TThe idea that people should succeed and fail at work based on their merits is quite modern. Up until about the end of the 19th century in Britain it was perfectly natural that the upper end of every possible profession – sport, science, art, politics – should not be occupied by hard-working and talented, but by wealthy hobbyists. A phenomenon that can be traced back to the 17th century, “gentlemen amateurs” were the Renaissance varieties created and embodied by Arthur Conan Doyle: those who had the time to treat careers as interesting collectibles. Crucially, they also had a social appeal. So where they tried, they dominated.
Sometimes amateurishness led to spectacular breakthroughs: Charles Darwin is a famous example. But gradually a consensus emerged that a thick and suffocating layer of privilege was holding back talent and impeding progress. Amateur officers were blamed for military disasters in the Boer War. Bloomsbury’s bourgeois-bohemian amassed patronage in the art world while the rest starved in its garrets. In the decades leading up to World War I, a number of vulgar new “professionals” shrugged off and expelled these aristocratic hangers-on. Meritocracy in the workplace had begun in earnest. The gentleman amateurs disappeared.
That was until recently in the creative arts where something very similar is back. A group of wealthy, socially elite hobbyists have arrived once again to crowd out the talent and suck up the money. Members of this group could take up art “as therapy, just for me,” and top galleries will clamor for their unsupervised graffiti. They might decide to write a children’s book “actually for their own children” just for their first (dark) attempt at a spectacular publishing deal.
I’m talking about celebrities, of course. A strange new rule has emerged over the last few decades: make yourself famous enough in one creative field and you’ll practically succeed in another. No matter how terrible you may be in the second. Jim Carrey makes astounding amounts of money from his amateur pictures: prints alone sell for $800, and at one point a couple could pay $10,000 just to visit an exhibition. Yet the art is obviously embarrassingly bad (sample review: “He gives amateurs a bad name”). Pierce Brosnan can’t paint either, but one of his mediocre attempts raised $1.4 million (he claimed to be “stunned”). Last month Robbie Williams had an exhibition at Sotheby’s, a chance any professional artist would kill for. “I was like, ‘Oh shit! Everybody can [do] Art,'” Williams told a newspaper. “So I went to the art supply store and bought everything.”
Or take children’s books. The weird Darwin appears (David Baddiel is really good). But most of the celebrity stuff that comes out is unimaginative junk, and the book offerings just keep coming. Reese Witherspoon, Seth Meyers and Serena Williams make their debuts this year, among many others. On TV, Meghan and Harry’s Netflix deal – just a consequence of their fame – would be the envy of every top producer. Last month I saw Johnny Depp perform a rock concert at Albert Hall with Jeff Beck. “[Depp] is a sub-par musician,” an irritated Beck fan told me. “It’s like he’s your sidekick that you encourage.”
Of course, the art doesn’t think it’s evolving into an offshoot of celebrity merch. They believe they are democratizing the arts, “appealing to the youth” or “at least getting kids to read.” They argue that allowing celebrities to dress up as artists, musicians and children’s book authors helps fund the rest. That could be true. But in doing so they break with principles that they must not lose. Alongside the fundamental injustice of prioritizing fame over excellence, there is a certain danger that talent will flow out of the arts. The distribution of success in these areas is pyramidal: for every amateur celebrity show at Sotheby’s, there will be cash-strapped career artists who will be put out of business. And behind the big celebrities, of course, come hordes of minis: influencers who snag book offers and art exhibitions on the side. Meritocracies are more fragile than we think. Pull on a thread and untangle them.
Of course, it’s not just art where meritocracy is on the brink. As authors such as Adrian Wooldridge have pointed out, the tendency to hoard opportunities for ourselves and our families means that children of the wealthy receive an advantage in many occupations. But I would argue that no area is in such a state of feudal regression as those areas of the creative arts that appear to have forfeited their merits altogether. They become machines to find and align with the already privileged.
We are told that this is a very modern issue: with social media and the attention economy. That may be how we got here, but the phenomenon is old and smells like the 19th century. Look at how contemporary art, for example, has started talking less about “skill” and “talent” and more about “influencing.” What counts now is the “influence” of an artist. Or in other, older words: their social appeal and social status.
The parallels to gentleman amateurs are hard to miss. Under threat from professionals in the late 1800s, gentlemen adopted an attitude of moral and philosophical superiority. The lower classes were mercenaries who only cared about money and played to win; they themselves only cared about the honor and the love of the craft. This is also the shield that current amateurs often use to snatch opportunities away from professional artists.
They don’t do anything as vulgar as making money – they donate everything to charity. Plus, their work has a higher purpose than the mere product: it’s about their personal journey – “a way to find out who they really are,” “their form of therapy,” or “a chance to work with a (famous) friend.” . . Who could complain against such noble principles when art is worthless?