Activism, Art, Politics

My Unpopular Opinion: There Are Too Many Mediocre Artists

Every now and again, a friend of mine holds a ‘what’s your unpopular opinion?’ discussion in a club we jointly run.

Everyone takes turns to say something not so much outrageous or contrarian (debates are seldom about politics) but bitter – as in ‘bitter truth’. People argue, say, that colonialism is a good idea (when done by the British, of course), or that sometimes historic buildings and artefacts are more important than people (and should by preference be preserved in wartime), or that corporal punishment is probably not such a bad idea for certain sorts of crimes (and criminals).

He imposes the Chatham House rule so people aren’t set upon afterwards by mobs of offendotrons trying to get them sacked for wrongthink.

Well, I’ve decided to go public with one of my unpopular opinions.

There are too many artists, too many people who want to be artists, most of them aren’t very good, and schools should focus on inculcating self-discipline rather than dopey ‘all must have prizes’ creativity.

Most people are only ever going to be drones. Telling them because they starred in the high school musical or wrote the best poem in the school magazine means they’re going to make it as an actor or writer is a monstrous lie that sets them up for disappointment.

All the arts – but especially literature – have low barriers to entry. Huge numbers of people are attracted to what are seen to be glamorous fields like writing, acting, directing, and painting. Often, this is because one person is plucked from the crowd and becomes a star – there’s nothing quite like a narrative where we get to cheer on the underdog – known in the trade as a ‘winner takes all’ market. However, the economics of ‘crowded fields’ means the larger the number of participants, the more randomness and luck play a role in determining success.

There’s a reason lawyers and doctors make so much money: they have professional associations restricting access to the right to work as one. Writers and artists, by contrast, have to persuade either markets or governments to give them money.

That is why – in these modern ‘attention economy’ times – publishing houses insist on using identity politics to try to ‘move the merch’. And you read that right – intersectional feminism and mandated racial diversity are marketing and branding strategies, not politics. That’s why they’re so light on policy solutions, and what policies they do propose are routinely based on pseudoscience. Nearly everything intended to ameliorate the gender pay gap or reduce violent crime rates, for example, is flat wrong, and produces what my dad used to call ‘pissing in a wetsuit’ policy – it ‘feels good, but doesn’t show’.

It’s also why they look so good on glossy corporate brochures and in civil service Powerpoint decks, as well as making it easier to sack opinionated employees (Google’s James Damore is merely one among many). Who needs a union or workers’ rights? We have diversity! Look at all those pretty colours and shapes!

Meanwhile, universities (yes, you can go to university, rack up student debt, and ‘learn’ to be a writer) tell some people – depending on skin tone, sex, orientation, or something else – as a matter of routine they have an important and luminous story to tell because of what they are. But we now know the only diversity that has any effect on literary quality is viewpoint diversity. All saying otherwise does is disclose to the individuals in question they’re starring in their very own episode of South Park – as ‘Token’.

There is nothing quite like seeing a modestly talented person crumple when they think an opportunity has been snatched from them when they have to go and drive for Uber or take a factory job. Even worse is the modestly talented person who persists (and persists) and is paid nothing at all while churning out content for Huffington Post.

These people are everywhere in the economy, living hand-to-mouth and doing idiot things like demanding ‘luxury communism now’ (that’s from Ash Sarkar, the self-described feminist Muslim who had a go-round with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain recently.)

Feminists, too, live in mum’s basement and call themselves ‘writers’ or ‘artists’. It’s not just MRAs and the sadder sort of gamers. They live there because they think, one day, they’ll land on (literary) Free Parking in Monopoly and thence lay hands on the Big Brass Ring.

That’s not how it works, and worse, all it does is inflict bad writing on the rest of us. No wonder sales of literary fiction around the world have fallen off a cliff.

For all that governments and universities can pay a writer to write, they can’t make the public buy what’s written. That is where markets – even when we prefer the East German way of doing arts policy – do play a role. It’s worth noting other writing genres are fine, too – science fiction, crime, fantasy, thrillers, romance – these are selling better than ever. We can’t blame literary fiction’s current parlous state on e-books or Amazon.

The best argument for burning state-supported arts infrastructure to the ground (and then salting the earth on which it once stood) is the opportunity to tell vast numbers of talentless hacks to give up their dreams, get some discipline, and heed some timeless advice from former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating.

‘Get a job, you bum’.


Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, read law at Oxford, and was previously Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Senior Adviser. Book II of her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked – set in a Roman Empire that has undergone an industrial revolution – was launched in June this year. Book I was published in October last year. For her sins, she sometimes consults in public relations and advertising. Follow her on Twitter and Gab @_HelenDale

This article was originally published in The Spectator.



Filed under: Activism, Art, Politics


Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award in 1995, read law at Oxford (where she was at Brasenose) and was previously Senior Adviser to Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, will be published by Ligature in October this year.


  1. CookingPots says

    Amen amen. Ever since I saw the Banksy documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” I’ve been stunned as to how modern art has corporatized and sold out. Although it is titillating to watch these rich, boho-bougoise art collectors be departed from their money, it seems like the scam is becoming more and more entrenched. Roger Kimball wrote a great book about the downfall of art [history] education called The Rape of the Masters. I highly recommend!

    • Just because you don’t like the trade between others doesn’t make your view correct. The “customer is always right” concept suggests that pop culture is best, even if snobs reject it (perhaps rightly if by ‘best’ you only mean what you like, not the masses, or you show preference for esoterica).
      Some people spend big on fashion, others do not. Neither is right or wrong, just different.

      • neoteny says

        Just because you don’t like the trade between others doesn’t make your view correct.

        A very important word was left out of this sentence: voluntary (trade). Indeed, it isn’t any business of mine what other people voluntarily trade, including their monies for objects or experiences of art. But government ‘support’ of art isn’t voluntary: that kind of trade involves monies collected as taxes, which aren’t voluntary payments. So a taxpayer is entitled to not like the trade involved in government ‘support’ of art.

        I understand that the issue raised by CookingPots wasn’t about government ‘support’ of art, but I found your (david of Kirkland) rejoinder lacking in precision.

        • CookingPots says

          I never stated that my view was “correct.” Indeed as a libertarian, I shudder at the idea of anyone being restricted on how they spend their money. Although I’m a nurse now, I was a concert pianist I’m my former life. I saved up years to buy a Steinway, and I often got puzzled or agast looks when close friends knew how much I spent. But piano is my life’s joy. So pooh.
          If collecting modern art literally churned out factory style by interns (again, please watch the Banksy doc), who am I to interfere in such transactions? But I have the right to scoff when the the purchased pieces are palpably absurd, and protest when it’s my tax dollars being used to fund such solipsistic madness.

      • Wilson says

        Well it suggests that it’s popular, hence the name, but popularity doesn’t necessarily determine merit or value, and we’re quite a ways out from history doing so. I’d also defend art schools as long as they’re serious about critique. Because it’s easier to fail a student who literally can’t do the math than it is a student who simply makes unpopular work. Thus initial acceptance becomes everything, lesser artists need to be filtered out at the front door, and that shows in exhibits at better schools.

  2. Bubblecar says

    On the other hand, the prizes often go to mediocrity as well, Helen’s own award-winning but not-very-good novel being a case in point. Presumably it sold a profitable number of copies, but that may have had more to do with the accompanying theatrics.

    My own view is that rather than give a prize to each artist, we could perhaps stop giving them to anyone. If it’s not a race (and it isn’t), there really isn’t any need for prizes.

    Most artists in non-commercial fields create their work for the love of it, rather than worldly rewards. And the internet gives us the opportunity to offer our works to the world free of charge, in case anyone out there might appreciate it.

    And if they do, the word spreads and we attract enough of a following to make it worthwhile to continue releasing further works.

    • Do you really think the general public are equipped to judge the merit of more difficult art forms like contemporary music? The internet is useful for disseminating work, sure, but if pop culture teaches us anything, it’s that popular taste and artistic quality are (often) diametrically opposed. This is not to say that the arts establishment isn’t rife with agenda-driven pseuds, but–like it or not–the notion of “critical” acclaim and the various bodies which award prizes to artists provide useful and necessary barriers between the occasional great artist (they do exist, let me assure you) and a public which is liable to dismiss or misunderstand his/her work. To acknowledge expertise is to acknowledge that not everyone possesses it. In which case, to farm out the important task of judging the quality of art to “the market” is nothing short of cultural vandalism.

      • peanut gallery says

        Sure, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a glut of indecipherable bullshit. I recall the wine tasters with their fancy wine jargon being fooled by box wine. Every critic loved it but had widely different jargon to describe it. The Arts can be the same way. If you aren’t deep into it, (because you have better things to do possibly) you’d have no way to know it’s actually just a jar of piss that required no skill or thought. It’s also subjective to some degree. And the rules can be loose. There are some guidelines for writing a good novel, but a good writer can break some rules and make the whole thing work. Talking about art can be fun, but there’s a huge “difference between a vocation and avocation.”

      • That’s just classism, where you suggest this art is good, but that art is popular “bad.” Art is as good as those who indulge like. Many artists were not popular in their time, but became popular. Does becoming popular make their art less good, and do we pretend that if nobody gets it, it’s “sophisticated art”?

      • The idea of a priestly class who can explain art to the rest of us is frankly ludicrous. There is no measure of artistic quality, it’s entirely subjective.

        • Alphonse Credenza says

          Of course, there are standards. But to know then requires discernment, which is the product of talent, skill, training and experience, all of which is passed on by means of tradition. The Cultural Revolution of 1968 meant to destroy all that. That is why you think it is all subjective.

          • Centrist Gal says

            The arts establishment wants it both ways. They simultaneously argue that all art is subjective, then use their institutional power to decree which art/artist is good. The only truth in art is the one that THEY decree. The radicals sought to destroy old hierarchies in art, only to establish a new one. Conveniently, now it is one based on arbitrary rules where definitions of art and artists are so open as to be meaningless. This means there are no objective standards to limit the exercise of their arbitrary power. Those who don’t agree with their assessments are philistines. They offer a ‘professional’ path right up to PhD level, but offer no exclusivity around the qualifications. The whole system is totally corrupt. Art schools that no longer teach actual skills and use objective, consistent measures of attainment of those skills in order to assess students, need to disappear. Art schools that do not apply rigorous standards of entry, need to disappear. Do NOT go to art school!! Do NOT waste your money!!! You know the world is upside down when the WORST students walk out with multiple prizes. You know the world is upside down when people with PhDs in art paint like five year olds. Which begs the question: why not just get five years old to do the job? Identity politics is BIG in art schools; forget about the quality of the art. But if ‘anything goes’ in art school, and progress cannot be defined, or is actually considered a bad thing, then what is the purpose of schools and art teachers? To understand the arbitrary nature of the art world go and see the rubbish being produced by graduates, study the finalists/winners of big art competitions, and look at the art being purchased or funded through arts grants. This is a business; it has nothing to do with art. If the public knew who and what was being funded they would be outraged. Some of it beggars belief. The art world shows how the interests of Marxists who wished to democratise art via the “anything is art and everyone is an artist” creed in order to destroy Western ‘bourgeois’ standards, perfectly suits capitalism. Of course the wealthy still rule the roost, but every now and then they throw a crumb to some ‘oppressed’ minority to show how ‘inclusive’ they are,or propel some useless political artist to great heights. If you can baffle people with BS, if you have the right connections, then you might make it as artist. There is no recourse to old fashioned things like skill, talent or aesthetics to act as a check against charlatanism. And the public better not say “but I could do that”. The left have totally destroyed art, just as they destroy everything they touch. The good news is that there appears to be resurgence of interest in traditional skills. That immediately wipes out about 90% of the people who currently call themselves ‘artists’; they simply don’t have the talent or the ticker to do things the old-fashioned way to a high level of competence and artistry.

        • Sure sure, The Godfather has no more merit than some lowest common denominator Adam Sandler pap.

      • Rich Russell says

        The idea of educating oneself by studying art history is commendable, as it generally enhances one’s enjoyment of a given medium. It is available to anyone wishing to do so.

        However, your contentions that 1) what is popular is by definition without artistic value, and 2) that a small, self-appointed caste of “experts” is needed to pass judgments on artistic merit are both absurd, and sad examples of the kind of narrow-minded, corrosive elitism that is such an impediment to a wider appreciation of various art forms.

        The notion of “experts” has been widely discredited in general, and study after study has shown that they are no better at interpreting the world around us than random chance. Regarding the subject at hand, actually believing that there are individuals who are uniquely qualified to “interpret” the good from the bad in contemporary art, for the benefit of the benighted, is risible.

        • Alphonse Credenza says

          Surely, you are not making the claim that everyone is born with the ability to be a professional basketball player? Or a nuclear physicist working at the Hadron collider facility in wherever the heck it is?

          There are those with the faculty of discernment and they are relatively few. By virtue of instinct, training and experience, they have an aesthetic insight others do not.

          Enjoyment, as opposed to what is and is not Art and what is better and what is worse, is anyone’s bailiwick. That said, by virtue of the bureaucratic educational establishment, we have oodles of “experts” who have no insight and previous little training that qualifies them for the title of “critic” they so treasure.

          • Rich Russell says

            It is a jaw-dropping conceit that you are equating vanishingly rare and valuable talents like world-class ability in sports and science to those necessary to be an art critic–wow…

        • Northern Observer says

          Popular is a contested term. A lot of art that tries to pass itself off as popular is low selling mumbo jumbo purchased by a few elite wealthy buyers to signal their avant guard credibility. Occasionally some of these works make their way into popular culture – Keith Haring comes to mind, but even then who remembers the poor guy now, let alone his works. Experts are annoying, and no one needs a gatekeeper to appreciate art but there is still a difference between knowledge and intuition and although many self professed experts are pious frauds there is something to be said for people who work to know and understand a topic for a long period of time. Call it authentic authority.

    • Prizes are there to sell more of whatever it is in contention. No need to stop handing them out. Probably wise not to take them seriously though.

  3. ga gamba says

    Of all the advocacy of universal basic income I’ve read, my favourite is: “So people can do their art.”

  4. x-moose says

    I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue than why I have one.

    Marcus Porcius Cato

  5. I concur that a ‘luxury space communism’ of everyone ‘making art’ would result, inevitably, in total consumption through digital media and egotistic self-collapse. A world where everyone is ‘making art’ is a world utterly oversaturated in itself. Advocates of this theory truly have no idea how miserable and myopic a world of everyone running their own WordPress (or Twitter account) 24/7 with no other obligations would be. It would be far worse than what we have now.

    On the other hand, markets do not produce quality. If there is a market for a particular vein of story, and agents and publishers know it will sell, inevitably, the market drives the nature of the work and novelty dries us. A series of checklists and a world of art made by pop ‘how to write’ books and workshops replaces any genuine spark of creation. Writing becomes entirely ‘professional’, another technical exercise devoid of genuine individuation. Neither the market nor the literati can ultimately decide the worth of a work. It falls into an infinite gray area.

    • Or, the markets are always correct, which is why an artist can be missed at one time and revered at another, and perhaps forgotten sometime later. You pretend that’s good art and bad art, but there’s only art you like and art you don’t. I find most modern art, but also a lot of poetry, to be dull. That speaks of my take on their art, but that alone. The idea that my taste must match yours is nonsense, or that your take is better than mine is also nonsense. We like what we like, even if we like things only because others have rated it highly. Humans are not perfection machines.

      • Martin28 says

        Markets may be always correct about something, but not artistic merit. Popularity and merit are two different things. They sometimes go together, sometimes not. Artistic merit is shown by how long something lasts. Shakespeare, for example, has never sold as well as Danielle Steele has in recent decades, yet I am certain Shakespeare will be read 400 years from now, and not Steele. Beyonce outsells Beethoven. Beethoven will outlast Beyonce. Everyone’s taste is valid, but they are not all created equal.

        • Longevity of popularity is the closest we have to a measure of artistic quality but it still isn’t a true measure of artistic value which remains subjective. By their very nature some works have a small audience but are neither better nor worse for that.

          • Alphonse Credenza says

            No, it is not subjective. You mean that anyone can make up standards of quality? Try that in the kitchen. Sure you may like Taco Bell, but it isn’t well made, has little of nutritive value and isn’t even real Mexican food. But you mean to say that just because you like it, that it’s good? That is simply incorrect.

      • Centrist Gal says

        That’s fine, but the State should not be playing a role in art at all then, because there is no basis on which to justify the expenditure of public money.

  6. Asema says

    The problem is not so much that there are mediocre artists, but that the art is commercialized. There is no incentive to produce good art, just to push more shit down the throats of the consumers. With the system we have now a well made book peice of music that will be listened or read again and again is actually of less value than a shitty one that will be forgotten in a week. The solution is to gut copy protections, this way the art that is good will be spread by the people to the people (similarly to how good music spread via radio and bootlegs before the time of having to purchase music catalogs and having to play the crappy music along with the good).

    • D Bruce says

      Commercialisation and art have always gone hand in hand – painters traditionally had to find rich (private) patrons. The problem now is that the government is far too involved. You can’t get an arts grant without ticking a bunch of semi-politcal boxes.

  7. Peter from Oz says

    Great article.
    W.S. Gilbert was definitely on to something when he wrote:
    ”If everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody”
    The democratising of art diminishes it

    • @ Peter from Oz

      ” The democratising of art diminishes it”

      No it doesn’t. In a free society what are you going to do? Stop people? How?

      What diminishes art is not being discriminatory in judgement. If a writer is bad, they should be judged as bad – regardless of who they are. If we lower standards and accept bad art as good then that is what diminishes standards

      Or what diminishes art is poor standards of education. If artists are not produced to the best of their ability then they are going to produce bad art.

      • Morgan says

        ur a dum.
        Okay, so who exactly is doing the discriminating here. Since you want to allow the democratization of art, you clearly don’t want it to be old artists in universities deciding who the best artist is. From your article, it seems you want the ‘market to decide’. Well, you know what the market loved? Twilight. American Idol. Justin Beiber. Self-help books. The market is only going to produce the lowest common denominator of content, and publishers have to publish ‘good art’ at a loss, essentially out of the kindness of their hearts. The only way to make the market do better is to educate not the artists, but all the people who participate in the market. How do you do that, especially with the high cost of higher education in America. Expect them to read up on high literature between their nine-to-five and possibly taking care of their kids? In fact, educating the artists would be counter-productive without educating the whole population, because they would only produce art that would always fail or do poorly in the market. Maybe if they’re lucky they get a cult following and are celebrated a hundred years after their deaths. So who does the discrimination? You? Are your tastes sacrosanct? Do you believe we will reach consensus. Do you believe, somehow, that your work is ‘good’, and you aren’t just another mediocre talent who can succeed in the market by virtue of your ability to appeal to the average intelligence of the average person in the market?

        Honestly, your most rational thought was the whole ‘burning it to the ground’ thing. The only time art is really free is when it’s just starting. When it’s only the great artists who actually want to participate, and they create a new market or join an emerging market, and because of the limited number of participants, have space (and lack of competition) to dominate the market after proving their talent to their peers, who are all other people who love the medium. When it gets commodified, when the market really gets going, you destroy art, or at least make it extraordinarily difficult without a strong subculture of above average people, together, pushing through the market drive to mediocrity.

        • Peter from Oz says

          Thanks for your support. But I think there are a few gaps in your thinking. The market doesn’t just reward popular art or even middlebrow art. It also rewards lots of high art too. Damian Hirst has made a lot more money than most film stars, so has Jeff Koons. They don’t have to sell a lot. Different sections of the market are prepared to pay for their work.
          The market gives us quality.
          Helen Dale’s point is that too many people are sold on the idea that they have artistic talent and don’t. Most of them are probably at best middlebrow anyway.
          So the market doesn’t have to be burnt to the ground, the government just has to get out of subsidising rubbish. Real artists will always find a way to the market if they need to do so.

        • The market has also rewarded Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare etc. All sold well when they were alive and continue to do so. ‘High’ and ‘low’ are fairly arbitrary distinctions.

        • Centrist Gal says

          You miss the point. The educators THEMSELVES say there are no standards. The educators THEMSELVES won’t define qualitative differences between different works of art. The qualification, not the art becomes the only means of shoring up an artist’s claim to being a ‘real’ artist. It is the art schools that are producing the Justin Biebers, only they are highly credentialed. Worse, the graduating artists are not even popular with the public! Just as you don’t need to be a talented or skilled musician or singer to be a pop star, you don’t need to be talented or skilled to be an artist. The educational institutions have made themselves redundant through their own philosophies, but they cling to power and their cosy jobs. If they revert to skills based teaching, like music colleges, where there is some structure, some rules and standards, where you have to demonstrate a certain level of ability to get in, and then have to pass certain standards in order to graduate, they might be able to once again justify their existence. As it stands, art education is a complete rort.

          • Alphonse Credenza says

            Yes yes yes, Centrist Gal! YES!!! YOU GET IT! And there are many many I have met who think as we do, including many young artists (who have real talent!).

      • Peter from Oz says

        I should have put inverted commas around “democratising” because what I meant is the whole government grant, everybody’s arts is wonderful, participation gets you a prize mentality that passes for what democracy is claimed to be these days by our friends on the left.
        That democratisation of art is ruinous, because it inevitably leads to all art being held to be worthy no matter how meretricious or silly. It elevates all artistic creations equal and intrudes ghastly political ideas of egalitarianism whilst letting hypocrites be elitist by decrying as philistines anyone who wants poetry to scan or paintings to represent something.
        We thus get the sort of art where the plaques containing the description are in fact the real art because they are often brilliant at describing the incredible significance of a few blotches or wobbly lines.
        Never in the history of the world have so many people been involved in the making of high art, and never has the state of high art been so parlous.
        Middlebrow art is doing very well, as is popular art. Both of these make serious money without government grants or corporate sponsorship. It is high art that is suffering.

        • @ Peter from Oz

          I don’t think what you describe really actually happens. To some basic level young kids might need encouragement beyond that who can afford such lavish government grants?

          On the subject of government grants, I disagree with the libertarian position. Higher arts, high culture needs government support and it should be supported for the good of the people. Pop culture doesn’t need such support.

          I think we are in agreement over this.

          “Never in the history of the world have so many people been involved in the making of high art”

          Well! I don’t know about that. I think the old standards have gone. No one really writes “poetry” anymore for example. In the UK there was a wonderful tradition of choral music – that i slowly winding up. Ballet struggles and whatnot. So I wouldn’t say there are so many people involved at all… quite the opposite.

          • neoteny says

            Higher arts, high culture needs government support and it should be supported for the good of the people.

            Except that “the people” don’t think that “higher arts, high culture” is good for them: were they thinking so, they would pay for it. Their unwillingness to pay for it reveals their preference for that kind of art which they do pay for. Government support of “higher arts, high culture” reveals what the government’s preference is — except that the government is able to reveal its preference by spending the people’s monies collected as taxes.

  8. X. Citoyen says

    Meh. I’ve read better comments on comments on articles. Hardly deserved a reprint.

    Given the apparent shortage of supply at Quillette, Ga Gamba better get working on that piece of his.

  9. hemocyanin says

    Off Topic, but when are the audiobooks for Kingdom of the Wicked due? If you haven’t started, Jennifer Wiltsie is a rockstar narrator (important!) (sample The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson).

  10. I disagree with this:

    “has any effect on literary quality is viewpoint diversity”

    I think the author misunderstands viewpoint diversity.

    Viewpoint diversity has little to no effect on quality of literature. How can it? Viewpoint diversity is just multiple views put into the pot. It says nothing of the quality of views. Literary quality come from things like:

    Clarity – Knowledge – Innovation – Originality – Craft – Strength of argument – Judgement [discrimination].

    “There are too many artists, too many people who want to be artists,”

    So what? What is this too many in relation to?

    “most of them aren’t very good”

    True. But again so what?

    “and schools should focus on inculcating self-discipline rather than dopey ‘all must have prizes’ creativity.”

    No. Schools should mainly concentrate teaching “the best which has been thought and said” regardless of the pupil.

    “That’s not how it works, and worse, all it does is inflict bad writing on the rest of us. No wonder sales of literary fiction around the world have fallen off a cliff.”

    This is just outright silly! Bad writing sells! People buy “junk” by the bucket load! And they are completely free to do so. Poor genre writing such as love, crime and thrillers still sells.

    Literary fiction has always sold poor, has more competition than before [internet, pop music, films etc] and education values have changed and standards have dropped for the worse.

    What a misfire of an article.

    • Nikolay Petrov says

      Hi, Reading Nomad! Great comments – very thought-provoking.

      I don’t necessarily agree with some of your points you raised – let me propose ideas to consider:

      1) Viewpoint diversity can have an effect on the quality of the literature.

      It is the foundation for all the other virtues you mentioned, in a way.In order to make judgements, highlight the strength of an argument or pinpoint innovation, you can do so by putting forward all viewpoints and then showing why or how one idea is better or worse than another.
      A clear example of that would be a clash of moral views – in order to show the flaws of different moral system, you can develop characters with those different viewpoints and put them in different situations – that would make it very clear the advantages and disadvantages of each and readers can make decision on the strength of those.

      2) You ask so what if there are too many artists even if they are bad… Well, it is actually a huge, irritating, detrimental issue, in my opinion…

      In my work in Student Recruitment in University (UK), I see the appalling effects of “too many, too bad” students clearly. The standards of admission have gone down DRAMATICALLY because institutions can’t fill the necessary places. People apply through a process called “Clearing” (maybe it is UK-specific, I am not sure), in which all students who did not get the necessary grades for their choices go for available, unfilled places in other programmes/universities. And these students’ grades are usually way below the initial requirements.

      So now in order for those students not to drop-out, because universities need the money, they dumb-down the material taught. Hence, as standards of admission go down, so does quality of teaching – do you see the vicious cycle?

      3) “Schools should mainly concentrate teaching “the best which has been thought and said” regardless of the pupil.”

      I would firmly say NO to that actually. I’ve heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson discuss that at length multiple times, but essentially that’s the reason we leave students with the impression that science is just a bunch of facts. No, “science [as well as knowledge] is much more a way of thinking that it is a body of knowledge” (Carl Sagan).
      I agree that we need to lay the foundations by exposing students first to raw knowledge and material upon which to build, but I argue that there is a serious deficiency in teaching the HOW rather than the WHAT.


      • @ Nikolay Petrov

        Thanks for the comment. You raise good points, but let me expound on my thinking and then we can figure out if you disagree or not.

        1. Viewpoint diversity can have a positive effect on the development [education] of an artist and largely that is the end of it. Does it actually have much effect on the work produced? No. Even then I think that effect is limited.

        I think the best and the strongest artists produced are those that are educated and brought up in strict and narrow confines of a Great Tradition. A pupil has to learn the best of that tradition first before going on to exposure to other thoughts especially those of other Great Traditions. Now, only then is a student learned enough to be able to produce original innovative art and thought and able to judiciously tackle new thoughts. Now, viewpoint diversity as I understand it is confined and has to be confined to this.

        To sum up – despite how open to viewpoint diversity an academic discipline is – a student has to be brought up in the past tradition to have the skills to be judicious and be able to advance and add to the tradition. All problems lie in relativism. And it seems viewpoint diversity is poorly define. People are beginning to use it as buzzword and chuck it in with anything.

        2. We are arguing about 2 different things here. I have ranted about loss of educational standards before. And as I have done above. But there is a difference between poor students and poor artists. No matter how good the education is, some artists are always going to be poor, as in not good. I do not believe in anyone “forcing” a poor student/artist away. Rather:

        Bad art should always be called bad. It is when we don’t do this when problems arise. Tracey Emin is a horrendously poor artist. But then there are complete bellends who lavishly praises her.

        Low-brow art tends to be quite successful. What can you do about it? Nothing. Problems arise when it judged to be equal to High-brow Art. For example, in UK recently the major Literary Prize, the Man Booker, have decided to include graphic novels and genre fiction alongside Literary Fiction.

        3. “I would firmly say NO to that actually. I’ve heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson discuss that at length multiple times, but essentially that’s the reason we leave students with the impression that science is just a bunch of facts. No, “science [as well as knowledge] is much more a way of thinking that it is a body of knowledge” (Carl Sagan).”

        This is confused. What are you disagreeing about?

        • Nikolay Petrov says

          Great stuff.

          1) I don’t think we can agree on that point without ranting on for hours. Admittedly, it is fairly complex. But I think that education and good quality work (be that literature, arts or other type of creative/cognitively-demanding work) is constructed the other way around – instead of first “learning the best of that tradition first before going on to exposure to other thoughts especially those of other Great Traditions”, I would argue you first need great exposure of viewpoints (here’s where viewpoint diversity comes into play) and then bringing them together, taking the best of all of them, adding a part of you and creative that unique piece of art.
          A worthwhile point, nonetheless.

          2) Given that we agree on the lowering standards higher education, I can also agree that bad art should be called bad art. Much like bad academic work is called bad academic work. But wouldn’t you say the predominance of bad artists causes the lowering of the standards (as bad art goes up, the mean quality of art in general goes down.), as the article explains. If so, that would answer you question regarding the consequences of the predominance of bad art.

          • @ Nikolay Petrov

            I am sorry but going to be a little blunt over this:

            “instead of first “learning the best of that tradition first before going on to exposure to other thoughts especially those of other Great Traditions”, I would argue you first need great exposure of viewpoints”

            But this is just nonsense. Things do not work like that… so does a child learn the language of its parents or do you viewpoint diversify it? One has to be taught the Tradition of one’s culture – especially given there isn’t one more advanced than Western culture.

            I think you are arguing for the sake of arguing. You do not have a point.

            2. “But wouldn’t you say the predominance of bad artists causes the lowering of the standards ”

            Nope. One deals with the causes of bad art and not worry about the bad art itself – you can do nothing about that.

        • Centrist Gal says


          “Problems arise when it judged to be equal to High-brow Art”.

          Exactly. The problem isn’t how many artists there are, or how freely one wishes to define art and artist. The problem is contextual..the question is how should it be defined within institutions? High and low art can happily exist side by side, as long as they are not equated. We understand the qualitative differences between the skills of a musician who graduates from the Juillard School of Music, and somebody who can bang out four chords on an electric keyboard. OK, they might all self-describe as ‘musicians’. We know the difference between elite footballers who have received professional training, and the local footy team. OK, they’re all footballers. But in art! Unfortunately, by removing artisanship and skill as a necessary component, the two ARE equated. The trouble is low art has been institutionalised. Within education, there MUST be some definitions and standards otherwise the very purpose of the institutions is destroyed. If there is no material difference between the art coming out of higher education and that being produced by complete novices, if the institutions THEMSELVES are promoting the idea that ‘free expression’ is the key, as long as it is ‘authentic’, or that conceptual art is what the artist says is art, then why would anybody bother going to art school? It’s a total rip off. If the aim is to be authentic and raw or naive or radical, then the minute you put foot inside an institution you are selling out. Unfortunately the lunatics have taken over the asylum and somehow they believe the institution can retain its authority, despite there being no definitions or standards around what they are ‘teaching’. I went to an art school where they do still conduct observational drawing, and life drawing classes, because traditional training appeals to me, but there was little rigour. The wackier, the more inept, the better! So raw! They awarded prizes to somebody who drew less well than my young child; that is, clumsy, distorted, heavy-handed stick figures. Even worse than Tracey Emin! (That she could have been made the Professor of Drawing at the RA says it all). The prizes were given on the basis of ‘adversity’. But who are these educators who think they can assess student’s lives and judge whose circumstances are more adverse than another’s? Why did students whose work was far better or those who also suffered adversity (deaf, missing limbs, serious illness, etc) not get prizes? Because the teachers and administrators are there to tick boxes and collect the money and be social engineers all at the same time. This is the sick PC mantra of ‘equality’ and democratization at work, which has its origins in Marxism, make no mistake. So students of vastly different abilities and skill levels all walked out with the same qualification (meaningless) and the same debt, and some of the worst artists also had multiple awards to put on their CV! Art education is a joke.

    • Alistair says

      Nomad, Didn’t you grace us all with a Literary Essay on Shelley which, rather than assessing his writing, turned out to be a strange Marxist Screed on his proto-radical pretensions? You know; the one more suited to History or Politics or Economics than the English department?

      And now you’re a literary critic and quality is all about Clarity – Knowledge – Innovation – Originality – Craft – Strength of argument – Judgement ?


      On a more serious point, there’s definitely something to be said for your list, but such quality is been driven out of significant areas of literature in favour of identity tick boxes and approved narratives.

      • @ Alistair

        “Nomad, Didn’t you grace us all with a Literary Essay on Shelley which”

        I have no idea what you are on about! Clearly, you have confused me someone else!

        – –

        “On a more serious point,…”


  11. Anthony Morgan says

    @reading nomad, pretty much completely agree, well said.

  12. Alys Williams says

    At least 90% of all art is absolute rubbish. My dad did a bit of painting and his pictures were terrible but at least he didn’t foist them on anyone outside the family. Now just about anyone who can grip a piece of charcoal or a paint brush demands to be taken seriously.

    • Paul Ellis says

      Art is one of those domains to which the Pareto principle applies very firmly. You see it in the prices; you see it in the quality. 90% of all creative output is rubbish, always has been, always will be.

  13. Morgan says

    I guess I’m a little confused. You’re trying to stop mediocre talents from becoming writers, yet you say the literary world is degrading in quality precisely because mediocre talents are getting published, especially in genre fiction, sometimes only because they are female, or people of color, holding the correct political views. Your point seems a little confused. Shouldn’t this only discourage actually good writers, and actually encourage mediocre writers who are willing to tow the ideological line? The only discouraging part is that because of the large numbers involved, it’s really all about which mediocre talent gets lucky enough. Mediocre artists should roll the dice, if they’re so inclined.

    The author of this article has published fiction too, which begs the question.

    Of course the bigger problem is that people want their mediocre friends to be published, or mediocre talents who remind them of themselves, or who think/act/believe like they do to be published. Or their family member, even. It’s not about the writing. It’s not about showing people the best quality, most interesting work. It’s about what is certain to sell to the largest number of people. And that almost by necessity requires mediocrity. Of course if the public is exposed to higher quality work, they might enjoy it, it’s really too great a risk. Mediocrity is the middle ground reached by the market. The market can, in fact, tend towards nothing else. The same thing is happening in Hollywood. Everything is safe, remake, and most certain to give returns while never causing people to think too much, never risking controversy.

  14. Enough is enough says

    Well, I for one agree with your unpopular opinion. There ARE too many mediocre artists, in every field. Endless amounts of dull music from the rap and pop genres infest the airwaves. Museums are filled with pointless works that communicate nothing to the viewer. Books are written from a self-interested perspective an ultimately intended for an audience of one. The majority of all these works should never have left their creators homes, but thanks to the influence of postmodern ideology and its lack of an objective truth, the people who should be the gatekeepers of quality are paralyzed by indecision and rendered incapable of exercising their own judgement.

    Art is supposed to be the manifestation of a spark of genius, that subconscious process that is either present or not. The spark informs the conscious mind, and the individual uses their mechanistic skill to bring it into the world. This cannot be taught. It cannot be faked, and the proof of that is in the mediocrity we see in so much of today’s artistic output.

    The only way to fix this is for editors and curators to start doing their damn jobs again and exercise their judgement.

    • @ Enough is enough

      “There ARE too many mediocre artists”

      So what? Navigate the field and support the work you think is good.

      “The only way to fix this is for editors and curators to start doing their damn jobs”

      Odd complaint! If you think there are so mediocre artists than how come you believe there are these talented “editors and curators” who can differentiate between good and bad art?

  15. Paolo says

    I think I sympathize with the position of this, but it’s oddly substandard in terms of writing. It’s much more of a styled rant than a careful exposition of arguments, as expected in Quillette. Please run these pieces through some editorial quality check in the future.

    • Nikolay Petrov says

      Thank you! I started doubting my own reading skills. It was quite a rough read, which really was surprising as Quillette has kept a very high standards in terms of writing – and the author is a novelist as well.

    • Perry Mason says

      Who are you people? I write legal documents for a living, at a very high level (think top .001% law firm). The author’s writing is fine.

      It’s written well enough for its medium; this isn’t an academic journal so I don’t expect a deeper exposition of the argument or more elaborate philosophical support. I can get that from other sources, some quite ancient. Are you just ninny English majors looking for ‘sweeping prose’?

      She could have gone into Church sources that are rich with descriptions of artistic beauty and the philosophy of beauty. And more neo-scholastic arguments on the objective standards for beauty.

      But this article isn’t here for that. It’s here to introduce the point, validate those who have the same impression, and urge the flock to explore it more elsewhere, if that be its bent.

  16. David Lucas says

    One problem is the erosion of craft. Those “drones” the author refers to would in the past have been making things with their hands, doing valued, beautiful work with no pretence to be ‘artists’.
    Fine art has abandoned craft, but commercial illustration still often rises to the height of art. Look at Shaun Tan’s work for example – one of Australia’s greatest cultural exports.

  17. Emmanuel says

    A market dominated art world does not necessarly produce quality works. It produces works that fit the tastes of peiple with money to invest in arts.
    But a state subsidized art world does not produce quality either : it produces works that fit the tastes of the small number of people who decide who will receive a grant. The difference is that private investors are spending their own money while those people spend the money earned by others.

    I live in France where the art and culture world is heavily subsidized by the state. Stating that the consequences are not good would be quite a euphemism. We now have plenty of self righteous left wing parasites and more bad cultural productions than we can watch or read. While diversity is of course promoted, it does not include diversity of opinions which mean that people who don’t think correctly have zero chance of getting grants while “artists” with no need for public money get it easily.

    That system works like some kind of reverse Midas : it turns money into sh*t.

    • Centrist Gal says

      @ Emmanual

      Spot on. I make a similar point elsewhere. This shows how the diversity and equality agenda has gotten out of control. Remember, art is not exactly an essential, first order need. Whereas it could be argued that the State should assist with ensuring citizens’ fundamental needs and human rights are protected, to extend the ‘equality’ mantra into what should be a domain of the highest human endeavour is ridiculous. It’s hardly denying somebody their human rights or oppressing somebody to tell them that their art is total crap. They are still quite free to create it, but to suggest that the public should pay for it? But that’s what the left does; cuts everything down to the lowest common denominator. Everybody can’t draw like Raphael? So let’s remove all standards, so that the drawing of a two year old can be argued to be just as good; it’s all subjective after all, it’s all relative. Then we can all be ‘equal’. The irony of course is that under that philosophy, if all art is equal, how do they discriminate between who gets funding and who doesn’t?

  18. Mila s says

    There are too many mediocre opinion pieces.

    And the ‘art’ that the market most generously awards is often the most thoroughly mediocre.

  19. Timothy Herron says

    As a full time musician that makes his living off of my craft for almost thirty years I have witnessed the waters diluted with mediocrity. Newbies learning a few chords and copping the style of the latest act they think is the next big thing. Donning the apparel of the apropos genre and arming themselves with serious social media skills that make old people like me (I’m 46) just want to go lock themselves in their house and practice their craft even more. I have found however that although these newbies obtain gigs through popularity and aggressive social media tactics, the work eventually wains because people realize it’s just a polished turd. In my experience the free market is doing its job. Thanks for the article.

    • Centrist Gal says

      @ Timothy Herron
      “In my experience the free market is doing its job”.

      Which is exactly why the State should butt out of art altogether. It skews the market and creates value where there is none. Tracey Emin? Cy Twombly? Phyllida Barlow? Without the intervention and support of State institutions do you think anybody would look twice at their art, and pay obscene sums for it?

  20. I dont think that is an unpopular opinion outside of Artsy communities.

    I often see bumper stickers that read “Earth” but the “art” is highlighted as if to say “you cant have Earth without art.”

    Yeah, well, “fart” also has “art” in it. So there.

  21. C Young says

    I blame the type written notes that accompany contemporary art.

    How often do you see some inscrutable object hanging in a gallery, partnered by text claiming that it reflects the artist’s longstanding interest in X.

    X being something like ‘the politics of gender representation, ‘the mummification of quantification’, ‘pottery as a signifier’ in contemporary British/Uzbek/African-American society.

    In truth, it rarely signifies anything more than ‘the artist’s willingness to insult their audience’s intelligence, in an attempt to distract it from their pitiful inability to realise anything that could conceivably be thought of value to anyone.

  22. If the author really wished to tackle mediocre literary fiction, she’d advocate the extinction of her own species, the Oxbridge graduate with their dreadful of-a-piece novels, and their fellow Oxbridge types found throughout literary publishing who keep pushing this pap as the best of the culture.

  23. Great to finally get to the point. “Faking depends on a measure of complicity between the perpetrator and the victim, who together conspire to believe what they don’t believe and to feel what they are incapable of feeling…” so Roger Scrutton writes in Aeon; “So powerful is the impetus towards the fake that it is now rare to be a finalist for the Turner Prize without producing something nobody would think was art until they were told.” In Canada we won’t be left behind – the Sobey prize was awarded to a 2m long metal fence rented from home hardware. You can put a wig, false eyelashes, even an entire beauty parlour inside an art gallery but it will never be more than a circus pretending to meaning, a counterfeit pretending to wisdom. When art is fake the power accrues to personalities able to influence others, among actors they’re the most convincing.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Yep, the ‘woke’ selling crap to people willing to shell out good money in order to be considered ‘woke’ (or in many cases afraid of not being thought of as ‘woke’). Poetry has gone the same route, so has much of popular music and visual entertainment. Many genres of fiction are now heading that way as well. And if one criticizes the product, they are a bigot of some form or another.

  24. Many years ago I moderated a Socrates Cafe, where the Socratic methods were loosely applied in a search for truth. The topic that generated the most heat was “what is art”. After many hours the prevailing view was that everything is art, be it from nature or human endeavor. Being the moderator I, by design, tempered my own views, but afterwards I walked away wondering whether such a thing as “art” actually exists.

    • Ultimately the only definition of art I would use is that it’s man-made, although I would draw the line and defining (literal) shit as art, although some curators aren’t so squeamish.

      I think most people would define art as something man-made which isn’t utilitarian, although I don’t agree. I see no reason why a sink or a car can’t be viewed as a work of art.

      Others are only willing to call something ‘art’ if they think it of a sufficient quality based on their own criteria which they believe to be some universal law of the universe which others are too ignorant or stupid to comprehend,

  25. We don’t subsidise shit footballers.

    A very small number of talented players make a huge amount of money and some just get by.

    Many school kids will dream of being a football star. Most will grow out of it, as will those who dream of being a film star or rock star. Very few will succeed.

    Most people who like playing football are content enough to have a kick around in the park without any expectation of making a career out of it.

    Artists should be the same.

    • @ Speaker To Animals

      Interesting comparison! Most Artists are amateurs. And most professional artists are found in various design jobs for industry [from movies & tv, graphic design, automotive design, architecture, advertising, product design, photographers and others].

      A lot of high brow culture is worth subsiding and saving – even at the sake of some mediocrity.

  26. The art market is not the art world. If you’re passionate about what you do, if you’re open to learning often hard lessons, if you’re creative and if you’re adaptable, then there is hope that you deserve to be an artist. Just because the art market has or hasn’t embraced your work, doesn’t mean you’re an artist.

    I was an itinerant art prof for 23 years. I found ways to piece together a living without relying on the art market. And, when I realized I could end up 65 and still be an itinerant laborer, I morphed. Artists (i.e. creative thinkers) are good at that.

  27. Sylv says

    There is nothing remotely controversial about the opinion that there is too much mediocre art or too many mediocre artists. Even artists believe this. It only becomes contentious if you tell a specific artist that their work is mediocre. Do that and watch the sparks fly. But if you stand in a pack of artists at the pub and declare “most art is bad,” or “most artists are hacks,” of even “some celebrated artist not present is overrated,” you will likely receive vigorous agreement and perhaps an offer to buy you a drink.

    Your enthusiasm for letting the market sort out the aesthetic value of art shares a common feature with nearly all evangelizing for Social Darwinism: everybody’s all for weeding out the losers as long as they assume they’re not one of them.

  28. I read this article earlier on my my phone.

    Reading it now on a larger screen I am relieved to discover that the work of art illustrated at the top is a sheet of paper with scribble all over it, and not the used bikini wax strip I thought it was…

  29. Closed Range says

    This was a really interesting and honest article. To summarise, the failure of artists in pushing their ideology to convince the public of their value is strikingly similar to the “get woke go broke” effect which is also apparent in other areas such as comics and video games where politicised products have flopped massively in recently years.

  30. Technologists make pretty good money, as do most CEOs/MBAs/business people by relying on the markets. Good art is everywhere; bad art too. But art simply has little market unless you can win it all in a movie, book or song, as these are highly consumed forms of art compared to paintings, sculptures or poems. But artists claim it’s about the art, not the money, and most art that is popular is then blasted by so-proclaim art critics.

  31. Hmmm, would you rather the state mandate a certain number of arts majors permitted per year? From reading this article I’m not sure what you propose the solution is other than defunding state run art funding/programs.Are you talking about fine art only? What about illustration?

    The “You’re not a special snowflake” argument seems lacking in this application.
    I have my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art Painting and while I know that most of the colleagues of my class, including myself, will not achieve the “World Famous Artist Class” our college never led us to believe we would anyway. The program was very realistic. At my college, we learned various creative as well as practical skills that would cover a multitude of creative fields that we would be able to enter upon graduating. My Professors went out of their way to tell us there would be no art career without a day job and did their best to prepare us to get one. I do believe pairing art majors with trade schools would be a great option in the future, but art majors are perfectly able to find job opportunities that contribute to society like everyone else.

    As for not creating “mediocre art” be it for show or for hobby, I’m not sure what you are insinuating. That the world would be better with only the best of the best making art, dancing or writing? Who would write copy, journalism or even romance novels? Who would paint a portrait of your dead Nana or pet dog for $50? How are your going to afford tickets to a ballet if there are only 10 top ballerinas in the world? Without the accessible middle ground of “mediocre art” no one would be able to experience art in their daily lives at all. Art would be exclusive to the elite classes that can afford it and those too poor to enjoy it would be looks down upon as the intellectually less-than masses who can’t understand the finer things in life.

    Art is the fruit of humanity, without it we would lack knowledge of previous civilizations and their history. Art is the articulation of the unknown and shows us transcendence.

    An insightful summary on the value of art as told by Jordan Peterson:

    • @ Geo

      Agree with you on mediocre art. Nothing wrong with it. It is from such mediocrity that usually great art comes or is separated from.

      Disagree with Peterson about his art is for problem solving. What does that even mean? You are far better off reading someone like Oscar Wilde on the subject.

      • I just read Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey, excellent novel! I will look further into his work, thank you for the suggestion.
        While I don’t fully agree with everything Peterson says, he does a decent job of stating the everyday value of art for people in materializing the unknown and experiencing transcendence through art. Thanks for the feedback.

        • @ Geo

          Peterson is spreading himself into too many areas. I don’t think he really know what he on about regarding art.

          Read Oscar Wilde’s essays into Art. John Ruskin is another recommendation. As is Harold Bloom where literature is concerned.

  32. AC Harper says

    Art for Arts sake
    Money for Gods sake

    Lyrics from the 10cc song “Art for Arts sake “

  33. Richard says

    Part of the trouble here is that it is difficult to recognize the really “good”, timeless art until a generation or two has gone by. Presumably, though not certainly, more crap through the filter will find more gold though it might take a while to separate it all out. Not to mention (though I am), much of the “best” art is in dialogue with the bodies of art that came before it, which does require some art history to understand.

    • Steve says


      Dunno about you, but most of us here live in the first world.

  34. No point exercising real talent in the service of a flawed character or a limited understanding. I feel that producing a really fine expression of the ideas from these sources will not succeed.

  35. Magenta says

    The article promises a meaty dissection of postmodernist failings but is smarmy and superficial.

    It fails to recognise the many other professions the market no longer supports as the entire apprentice—> master system has collapsed : there are also too many lawyers to make partner, mathematicians to make professor, etc etc. All these professions are lying to young people. Then there’s the sheer number of *people* issue – but then population pressure is a truly unpopular topic with conservatives.

    The issue of taste was reduced to an oversimplified binary of popular vs pampered. If you want excellence you do have to nurture wide participation at community levels – as Australians have done with sports – using a broad base of mediocrity to provide a nursery for talent. And then you do need the big prizes to discriminate.

    The elephant in the room is what postmodernist philosophy has done to art schools, where it is, on the one hand no longer fashionable to know what you think, and on the other, compulsory to articulate your thoughts in a format that the swarms of administrators and curators (who are the ones who end up with the govt money) can extend their own parasitic careers around. The teaching environment is both excessively vague – because there are infinite ways to interpret reality – and both excessively controlling – because the incessant vagueness evokes the worst kind of unspoken tyranny around assessment, and because the only gratification available to teachers – in the dearth of real hard edged discipline around quality – is sycophantic mimicry from students. The atmosphere is one of fear and conformity covered up by vagueness – no student is able to say what they think or pursue their individuality: something one would say is the most basic drive and purpose behind creative activity.

  36. ed t says

    While I generally sympathise with the idea that there are too many self-proclaimed artists, what’s problematic is of course their persistence due to the many schemes of low-level subsidy. If subsidy is the core of the problem, then the answer is surely to address the distribution of money which is available. The biggest sponsor of arts in the UK (in the English speaking world, too, I’d guess), is the BBC. Disband that, and you’d unlock personal budgets of 150 pounds for many individuals who currently pay the licence fee. That would be easily a book a month or 5 theatre visits a year. It would also start the depoliticization of the arts in the UK, with knock-ons for the world. I think that for all the implicit success of the BBC in presenting and preserving the arts, it locks up, blocks up and gums up far more in the grey corridors of focus grouped, politically correct, po-faced, right on, patronising, lowest common denominator pap culture. We would all benefit from the free flow of cash to the arts. It’s all very well moaning about the modern arts scene, but it’s necessary to address the wider constructions of society which enable mediocrity.

    • @ ed t

      You haven’t got a clue as to what you are on about.

      “The biggest sponsor of arts in the UK (in the English speaking world, too, I’d guess), is the BBC.”

      Eh? Based on what? Evidence?

      “That would be easily a book a month or 5 theatre visits a year.”

      Nonsense! What makes you think they’ll all trot of to theatre?

      • ed t says

        Almost 4 billion pound budget, spent on what? Mostly culture (directly or indirectly).

        It doesn’t matter what they spend it on (when set free from their cultural slavery), people will fill the BBC-shaped hole in their schedule and instead of the terrible pabulum which passes for BBC content, they will have to make a choice. Choice, you see, the core of the artistic impulse. No more ritualized and repeated BBC-mediated version of culture.

        It’s where I perhaps differ from the author of this article: given choice, people are not simple drones. Drone-like, perhaps, for a while, but gradually they do form distinctive tastes, and those represent real opportunities for authors and creators.

        If you don’t think that 4bn pounds is a dominant force on the UK scene, a country representing, let’s say, the historic core of English-speaking world culture, then you’re not serious in your analysis.

        • @ ed t

          So BBC isn’t what you claimed earlier:

          “The biggest sponsor of arts in the UK (in the English speaking world, too, I’d guess), is the BBC.”

          ” instead of the terrible pabulum which passes for BBC content”

          BBC has to cater or all sorts of taste. Yet, it is easily Briaitn’s best TV channel. Bar none.

          The bits I don’t like, I ignore. There are still a lot it gets right.

          “Choice, you see, the core of the artistic impulse.”

          Yes and then watch Trash TV like EastEnders.

          “If you don’t think that 4bn pounds is a dominant force on the UK scene”

          It is. But given your last comment and now this… you are confusing so many things that you don’t know what you are on about.

          It is BECAUSE BBC is bound that is forced pipe out at least some high-brow culture. Else, it would go the same way as all the other UK channels.

          Thankfully there is still sense in the old country and it has made a success of something like BBC where other countries haven’t managed it.

          • ed t says

            There is only a dutiful nod at the historical canon from time to time (badly done, mostly) on the BBC. People who equate art with the term ‘high brow culture’ are really lacking in any artistic feeling and part of the problem. The concept, the term, is just derogatory. You are right, I honestly don’t understand what you don’t understand about the BBC being the biggest sponsor of the arts and a dominant force in the UK. That is what it is, and most malign and destructive too. But any discussion about mediocre arts which fails to recognise the BBC’s role in that mediocrity would be like talking about monotonous social networking without mentioning Facebook.

          • @ ed t

            Er no. BBC is broadcasting. It is NOT:

            “BBC being the biggest sponsor of the arts”

            This is factually incorrect. End of.

            And neither is BBC there solely for “High Brow Arts”.

            “There is only a dutiful nod at the historical canon from time to time (badly done, mostly) on the BBC.”

            Let me a bit blunt – just who the fuck do you think you are?

  37. Ms Dale is mistaken. Hers isn’t an unpopular opinion at all. It’s the opinion of most artists and critics. A truly unpopular opinion is that there’s no measure of quality in art and that all criticism is based on the illusion that there is.

    • Paul Ellis says

      That opinion would certainly be unpopular with me, because there is: technique. Look at the Leonardo cartoon, a Hockney line drawing, Rembrandt’s understanding and depiction of light; listen to any virtuoso instrumentalist; look at a Wagner, Ravel or Stravinsky score. The ability to do and make this requires the expenditure of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, and then some.

      Then, on top of this, you look for sheer talent, because technique on its own displays little more than effort spent. Picasso at any point in his career. Charlie Parker. Yehudi Menuhin. Beethoven; Debussy; JS Bach. Rachmaninov. Tchaikovsky’s genius with melody.

      I have a BA in Fine Art. To me, ‘art’ is the compulsive documentation of an internal conversation: the artist is compelled to make it. Art gets better the more one can somehow relate to the conversation the artefact is documenting. Good art always betrays traces of the effort that went into acquiring the vision, knowledge, understanding, sensitivity, ability, and technique to create it, even if the artefact itself appears to have been created effortlessly. Great art adds to this a concentration of ideas, and layers of ideas, that remain of interest for a lifetime.

      Now *that* is an unpopular opinion with today’s pomo curatorial classes.

      • All you have done is let me know your definition of what constitutes great art which is a subjective, not objective measure of ‘greatness’ and a fairly traditional one at that. I happen to agree with it when speaking of my personal taste but our opinion is merely that and critics never agree with each other on all ‘great’ artists, let alone the ‘bad’ ones.

        It doesn’t matter how much you tell someone that Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe is better than Little Mix you have no way of proving that to them because no such proof exists. For some naivety, spontaneity and a lack of ‘art’ as traditionally defined in craftsmanship might be what appeals to them. Who’s to say their taste is wrong?

        Duchamp’s little lavatorial joke is a hundred years old now so it’s pointless to pretend there is any unity of value in art or even any precise (or lose come to that) definition of what art is or should be in the modern age. In reality there never was, just the illusion of it.

        Art is like physical beauty. There is broad consensus about what makes someone beautiful – slimness, regularity of feature, clearness of skin etc. – things widely perceived to be desirable. However, those aren’t valued by absolutely everyone, just the vast majority. There’s no pointing telling a man or woman that they should find someone beautiful if they don’t and prefer someone obese with pock mocks and a big nose. Nor is there any point in telling someone they’re wrong for preferring Kim Kardashian to Aubrey Hepburn.

        A minority opinion is neither right or wrong in such instances just as it was with art.

        • X. Citoyen says

          Tell me, Wicked One, how do you know Ellis’ definition is subjective? I do hope you won’t respond, in circular fashion, that all opinions about art are subjective, so Ellis’s must be.

          • What other answer is there? All opinions about art are subjective, so Ellis’s must be. All opinions about beauty are subjective.

            The closest we have to an objective standard in art is popularity combined with longevity but at best that only suggests some works are good enough to be popular among a lot of people for a long time or some genres and styles lend themselves to greater popularity over many groups and/or periods. It doesn’t mean art with a small audience is necessarily bad or that every forgotten work deserves its obscurity. Bach was forgotten almost completely until Mendelssohn popularised him again.

            Any objective standard that someone suggests for measuring art never has and never will be universally accepted because no such standard is possible. You cannot tell someone with certainty that their taste it wrong because there is no right and wrong in taste, whether in art, food or people. A woman isn’t wrong in finding her husband attractive even if her friends think him hideous.

            Taste just is, it isn’t in itself a sign of wisdom, morality, intelligence or discernment which is why there is no universal agreement about the value of any artist or any work of art among artists, critics or the general public.

          • X. Citoyen says

            Wicked One,

            “Taste differs among people” is an observation. “Art is subjective” is an assertion, one that’s not proved by the absence of universal (or intersubjective) agreement. This is a bogus criterion. There’s no universal agreement that the sky is blue or that two plus two is four—which is why the consensus populare and the consensus gentium shouldn’t matter when it comes to art either. (In another sense, of course, art is subjective is a truism about the way art is experienced, namely, through subjects.)

            I’m not laying the ground for my criteria of art–another time, maybe. My point is that “art is subjective” is not a counterargument to any given standard of art; “art is subjective” is a standard that must argued on its merits.

          • But I don’t have to prove it’s subjective X. Citoyen, it’s up to someone else to prove that it isn’t, to prove that there’s an objective standard as to what constitutes quality in art or indeed in how we define what is art.

            More than that they need to show how such proof is proof at all. If you ‘prove’ to me that a work of art I find detestably ugly is truly great does that mean I am wrong in what I find to be beautiful? Or does it undermine the notion of beauty as a defining measure of artistic value?

            To claim art has an objective definition and measure of quality is a bold statement but I’ve yet to see any universally accepted definition of art or the value of any given artist or work of art.

            The sky isn’t blue, it’s merely how we perceive it. Mathematical equations can be proved but on what basis do you prove that the Mona Lisa is a great work of art or that Tracey Emin is or isn’t a great artist? On whose authority?

            When authorities disagree which is right and which wrong? Does a majority opinion hold sway, or a particular minority and then on whose say so? What authority do they hold to be an authority on the correct authority?

            What measures are they using to underpin their authority? Can those be universally applied to all works, from rap to ecclesiastical architecture to performance art to pottery or to cinema? Or do we have to judge each field by a separate measure?

            How is that measurement expressed? Is it a mathematical equation or some other law of physics? It cannot be a spiritual measure, for obvious reasons, and yet so much that people speak of about art they personally value is expressed in spiritual terms.

            Show me an objective measure which can be proved and which proves other people’s artistic taste is ‘wrong’ and then we can talk seriously about whether art isn’t really subjective.

          • X. Citoyen says


            Proving something isn’t subjective is proving a negative. That’s a little hard to do. Try proving mathematics isn’t subjective. You will try in vain. This is why, as I suggested, the subjectivity claim is a theory or belief about art, not a fact.

            There are many things in this world that are not easily shown to be one or the other. The vast majority of children love children’s songs and simple art; the vast majority of adults not so much. This is an objective fact about people, and there are objective differences between the two preferences in music and art. In what sense does this difference fit under the concept “subjective”? It’s hardly obvious.

    • The subjectivity claim is closer to a debate about the existence of God. Ultimately no-one can prove God doesn’t exist; there’s just not one shred of evidence that he/she/it does. This is the same with objective standards in art or the definition of what is and isn’t art. There’s no definition of what art is and how we judge its ‘quality’ which is universally agreed upon and there’s unlikely ever to be one, unless humans magically become uniform in every single way. Even that doesn’t prove there’s an objective standard of artistic quality which can be expressed like a timeless equation, it just establishes a monotonous universality of opinion, which is quite different.

      In reality, people who are chasing after objective standards in art are chasing phantoms because, like beauty, what is art and what is good art is nothing more than perception. Beauty is not something which exists in a universally recognised concrete form like matter. If I find something beautiful then that thing is beautiful to me, even if it’s ugly to everyone else.

      You can objectively prove that a man or woman with certain features will be perceived as beautiful by a larger number of people than someone with different features. You haven’t proved that one person is more beautiful than another, just that more of us perceive them so. If you don’t agree there’s no amount of ‘evidence’ which can make someone change what they find attractive, no amount of ‘evidence’ to tell them they’re wrong and they should make themselves change what they like, even if that were even possible.

      Can you measure the beauty of different flowers, one against another? How would you begin to establish a measure for something that only exists in the mind of the individual human as an attraction, a positive emotion, which is not universally shared? What if you found all flowers ugly or all flowers equally beautiful?

      The objective fact that more children like children’s songs than adults do, if that is indeed a fact, is nothing more than the fact that more children like children’s songs. It doesn’t even begin to establish an objective measure of the lesser worth of children’s songs or the superiority of adult taste. How does one prove to a child or to anyone else for that their preferred song isn’t as good as Mozart’s Requiem? Good for whom? Why? What is good for an individual child is good for that particular child, independent of any other form of measure artificially applied by censorious adults or other children. You can show that Mozart uses greater complexity in his Requiem than he did in ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, for instance. But that’s not to prove that complexity is in itself a measure of quality or value.

      If you want to show that there are objective standards in art and some objective measurement of what is and isn’t art you (or whoever else makes such a frankly ludicrous claim – no less ludicrous for how common it is, common to the point of near universality) would not only have to establish what those objective standards are and prove how they’re right but, more importantly, you would need to prove how such a measurement could ever exist when ‘art’ only exists as a perception in the mind of an individual based on their individual preferences.

  38. kafkaberry says

    See movie “The Square”. Perhaps it’s main theme, though largely implicit, is the silliness of much modern art, and the institutions that produce it. But more generally, a gently cynical narrative commentary on many aburd facets of modern western life and culture. Subtly hilarious, deeply involved with its characters, who are mostly lost and goofy, but you gotta love ’em anyhow. I think the best film I saw in 2017. From Sweden, but most speach is in English, a few subtitles where needed.

  39. Dudley Morris says

    Modern art is more about having a PC story behind it the work than the quality of the artwork itself.

  40. itzik basman says

    ….Meanwhile, universities (yes, you can go to university, rack up student debt, and ‘learn’ to be a writer) tell some people – depending on skin tone, sex, orientation, or something else – as a matter of routine they have an important and luminous story to tell because of what they are. But we now know the only diversity that has any effect on literary quality is viewpoint diversity. All saying otherwise does is disclose to the individuals in question they’re starring in their very own episode of South Park – as ‘Token’…..

    This is a truth indeed. And just as indeed there is nothing bitter about. It’s just so, indubitably so. As that, it’s more exhilarating than bitter. I’d only enhance the giddy joy by saying the only thing that makes for literary quality is literary quality. Nothing else.

  41. bleakz says

    I agree that PC bullshit art isn’t good. But when it comes to modern art a lot of this quality is context. There is good modern art that isn’t accessible, just like how there are some great novels that aren’t accessible.

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  43. markbul says

    “There’s a reason lawyers and doctors make so much money: they have professional associations restricting access to the right to work as one. ”

    No. Lawyers and doctors make so much money – when they do – because there is a limited number of people who are capable of doing their jobs. Both fields require above average intelligence, and most people are not above average – in spite of what Garrison Keillor said.

    And of course, many law school grads can’t find jobs, and many doctors funnel much of their earnings into paying off their student loans. And earning vary widely in both fields.

  44. Richard Pendarvis says

    There is a good case for mediocre and even poor artists in the general public. To begin with, they are better able to appreciate the achievements of really good or great artists. It also provides a rewarding activity utilizing the artistic side of the brain. I have a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry and at 71 still teach classes online. I also love to lift weights for 4 hours on 3 days a week. However, I know that I will not always be able to do those things because age will take them for me. I am studying art at the community center because I like what I can do with basic art even though I have little skill. Hopefully I will get better because that is something I should be able to do much later in life. Our mediocre or even poor work poses no threat to anybody.

  45. This is an age of leisure – where young aesthetes can lay about writing poems (certainly not sonnets !!! too many damn rules !!), scribbling with paints….
    There will always be mediocrity (see Salieri), but on the other hand, no-one expects genius of everybody.

    The problem is not “too many mediocre artists”, but perhaps too many uncultured (“nekul’turnyy”) people willing to buy it. And another problem is that there’s not enough criticism (which means pointing out the good as well as bad) to show some that their ambitions to achieve greatness might just be premature.

    • If ‘uncultured’ people are buying the ‘mediocre’ art, where’s the problem? If they’re not buying it, where’s the problem (except for the artist themselves if they hoped to be commercial)?

      People can like what they like and buy what they like and no-one can prove to them that they’re wrong because no such proof exists, merely opinion, usually unwanted,

  46. “But it’s all subjectiiiivvve” bunch of manbabies crying because someone suggested their superhero movies and fanservice anime aren’t the pinnacle of humanity’s cultural achievement, probably.

  47. Thomas Kinkade is popular says

    Isn’t Thomas Kinkade the best selling American artist of all time?

  48. Gilded says

    I’m having trouble understanding something here. Is this piece plagiarized like the authors other work or is plagiarism the only way to get into publications with standards?

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