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.