Art criticism imitating life: The Dunning-Kruger Effect, Modern Art, and the importance of a frame

Nathan Campbell —  April 12, 2011

If there’s one truth I’ve learned in my time on the Internet it’s that people will be at least 25% meaner behind a keyboard. Unless they put their real name to what they’re writing, but even then they’re probably 10% meaner because so much of communication occurs outside the words we use.

But this is just hilarious.

David Foster Wallace is considered by many to be one of the written voices of his generation. His essays regularly (and posthumously) appear in lists of the best essays ever written. He wrote some books. Including a book called Infinite Jest.

Somebody posted the first page of the book to Yahoo questions asking for “feedback”… hilarity ensued.

“This needs some serious work… your writing is not formal… it is written in informal language that imitates the qualities commonly believed to be characteristic of formal language.

I recommend checking out “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B White… that should help to clear a few things up.”

And another:

“You know your story needs more work, so you don’t need anyone to tell you what you already know.”

And another…

“No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don’t care what shoe you’re wearing.
If you take out all the unnecessary details, you’d be left with about seven words.”

Something similar happened on Flickr, when a photo by the pioneer of photo-journalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, was put up in a “Deleteme” thread – where “good photographers” comment on the work of budding photographers by voting to save or delete the photo.

In this case this photo was roundly condemned, and advice was distributed to the photographer (for some reason this photo has been flagged as inappropriate and you have to log in to Flickr to see the thread)…

Here’s the photo.

Some of the comments:

“hard to tell at this size but is everything meant to be moving in this shot, all seems blurred”

“so small
so blurry
to better show a sense of movement SOMETHING has to be in sharp focus”

“This looks contrived, which is not a bad thing. If this is a planned shot, it just didn’t come out right. If you can round up Mario, I would do it again. This time put the camera on a tripod and use the smallest aperture possible to get the best DoF. What I would hope for is that the railings are sharp and that mario on the bike shows a blur. Must have the foreground sharp, though. Without that, the image will never fly.”

There are a couple of things going on in these situations for me – one is the idea that an artist’s name or reputation is enough to turn something substandard into something that people will describe as a “masterpiece,” while the other is that there’s a big difference between being educated and believing you’re educated – all these “experts” on both forums are assessing these works based solely on their own personal preferences developed by their own environment and experience.

Those two examples of this phenomenon at play – Dunning-Kruger meets the internet forum meets modern art – came from Kottke.org, and remind me of this little story, where Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most famous violinists played one of the world’s most expensive violins (with a $3 million plus price tag), at a train station, and nobody noticed. This was an experiment conducted by the Washington Post and covered in this story.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

The Washington Post piece points out the truth underlying the responses to the written works of David Foster Wallace, and the picture by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Context is king. Art requires a frame. Something to point out why people should sit up and take notice, this is the only truth that keeps the doors of the Gallery of Modern Art open – a frame provides a point of reference.

“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”

He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened — or, more precisely, what didn’t happen — on January 12.”

Fascinating stuff.

Nathan Campbell

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Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a student at the Queensland Theological College and a mercenary PR Consultant.

2 responses to Art criticism imitating life: The Dunning-Kruger Effect, Modern Art, and the importance of a frame

  1. I think that’s a faulty comparison. Dunning Kruger is about being too incompetent to know that you’re incompetent.

    A violinist, no matter how good, and no matter how expensive, trying to distract people *while they’re already on task* – getting to work – doesn’t mean that those who didn’t stop for him are ignorant of good music, or are too incompetent to appreciate their own incompetence. It just means they’re busy getting to work.

    • Nathan Campbell April 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm

      Yeah – that line, as it says, was only relevant to the first two examples. I should have made the further development in my thinking clearer… the violin example served to illustrate the importance of “frame” for assessing art. If somebody had posted that photo or the prose saying “this is a piece by x artist, critique it” I suggest both would have received much more measured responses because people wouldn’t have assumed the creator was an incompetent learner…