Grabbing the heart
March 18, 2008
Recently I had an opportunity to watch people buying my
paintings. It was a solo show where people were coming in and
interacting in a friendly, social environment. By watching
people's faces, I noticed something I hadn't quite seen before.
Many buyers appeared to me to just glance at a work and make up
their minds then and there. This blink-of-an-eye was of course
followed by the regular rationalizations that buyers
(particularly couples) go through when they're considering
something: "Is it too big?" "Where will we put it?" "How do you
feel about it, dear?" At the end of my letter I'm going to tell
you what I think triggered some of those instant decisions.
New research in neuroscience seems to indicate that advertising
is most effective when some sort of desire synapse is triggered
in a nanosecond. By covering volunteer heads with EEG sensors,
using eye-tracking techniques and galvanic skin responses,
researchers such as Dr. Robert Knight of the University of
California, Berkeley trace the emotional roots of decision
In applying this stuff to art, it would have nothing to do with
the sort of buyer who looks at a work and thinks he needs it
because he needs to look smart or intelligent. Or the buyer who
recognizes a farm he's been on or a mountain he's climbed. It
applies to an open-minded person who simply and instantaneously
feels good about something.
The advertising business (US$600 billion this year), dealing as
it often does with visual stimuli, pays big bucks to people
like Robert Knight to tell them what's happening in people's
heads. I've never heard of anyone doing this in our business.
A clue to Knight's thinking is his disdain for focus groups. By
rationalizing everything, focus groups often come up with the
"wrong" (and unemotional) decision. When you think about it, a
couple anguishing over the purchase of a work of art is like a
small focus group. Often as not they talk themselves out of it.
At the same time, some works just seem to walk out of
galleries. Are these works talking on an emotional level to the
folks who can't resist them? And what is it about these works
that they can't resist? No matter what type of art you're
looking at, at the top of the list I'd put "Unusually
PS: "The brain makes behavior. If you can effectively measure
the brain, which we think we can, we can give you information
that's not available through any other methodology." (Dr.
Esoterica: The brain, when instantly engaged, acts in an
emotional manner--what we often call "heart." Art in its higher
forms is all heart. Sorry to admit this, but when I look at
some folks in galleries, it seems to me that we are able to
engage their hearts in the same classic way advertisers work
hard to achieve: (1) You get their attention. (2) They become
emotionally involved. (3) They retain what they feel. And it
all happens in the blink of an eye.