The pernicious practice of group norming

Feeling out of place, like a failure? Perhaps the problem isn’t you, but your tribe.

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed

This week, kids start trickling back to school in the northeast. Every year at this time, I’m pensive. I was never one of those mothers who celebrated the first day of school; I regretted the end of summer and the loss of freedom it represented. I hated school myself; I wasn’t good with rigid structure. As a parent, I felt that the system skirted on the thin edge of abuse, battering down individuality, curiosity and creativity. (That goes for the teachers as well as the kids.)

“We’re trying to prepare your child for the real world,” a principal once lectured me, ironically unaware of how little reality intruded into his neat little building. Long before COVID forced a reckoning, he couldn’t conceive of success outside of reporting to a white-collar office job punctually every morning.

Wreck of the SS Ethie, oil on canvas, 18X24, $2318 framed

I left New York in part because I can’t paint like a Hudson River School painter. It is a continuous tradition dating back two hundred years, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. I admire it, but it’s not how I see the world.

There is a distinctive Maine style as well: higher in chroma, looser in execution, not as interested in modeling, and verging on abstraction. It relies on accurate drawing to allow for loose brushwork. Not only do I like it better, it’s a better fit for me.

Vineyard, 30X40, oil on canvas, $5072 framed

As long as I painted en plein air in New York, I was pushed toward painting within that New York style. How does that happen? Galleries seek it out, jurors award it, painters you admire work that way. Above all, collectors buy it.

Human beings are social beings. We have a powerful need to belong. This makes us vulnerable to the influence of others. This is called normative social influence, or group norming, and it’s a powerful force in all social units from the family on up.

This is built into us because we’re herd animals. Group norming promotes social cohesion, which confers stability, safety, and harmony. But this cohesion has a cost, and that’s the sacrifice of individualism.

Deadwood, 36X48, oil on linen, $6231 framed

It can be extremely painful to be on the outs with your tribe. Whistleblowing is an example. Consider the story of Lindsey Boylan, the first woman to accuse Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment. Cuomo was a star of Boylan’s own political party, the winner of an Emmy, the darling of celebrities and power brokers. Boylan was smeared in the press with the release of supposed confidential personnel records. Even Times Upleader Roberta Kaplan, nominally a spokeswoman for sexually-harassed women, colluded with the governor to discredit Boylan.

We give lip service to the idea of “thinking outside the box,” but in fact nobody much likes having their own pet prejudices challenged. Society routinely ostracizes those who dare to be different, and that’s true of artists as much as anyone.

This is where a good knowledge of art history proves useful. It allows you to see over the lip of the basket you live in, to see where you fit in the greater scheme of things. If you’re constantly feeling wrong-footed or inadequate, perhaps the problem isn’t with you, but your tribe.

Choose your friends wisely

The people you paint with will influence your work and your attitudes toward success.

Channel Marker, 9X12, Carol L. Douglas, available.

If you’ve ever felt the powerful need to adjust your thinking to fit in, it’s not just moral weakness. We’re designed as herd animals, and that need to conform is built into us on a neural level. Disagreeing with our friends and neighbors makes us physically, emotionally and mentally uncomfortable.

Social norms are the rules that govern our group behavior, and they’re important. They’re how we all agree to forgo self-serving behaviors for the good of the group. These social norms—more so even than the force of law—govern our society.

Fog Bank, 14X18, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Some social norms (“thou shalt not kill”) are static, but others are fluid; for example, we’ve decided over the last three hundred years that child labor is morally wrong.

Group norming affects artists as much as anyone. We tend to slip into painting like our friends and neighbors. That’s why we develop painting schools like the Group of Seven. Artists working together subtly create a stylistic group norm.

This was demonstrated to me over the past weeks as we studied composition. There are rules we accept today that wouldn’t have occurred to a Manneristpainter.

Midsummer, 24X36, Carol L. Douglas, available.

Groupthink is aspirational, too. Successful thinking can be transmitted through a group as surely as clothing choices can.

I’ve just finished a year-long session with two very successful groups of students. Mary Silver found representation in a gallery in downtown San Antonio. Patty Mabie won “best floral” in the April Plein Air salon. Lori Capron Galan was juried into the Rochester Art Club. Several sold paintings over the past few months. All painted consistently to a high level. They created a culture of success, and that has pushed all of them to a high level of performance.

There are times when artists feel very alone. I felt stylistically isolated in western New York because my own painting was based on different norms. That went away when I moved to coastal Maine. Coastal Maine is inherently no better than western New York, but my own painting ethos was there, rather than in the Hudson River School.

Sometimes it rains, 8X10, Carol L. Douglas, available.

This points to the conundrum of the artist’s way, which is two-fold. Our work is communication, but it must be done very much alone. Moreover, we are part of a social continuum, but we strive to say something unique.

In the end, that’s the definition of leadership. That has nothing to do with seniority, titles, wealth, or management. It’s a process of social influence, and it’s a great responsibility.

Group norming

Feeling out of place, like a failure? Perhaps the problem isn’t you, but your tribe.

Five Chairs, by Pamela Hetherly, courtesy of Kelpie Gallery. This painting stopped me yesterday. The color is beautifully integrated, something that’s lost in the photo.

I spent a few hours yesterday at the Kelpie Gallery in S. Thomaston. I’d meant to drop paintings off and leave, but it is a very restful place with a clean, open atmosphere. I always spend more time there than I expect to. Susan Lewis Baines, the owner, is so interesting and interested that before you know it, the day is half over.

It’s an airy, light space with grey walls, a grey tiled floor and lots of white trim. What little furniture there is, is elegant and subservient to the art. I look at Sue’s handmade desk (no, it’s not for sale) and wonder if I need one like it. Then I remember that I live in an old farmhouse and it wouldn’t match at all. As a decorator, Sue is light years ahead of me. That’s a great quality in a gallerist.
Sometimes I See, by Kay Sullivan, courtesy of the artist. Kay’s works are small, active, and yet somehow peaceful.
She represents a small stable of painters. These include vibrant small pastels by Kay Sullivan, the austere abstractions of Ann Sklar, mystical landscapes of Julie Haskell and Beth London, moody interiors by Pamela Hetherly, and the idiosyncratic landscapes of the late Erik Lundin. On first glance, the work is widely disparate. but the visitor notices that they all hang together well. They are united by a common color sensibility and composition. That makes it possible for high realism to hang side-by-side with abstraction and have the combination complement both paintings.
As different as the paintings are, there’s definitely a group norm at work, and it’s bound to provoke a response from the visitor.
A crow painting by Beth London, available through the Kelpie Gallery.
I tell people I left New York because I can’t paint like a Hudson River Schoolpainter. It is a continuous tradition in New York, dating back two hundred years. In any other place, painting with that golden light and attention to detail would be an annoying affectation. But in New York, it has some wonderful modern practitioners, including Tarryl Gabeland Patrick McPhee.
Mary Byrom is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum this week. Yesterday, she commented about Abbott Handerson Thayer’s Roses, “Such a wonderful quiet stillness, from before these modern times. It makes a difference.” Tarryl and Patrick can still tap into that stillness, and they have many fans because of it.
Untitled, by Erik Lundin. Courtesy of the Kelpie Gallery. His disinterest in selling made him the most unaffected of painters.
I don’t feel things in that way. I’m thoroughly the product of my time, which means less value modeling and more color and brushwork. As long as I stayed in New York, I was subtly pushed toward painting a different way. Galleries liked it, jurors liked it. And I found it personally disheartening. I needed to seek out my own tribe. I did that by going on the road, and later by moving to Maine.*
This is where a good knowledge of art history proves useful. It allows you to see over the lip of the basket you live in, to see where you fit in the greater scheme of things. I like the basket I have moved to, but if I felt confined in it, I’d be exploring other places and other representation.
*An exception to this is Adirondack Plein Air, which is not style-driven. In fact, I find this true of plein air events in general. They usually attract a much wider variety of painters than from the local catchment area.

How to avoid the #1 obstacle to being a good artist

Yes, it’s a lighthouse. Wanna fight me?
Years ago, I was stymied by a large canvas of figures framed by a little house and an orchard. Following the conventional advice of the time, I took it to a well-known artist for critique. “It looks like an immature Chagall,” she said. In trying to fix that, I destroyed the work. 
My mature self knows exactly what was wrong with that painting: I was messing around way too much with glazing. A few decades of maturity have also taught me that orchards and fruit trees are important images to me. There was no cribbing from Chagall.
That critique set me back in my development because the artist looked at my work through the narrow lens of her own education and experience. She had no idea what I was striving for. Neither did I, of course, because I was a callow youth. These things require time and work to become clear.
I get lots of advice in my mailbox. I generally scan and ignore it. But this one irked me: “How to Avoid the #1 Obstacle to Becoming a Professional Artist,” it trumpeted. It went on to talk about how painters need to take classes and critiques and seek feedback from their peers to avoid what the writer calls “illusory superiority”—the idea that you think you’re better than, in fact, you are.
This painting of Beauchamp Point has few fans, but it still resonates with me. That’s because it was pointing in the direction in which I was moving at the time.
In fact, the fastest way to be a mediocre painter is to seek too much advice from others.
I’m all for learning one’s craft within structured instruction—it saves a lot of time and wasted material. Beyond that, however, group thinking should be approached with a certain wariness.
Once you get out of art school, most painting groups are comprised of supportive, kind, and helpful people. But even these tend to reward those whose work looks a certain way and ignore those whose inner vision is radically different from the group’s norm.
If you don’t believe this, just imagine taking your carefully-crafted landscape to this gallery and asking for representation. The art world is all about conformity, while at the same time it paradoxically hungers for individual expression.
A lot of research has been conducted on normative social influences and conformity. Human beings are social animals. To be liked and respected within their group, they tend to moderate their own opinions. Research tells us that group norming is consistent across cultures and gender. In short, it’s everywhere where two or more of you are gathered together. The ability to get a group of people to think and work alike is useful in corporate culture, but not so good for making innovative art.
I once heard an artist I admired sneer at “lighthouse paintings.” Ever since, I’ve approached painting them with some trepidation. Yes, I understand they are overdone for the tourist trade, but they are also powerful symbols and beautiful buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong with them. It irks me that he planted this idea in my mind with a casual comment he doubtlessly doesn’t even remember.
This painting of the Raising of Lazarus was savaged in a newspaper review. It’s not something I’m likely to forget in a hurry.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard one painter say to another, “Stop! You’re done! Not one more brushstroke!” Of course one can diddle a painting to death, but that process is sometimes necessary for the next observational breakthrough. By saying that to another painter, you’re putting yourself in charge of his or her development.
When I was younger, the exposed background in my paintings often took the form of dark, heavy lines. “That’s your style!” one teacher told me. I’d had enough art-history classes to know that ‘style’ is a transitory thing, and I found those lines frustrating. Later, Joe Peller taught me how to marry edges. What a less-competent teacher took as style, Peller recognized as a technical deficiency.
This is why we should teach and critique with a light hand. Even more importantly, we should accept criticism and commentary with a healthy dose of skepticism. They are no substitute for doing our own hard thinking about our own work.