14 Aug

In 1999 two researchers defined scientifically a phenomenon of cognitive bias that’s been well-known anecdotally for thousands of years: the truly incompetent have no idea how incompetent they really are, but they blunder on regardless. The original scientific paper puts it like this:

“People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability… Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.”

In other words, “The Fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a Fool.” (William Shakespeare, As You Like It). Or “those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” (Bertrand Russell) Or Confucius: “Knowing the extent of one’s own ignorance is real knowledge.” This article on the subject also lists Socrates’ “I know one thing: I know nothing” and Charles Darwin’s “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”, and features this graphic of the phenomenon:


When participants in the study were tested on their humour, grammar and logic, the people on the least capable side of the graph (bottom and 2nd quartile) showed the largest gap between what they thought they knew and what they actually did. Or, more specifically, the largest gap between their witty, articulate and rational self-images and the unfunny, ignorant and illogical reality of their thought processes. Those in the 3rd quartile– less scientifically, we might call them the above average thinkers– were sometimes just slightly overconfident but usually fairly realistic in their self-assessments. The most intellectually gifted or knowledgeable people invariably somewhat underestimated themselves.

What does this have to do with art? Quite a lot, especially the issues of artist livelihoods, artist careers and art world realpolitik that I often engage with here on this blog, in my writing elsewhere, and in the real world. My current thoughts on the subject were triggered by this post about a few of Bob Dylan’s amateur daubings going on show at the National Portrait Gallery in London. We can probably assume that Dylan thought his terrible drawings were good enough, or he wouldn’t humiliate himself and the NPG by offering them for exhibition. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action, because he’s too bad at what he does and too out of touch with reality to even realise how bad he is. It also evokes the untranslatable German word but very recognisable universal sensation Fremdscham, which is the shrivelling horror one feels when somebody has no idea how much they’re embarrassing themselves.

The Dunning-Kruger effect also casts some light upon what I’ve (somewhat notoriously and provocatively to some people) called the Too Many Artists problem: huge numbers of terrible, desperate, incapable, untalented and unshowable artists who often fall prey to vanity gallery/representation/residency businesses because the sordid scumbags behind them buoy hopeless cases up with pandering affirmation that it’s not their lack of ability that’s keeping them from selling or exhibiting their work, it’s snobbery, it’s because of The Man, or because they’re too good, or whatever. Or they tell aspiring artists simple, outright lies, i.e. that their bad art work is good.

(Note: See this article about the scientific basis for confidently asserting that some art is good and some is bad; in short, although taste and aesthetics are learned and not innate, within the context of any given culture one can generally sort good art from bad in the sense that the more one looks at good art, the more one gets from it. The more one looks at bad art, the more one realises precisely how bad it is.)

Thoughts about the D-K Effect have also been percolating since I attended a meeting of arts professionals in London a few months ago, supposedly to discuss the relationship between organisations and audiences. During one panel session a man sitting near me decided to heave the chip on his shoulder at the people on the stage– as somebody always, always does at these things– by ranting that everybody’s an artist, why do we need all these gatekeepers and people saying this or that is good or bad, can’t everyone be an expert now we’ve got Twitter and blah blah blah.

Readers of this blog will know that in fact I have a lot of sympathy for the outsider, the self-made and the self taught (and not just because I’m one of them), for demolition of the fetishised and unassailable “expert”, and for merciless mockery of the nasty pieces of work who cling like voracious barnacles to the yachts of the art world. I have often advised that anybody who doesn’t like any or all of the gatekeepers should just forget them completely, go around the back and climb the walls. If you want in, that is. Being inside those walls isn’t good, appropriate or necessary for everyone, and many people live to regret ever getting in after devoting most their energy to pleasing the gatekeepers. Who mostly don’t really know who or what they want, anyway. Or build your own fortress, if you like.

However, I still thought Honor Harger’s* response from the panel was brilliant. I hope she’ll forgive me for paraphrasing, but she answered that the reason some people were in positions of trust, responsibility, decision making and expertise is because, well, maybe they are experts. Perhaps they do know more about the subject than many of the people who carp from the sidelines and think anybody could do these jobs. I also take very serious issue with the terrifyingly widespread and simplistic techno-utopian view that expertise and deep knowledge aren’t necessary any longer because… the internet, or something, and hey, we’re all artists, telling anybody they’re not talented is really heavy and damages their self-esteem and you must be some sort of fascist to suggest bringing anybody down like that, it’s a Farmville Spring of Facebook, crowdfunding, Twitter, blogs, smartphones or you know, whatever.

Let’s look at the graph again, but instead of the data showing the results of knowledge tests let’s imagine it shows the gradient of artists, from the bottom quartile of Debut Contemporary dupes who buy bogus validation to the top quartile of artists whose art actually works in some way and connects with an audience. I’d say it maps onto my experience of art students, practising artists, art exhibitions and the art world pretty closely.


*Director of Lighthouse, the digital arts agency and venue in Brighton.


  1. Alistair 18/08/2013 at 3:27 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

  2. erickuns 13/09/2013 at 11:13 AM #

    Funny and true at the same time. It’s nutritious AND delicious.



    […] over in Oxfam, or like an unconventional, colourblind Young Conservative farmer… but you are probably not a genius and you are almost certainly no Sherlock Holmes so could you please immediately and henceforth stop […]

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