In the Web era, evaluations to decide merit can and are being made through new, collective tools that challenge top down, elitist networks. (Representational image: Aleks Marinkovic via Unsplash)

Success needs results. Performance needs opportunity. Often, we see that ordinary talent may go a long way whilst a top talent may fall by the wayside or never get on to the road to success. Why does that happen ?

How is such a judgement on according credit made?

How is success achieved?

How genuine is acclaim?

Multiple dependencies govern how art, fashion, architecture, politics or even business impact can be judged for individual work. The emergence of collective intelligence on internet platforms has made the stakes higher and the process more accelerated. Still, the more things change, the more essentially they remain the same.

First, it is a circular ecosystem. Artists derive prestige from their affiliations with specific galleries and museums; in turn, the prestige of these institutions stems from the perceived importance of the artists they represent and exhibit. Prestige is often as subjective as it is valuable. Invisible, intangible influences have a bearing on assessed value.  Where does it start? There were a few major hubs in the world of art, represented by a few institutions that are linked to an exceptional number of other institutions. In this short list are American names such as New York's Guggenheim,  Gagosian Gallery, Pace Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. These are closely linked to European institutions like the Tate, Centre Pompidou, and Reina Sofia. These institutions are the trampolines of artistic success. By showing at major galleries or museums, you are propelled towards superstar status in the art world.  Fashion is almost the same.

The Fashion weeks at New York, Milan, London and Paris are the big platforms. Fashion labels get a seal of approval here. Buyers, retail chains, critics all congregate here. For 5 seasons, as marketing head of Lakmé  between 2006 and 2010, I also ran the Lakmé Fashion Week at Mumbai and I saw this core ecosystem from an outer circle. I recall Suzy Menkes visiting us and later the investor Ted Forstmann and what that meant in terms of attention worldwide.

Haute couture is a twice-yearly five-day show fiesta in Paris where a select handful of brands produce handmade-to-order garments that cost approximately $10,000 to $100,000 a piece. To qualify as a couture house, which is an official designation like champagne, a brand must maintain an atelier of a certain number of artisans full-time and produce a specific number of garments twice a year for a show.

There are only a very few that can fulfil the requirements, including Chanel, Dior and Valentino. Many such as Balmain, Versace, Saint Laurent have dropped off over the years, and the governing organization has relaxed some of its rules to admit younger, less resourced and guest designers, like Iris van Herpen and Guo Pei.

There are only a few hundred clients in the world who regularly buy couture, including Middle Eastern royalty and American ultra-rich. Guests often sit on gold ballroom chairs. At Chanel, the designer Karl Lagerfeld often recreated gardens from around the world as his sets. This is obviously not a club where one gets voted in on mass appeal. Clement Greenberg, a famous art critic in the 1950s, said that art will always be tied to money by an umbilical cord of gold.

It used to be said that you will never have a good art career unless your work fits into the elevator of a New York apartment block. The biggest art hub is Manhattan and if your work is not on walls there, you could forget about being top rated.

If you gave most people Rs 680 crore, and they had to choose whether to spend it on a 20-bedroom house and a massive estate in the Swiss Alps or a painting by Mark Rothko of two large dark-red rectangles (in May 2012, Orange, red, yellow circa 1961 sold for $86.9 million when it went under the hammer at Christie’s in New York), the overwhelming majority would choose the real estate. We understand the notion of paying for size and location in real estate, but most of us have no criteria or confidence to judge the price for a work of art. We pay for things that can be lived in, driven, consumed, and worn; and we believe in an empirical ability to judge their relative quality and commercial value.

Does it matter if such assessments are done by a cliquish set up? Surely it is the best talent that gets to these institutions. It is tempting to conclude that if you want to succeed, all you need to do is move to New York, or London, or Paris. But that’s not true. It is linkages within the network not the cities that matter. Even in a gallery next door to the Guggenheim it would be impossible to find exposure or success. Likewise, the failures in Milan or Paris are in their thousands.

Andy Warhol said "To be successful as an artist,you have to have your work shown by a good gallery for the same reason, say, that Dior never sold his originals from a counter in Woolworth's." Success is networked, collaborative and functions as a reputational  feedback loop, where galleries make names for themselves by taking on big-name artists, and big-name artists earn their fame by showing at reputable galleries.

Once you are a named success, it's in everyone's interest to keep you successful. Galleries don't survive without buyers. Buyers want value to grow. Big collectors sit on museum boards. They donate major works to these institutions. This gets exposure for artists from their personal collections. This ascending spiral only pushes prices northwards. It works because there's no objective way to measure an object's inherent worth. Value in art is a collective opinion. Word of relevant mouth drives it. Ditto for fashion. There is a designer -talent -media -buyer -platform grid within which the entire ecosystem blooms. Gerald Reitlinger, in his 1963 book The Economics of Taste, wrote that back in 1937, when 18th-century French furniture was all the rage with the ultrawealthy, a desk by Carlin sold for 8,000 pounds, or about $700,000 in today’s money. That same year, a Cubist still life work by Picasso failed to sell at auction for £105. 

It is worth remembering that social and professional networks - not mere geography - are what determine anyone's success. Networks brim with opportunity, partially because they're held together by powerful hubs. No matter the field, discipline, or industry, the harder it is to measure performance, the less performance matters compared to network acceptance. There are endeavours such as sport where performance is meticulously and accurately measured. On the other extreme is visual art and fashion, where performance is impossible to gauge. Most professions fall somewhere in between these two extremes. For a lawyer, a marketer, a teacher, or an investment banker, both performance and networks matter, to varying degrees.

But even in the methods for assessment there are wide gaps in judgement at the highest end of achievement. I have been at the highest level of judging for creative awards in advertising. I have seen this for real.  It’s not that judges lack expertise, preparation, or thoroughness. They fail mainly because the work they are judging is all excellent. Even the most experienced professionals lack the eye to flawlessly judge the excellent from the extraordinary. Often the differences among top contenders are so tiny that they are nearly immeasurable. At the highest levels, performance is simply not the deciding factor. There is no certainty of standard. No stopwatch or assay test. In music, literature, visual arts, cuisine, storytelling, etc., to be ‘in’, the network matters. Reputation is forged at the right venues, contests, literary prizes, magazine listings, columns and galleries.

So how does one find the right platform in this vast world? Within 6 handshakes, I would say.

Six degrees of separation

Six degrees of separation as a concept was coined, in 1967, by Stanley Milgram, a Harvard professor who turned the concept into a much celebrated, groundbreaking study on our interconnectivity. The phrase "six degrees of separation" was the title of  John Guare’s brilliant 1991 play. In the play, Ousa, speaking about our interconnectedness, tells her daughter, "Everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It's a profound thought.... How every person is a new door opening up into other worlds."

Six degrees of separation is intriguing because it suggests that, despite enormous size, social links from one person to another are navigable. Milgram awakened us to the fact that our world is small because society is a very dense web.

"Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked.... All the best information in every computer at CERN and on the planet would be available to me and anyone else. There would be a single global information space." It was to pursue this dream that, in 1980, Tim Berners-Lee working as a programmer at CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland wrote a program that allowed computers to share information - to link to each other. By inventing the links, Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. The power of the Web is in the links, the uniform resource locators (URLs) that allow us to move with the click of a mouse from one page to another. They allow us to surf, locate, and string together information. These links enable the huge network and our modern information society. Remove the links, and only inaccessible databases would be left behind. It is the connections that make it an interconnected world.

The Web is a small world because the networks of society and the online universe are fundamentally the same.

Wisdom via Cooperation

Collaborative filtering on the Web can be voluntary and human based and does lead to an intelligent outcome. Take Open-Source communities of software development, like the pioneer Linux and many others, and collective open-content projects such as Wikipedia. In both cases, the filtering process is humanly constructed. Code or content is made available to a community that can filter it by correcting, editing, or erasing it according to personal or shared standards of quality. Collective wisdom is thus created by individual human efforts that are aggregated in a common enterprise in which informal norms of cooperation are shared.

The Wisdom of Many

An example of collective wisdom created from expert recommendations is TripAdvisor, which permits travellers to share reviews, tips, and advice on places, hotels, and restaurants they have visited during their travels. Expertise is acquired by direct experience. The input is not more sophisticated than ours, nor based on expert knowledge. They are every bit like us. Their reputation is built on the site, from their choice of travel, the quality of their reports, and the small "stars" that each trip advisor can attach to each report.

Preferences are here voluntarily shared. The system then compares the data to similar data collected from other users and displays a collective recommendation. This system is basically a collaborative filtering technique with a more active component: people are asked to express their preferences instead of the system's merely inferring their preferences from their behaviour.

These tools function insofar as they provide access to rankings, labelling procedures, and evaluations. Even Wikipedia, which does not display ratings, operates on the following principle. If an entry has survived on the site-untouched by hawk-eyed Wikipedians-it is worth reading. The label "Wikipedia" already works as a reputational cue.

The Web is not only a powerful reservoir of all sorts of labelled and unlabeled information. It is also a powerful reputational tool that introduces ranks, rating systems, weights, and biases into the landscape of knowledge.

An efficient knowledge system will inevitably grow by generating a variety of evaluative tools. That is how culture grows and how traditions gains clout. A cultural tradition is, first of all, a labelling system distinguishing the insider from outsider.

Tech cannot break subjectivity, but the good news is that in the Web era evaluations can and are being made through new, collective tools that challenge top down, elitist networks and help develop and improve innovative and sometimes more democratic ways of judging merit.

There is hope.

Note to readers: I'm intrigued by information such as that eight percent of the population is left-handed, that giraffes only sleep five minutes every twenty-four hours and so on which is useless but important! In the eighteenth century, German aristocrats kept glass-fronted cabinets which displayed curios. They called it Wunderkammern. This column is some such thing. In an unmarked field it is easy to wander… I want to open windows to glimpse views rather than a whodunnit or a how-to-do-it. I have a licence to be long or short. To be structured or abrupt. This column has no beginning, middle or end. It's a journey without a destination. Simply speaking...

First Published on Jul 11, 2022 7:45 AM