Priming: Responses Change Over Time

Priming: Responses change over time

Cotopaxi, Frederic Edwin Church`s 1862
painting (7`x4`) of the Ecuadorean volcano

Frederic Edwin Church was America`s richest painter during the Civil War. He traveled to spectacular landscapes, such as the Andes and Niagara Falls. He then painted giant landscapes which he then exhibited, one at a time, to masses of paying customers. His Heart of the Andes sold for $10,000, a vast sum for an American painting in the mid-19th Century. Here`s the 1863 NYT`s review of Cotopaxi.

But then tastes changed and the value of his art plummeted. Some of his pictures wound up in nightclubs and restaurants as cheap decor, as failed attempts to class up the dump.

And then tastes changed again, and Church`s work slowly regained stature. His top paintings now are featured prominently in America`s top museums. His stature appears secure.

The Lost Tiffany Screen
Artist`s conception of the White House`s
lost Tiffany Screen

Here`s a painting by current artist Peter Waddell, The Grand Illumination, that represents President Benjamin Harrison turning on the first electric lights in the White House. The point of the picture, actually, is to provide an artist`s conception of the most legendary work of decor in White House history, the colored class screen installed by Louis Comfort Tiffany when he redecorated the White House for the urbane Chester Arthur. 

Today, glass artworks by Tiffany are once again worth a fortune, but they fell radically out of fashion in the early 1900s. Teddy Roosevelt had the Tiffany glass in the White House junked. The great screen, like so much Tiffany glass, was destroyed. So this painting uses some other surviving Tiffany works of the same era to create a speculative image of what once was.

The point of these examples are that people once found that the works of Frederic Edwin Church and Louis Comfort Tiffany once primed people to experience very positive emotions, and they work almost as well today. Yet, they also each went through eras when they primed people in the exact opposite direction: viewers found their masterpieces depressing.

Why would social psychologists expect that their lame little attempts to prime feelings in subjects in experiments would continue to work the same over the decades when masters like Church and Tiffany couldn`t get consistent responses?