The idea that people should succeed and fail on their merits at work is a fairly modern one. Until around the end of the 19th century in Britain, it was entirely natural that the top end of all kinds of occupations – sports, the sciences, art, politics – should be filled not by the hardworking and talented but by wealthy hobbyists. “Gentlemen amateurs”, a phenomenon traceable to the 17th century, were the renaissance sorts both created and personified by Arthur Conan Doyle: those with the time to treat careers as interesting collectors’ items. Crucially, they also had social pull. So where they dabbled, they dominated.
Sometimes the dabbling led to spectacular breakthroughs: Charles Darwin is a famous example. But gradually a consensus formed that a thick and stiff layer of privilege was holding back talent and getting in the way of progress. Amateur officers were blamed for military catastrophes in the Boer war. Bloomsbury bourgeois-bohemians were scooping up patronage in the art world while the rest starved in their garrets. In the decades leading to the first world war, a brace of vulgar new “professionals” shook off and shut out these aristocratic hangers-on. Meritocracy in the world of work had begun to earnest. The gentleman amateurs disappeared.
That is until just recently, in the creative arts, where something very like them is back. A group of wealthy, socially elite hobbyists has arrived once again to crowd out the talent and soak up the cash. Members of this group might take up art “as therapy, just for me”, and top galleries will clamor for their untutored daubings. They might decide to write a children’s book “for their own kids, really”, only for their first (dismal) effort to get a spectacular publishing deal.
I am talking, of course, about celebrities. In recent decades, a strange new rule has emerged: become famous enough in one creative field and you’re practically handed success in another. No matter how awful you might be at the second. Jim Carrey makes astonishing amounts from his amateur paintings: prints alone are on sale for $800, and at one point a couple could pay $10,000 just to attend an exhibition. Yet the art is, obviously, embarrassingly bad (sample review: “He gives amateurs a bad name”). Pierce Brosnan can’t paint either, yet one of his mediocre efforts fetched $1.4m (I have claimed to be “gobsmacked”). Last month, Robbie Williams had an exhibition at Sotheby’s, a chance any professional artist would kill for. “I was like, ‘oh fuck! Anybody can [do] art,’ ” Williams told a newspaper. “So I went down to the art supply shop and bought everything.”
Or take children’s books. The odd Darwin turns up (David Baddiel is genuinely good). But most of the celebrity stuff clotting up the market is unimaginative dross, and the book deals just keep coming. Reese Witherspoon, Seth Meyers and Serena Williams are all making their debuts this year, alongside many more. In television, Meghan and Harry’s Netflix deal – a consequence of their celebrity only – would be the envy of any top producer. Last month, I saw Johnny Depp perform a rock concert alongside Jeff Beck at the Albert Hall. “[Depp] is a sub-par musician,” an irritated Beck fan told me. “It’s like he’s your mate who encourages you.”
Of course, the arts do not think they are turning themselves into an offshoot of celebrity merchandising. They think they are democratizing art, “appealing to the young”, or “at least getting children reading”. They argue that allowing celebrities to cosplay as artists, musicians and children’s authors helps fund the rest of it. That may be true. But in the process they are chipping away at principles they can’t afford to lose. Along with the basic unfairness of letting fame trump excellence, there is the certain risk of talent leaking out of the arts. The distribution of success in those fields is pyramid-shaped: for every amateur celebrity show at Sotheby’s, there will be cash-strapped career artists driven from the business. And behind the big celebs, of course, come hordes of mini ones: influencers, next to snap up the book deals and art shows. Meritocracies are more fragile than we think. Pull at a thread and they unravel.
Of course, it’s not just the arts where meritocracy is on the slide. As authors like Adrian Wooldridge have pointed out, the tendency to hoard opportunities for ourselves and our families means that children of the wealthy are given a leg-up in many professions. But no field is in quite the state of feudal regression, I’d argue, as those areas of the creative arts that seem to have abandoned merit altogether. They are becoming machines for finding and aligning themselves with the already privileged.
We are told this is a very modern issue: to do with social media and the attention economy. That might be how we got here, but the phenomenon is an old one and smacks of the 19th century. Watch how contemporary art, for example, has started talking less about “skill” and “talent” and more about “influencing”. An artist’s “influence” is what matters now. Or in other, older, words: their social pull, and social status.
The parallels with gentlemen amateurs are hard to ignore. Under threat from professionals in the late 1800s, gentlemen adopted an air of moral and philosophical superiority. The lower orders were mercenaries who cared only about money and played to win; they themselves cared only for honor and the love of the craft. That is also the shield often used by the current amateurs snatching opportunities from professional artists.
They are not doing anything as vulgar as making money – they are donating everything to charity. Besides, their work has higher purpose than the mere product: it is about their personal journey – “a way to explore who they really are”, “their form of therapy”, or “a chance to collaborate with a (celebrity) friend” . Against such noble principles, who could complain if the art is no good?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism