Something that’s been bothering me increasingly over the last few years is this disturbing trend in society today where mediocrity is applauded and celebrated, resulting in a culture where everyone is told how special they are, where any kind of critical appraisal is increasingly considered inappropriate for fear of hurt feelings - a culture where everyone is handled with kid gloves, resulting in skewed, poorly-developed senses of self awareness and self appraisal of skill.
It’s not that I think we should all be cruelly blunt to one another, as there are certainly both good and bad ways to deliver a critique on a piece of work, but the increasing shying away from any kind of critique whatsoever is becoming all too commonplace. Instead, people are patted on the backs and told to “keep at it”, without being given any real guidance whatsoever. So they do keep at it - and stagnate at that point without progressing.
This is demonstrated really rather perfectly by talent (and I use the word talent in its loosest sense here) shows like The X-Factor and American Idol - we all cringe at the horrendous opening rounds of auditions where people, convinced they’re amazing, embarrass themselves with their appalling performances. And while one could argue these are televised in a somewhat exploitative fashion, the fact remains that those people were bolstered with confidence because they’ve been surrounded by people who have applauded their lack of skill, playing the role of yes-men who who’ve ultimately contributed to that person’s inflated opinion of their own ability.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but you can see this happening on art websites, including this one. Artists post work which is clearly, deeply flawed, but they’re convinced that it’s good. Because of this, their ability to learn is obviously impaired, as you have to be able to recognise and acknowledge your weaknesses if you’re to improve. And yet, to make matters worse, these people are encouraged by fanboy responses, patting their backs and telling them their work looks good, when, let’s face it, their work may actually really suck. I’m not saying this to belittle the people posting these, because frankly I can’t really blame them for not knowing any better when we’re living in a culture that’s telling them they’re brilliant.
Some of you may be aware of a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect; for those that don’t, it’s the way in which unskilled people assume they’re more skilled than they are (and, conversely, truly skilled people are often plagued with doubt). Dunning and Kruger’s research demonstrated the inability of an unskilled individual to recognise his/her own shortcomings, essentially because that person lacks the metacognitive awareness to recognise their own lack of skill, resulting in illusory superiority - because indeed one of the most fascinating things about this phenomenon is that not only do the unskilled not recognise their lack of skill, they actually often overestimate it to the point that, when comparing their own work to work that is in fact superior, they rate their own work as the better of the two. It’s that bad.
This cognitive bias, combined with a society that basically stokes it, is ultimately harming artists. I mentioned above that society today tends to treat everyone as a special little snowflake, and this is particularly common when it comes to creativity. Now, don’t get me wrong - I think creativity is extremely important and I think that pursuing creative outlets is good for people, generally; people should definitely be encouraged to indulge their creativity - after all, kids are pretty creative and I think modern schooling systems often beat the creativity out of them. But that’s another discussion altogether. The point I’m getting at here is that we now live in a society where every shitty photo on Facebook is given loads of thumbs up and “wow, amazing!” comments, “artists” like Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst are given the Emperor’s New Clothes treatment in response to every piece pretentious, talentless garbage they produce, and every kid with a laptop and Frooty Loops is suddenly a musical genius.
If everything is art, then art loses its meaning. It’s like if everyone is special, then the word special ceases to mean special, because it just becomes the norm. See, it’s not that I care that people are posting “wow” comments to strangers’ work. It’s that this attitude is ultimately devaluing art. If every kid with a cracked copy of Photoshop and a Deviantart profile is suddenly a graphic designer because they’re making “cool” signatures and avatars for people, how are the truly skilled designers supposed to make a decent living? If every person with a blog on Wordpress is a cool, modern guerilla journalist, how are real journalists meant to earn a decent wage? If every person with a camera is the next Cartier-Bresson, then how are truly skilled photographers meant to persuade their clients to actually pay for their work? £500 for a wedding photographer?! Your cousin Sid just bought one of those fancy cameras with the detachable lenses and can shoot the thing for free, surely. Taking photos isn’t hard!
One could argue that real skill will ultimately triumph but the reality is this isn’t always the case. Rebecca Black’s Friday sold 43,000 copies. Okay, it could probably be argued that some of those sales were for the comedy novelty, but you can bet there were plenty of people out there who thought it great - hell, even the most cursory search on the web will reveal thousands of other truly unskilled people, often with websites that look like they’ve stepped through a neon time portal from the days of Geocities, making money doing shitty work that’s nevertheless considered good. Because when mediocrity is the new excellence, then how does anyone even know the difference between the good and the bad anymore?
And don’t get me wrong here, I’m not an elitist about art. I fervently believe, for example, that anyone can learn to draw - I absolutely hate the common belief that some people are “born artistic”, and that without this innate ability, you’ll always be hopeless (yes, people are born with certain aptitudes, but nobody emerges from the womb with the ability to paint like Da Vinci, because the skill itself still needs to be developed). I believe that anyone who puts in the time and effort can develop artistic skills. It’s just that most people don’t. Of the entire population, it’s a very small minority of people who’ve actually put in the time and dedication to master their various mediums and disciplines, to become good in their artistic fields. And I think that, just like someone who goes to university and spends years studying law to get a good job as a lawyer, someone who puts in that time to develop and master artistic skills also deserves to be able to make a living putting their skills to use.
Invariably, when bringing up this topic, someone crawls out of the woodwork with the tediously inevitable “all art is subjective” chestnut. Sorry, but no, I don’t buy that. There are some things in the world of art that are objectively shite. While taste may indeed be subjective, anyone looking, for example, at the notorious Gallerie Abominate website from way back when, can agree that the work on display there is simply awful. Because as much as we like to appear all progressive and modern with out “anything goes” attitudes, there are reasons why some things are considered more aesthetically pleasing or artistically successful than other things. There’s a reason why the photos at 1x.com look better than your snaps from your last holiday, just as there’s a reason why Caravaggio’s paintings look better than those of a bored and lazy high school student forced to paint a still life, so let’s not pretend otherwise.
My concern is that if things continue in their current vein, in a few decades we could end up with a world where the truly creatively skilled can no longer stand above the tide of mediocrity that’s swamping them, and that people may no longer be able to make a reasonable living in their respective creative pursuits. I worry that art will lose its meaning to the point that we won’t recognise excellence anymore, instead surrounding ourselves with meaningless creations that no longer truly inspire or provoke. I also fear that those with real potential are being impeded by feedback which doesn’t challenge them to improve, which instead encourages them to be complacent with the level they’re currently at, or, worse, inflating their egos to the point that they begin to suffer from the illusory superiority I mentioned earlier, which is even more destructive than mere complacency. Do we really want to live in a world of Dunning-Krugers?
What are your thoughts?