JThe idea that people should succeed and fail on their merits at work is quite modern. Until towards the end of the 19th century in Britain, it was only natural that the top end of all sorts of professions – sports, science, art, politics – should be occupied not by hard-working and talented people, but by rich amateurs. “Gentlemen amateurs,” a phenomenon that dates back to the 17th century, were the Renaissance sorts both created and personified by Arthur Conan Doyle: those who had time to treat quarries like interesting collectibles. Above all, they also had a social attraction. So where they tried, they dominated.
Sometimes trial and error led to spectacular breakthroughs: Charles Darwin is a famous example. But gradually, a consensus formed that a thick, stifling layer of privilege held back talent and stood in the way of progress. Amateur officers were blamed for the military disasters of the Boer War. The bourgeois-bohemians of Bloomsbury picked up patronage in the art world while the rest starved to death in their garrets. In the decades leading up to World War I, a pair of vulgar new “professionals” got rid of and shut out these aristocratic parasites. Meritocracy in the world of work had begun in earnest. The amateur gentlemen have disappeared.
It’s until recently, in the creative arts, where something like them is back. A group of wealthy and socially elite amateurs have once again arrived to crowd out the talent and soak up the money. Members of this group might adopt art “as therapy, just for me”, and the best galleries will claim their uneducated daubs. They might decide to write a children’s book “for their own children, really”, only for their first (dismal) effort to secure a spectacular publishing deal.
I’m talking, of course, about celebrities. Over the past few decades, a strange new rule has emerged: get famous enough in one creative field and you’re practically successful in another. It doesn’t matter how awful you might be at the second. Jim Carrey makes astonishing sums from his amateur paintings: the prints alone are on sale for $800, and at one point a couple might pay $10,000 just to attend an exhibition. However, the art is obviously of a bad reputation (example of criticism: “It gives a bad reputation to amateurs”). Pierce Brosnan can’t paint either, but one of his lackluster efforts grossed $1.4 million (he claimed to be “flabbergasted”). Last month Robbie Williams had an exhibition at Sotheby’s, a chance any professional artist would kill for. “I was like, ‘Oh fuck! Anyone can [do] art,” Williams told a newspaper. “So I went to the art supply store and bought everything.”
Or take children’s books. The strange Darwin introduces himself (David Baddiel is really good). But most of the celebrity stuff that clots 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 others. On TV, Meghan and Harry’s Netflix deal – an offshoot of their stardom alone – would be the envy of any major producer. Last month, I saw Johnny Depp give a rock concert alongside Jeff Beck at Albert Hall. “[Depp] is a mediocre musician,” an irate Beck fan told me. “It’s like it’s your mate you’re cheering on.”
Of course, the arts don’t think they’re turning into an offshoot of celebrity merchandising. They think to democratize art, “to appeal to young people”, or “at least to make children read”. They argue that allowing celebrities to cosplay as artists, musicians and children’s authors helps fund the rest. It may be true. But in doing so, they undermine principles they cannot afford to lose. Along with the fundamental injustice of letting fame trump excellence, there is a definite risk that talent will leak 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 performers driven out of the business. And behind the big celebrities, of course, come hordes of mini-celebrities: the influencers, on the sidelines to land book deals and art exhibits. Meritocracies are more fragile than we think. Pull on a thread and they come undone.
Of course, it’s not just the arts where meritocracy is declining. As authors like Adrian Wooldridge have pointed out, the tendency to hoard opportunities for ourselves and our families means that the children of the wealthy have a head start in many professions. But no field is in a state of feudal regression, I would say, like those fields of the creative arts that seem to have completely given up on merit. They become machines for finding and aligning themselves with the privileged.
We are told that this is a very modern question: to do with social media and the attention economy. That may be how we got here, but the phenomenon is old and smacks of the 19th century. Look how contemporary art, for example, has begun to talk less about “competence” and “talent” and more about “influence”. The “influence” of an artist is what matters now. Or in other, older words: their social attractiveness and social status.
The parallels with amateur gentlemen 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 only cared about money and played to win; themselves only cared about honor and the love of the profession. It is also the shield often used by current amateurs to snatch opportunities from professional artists.
They don’t do anything so vulgar as making money – they donate everything to charity. Furthermore, their work has a higher purpose than just the product: it is their personal journey – “a way to explore who they really are”, “their form of therapy” or “a chance to collaborate with a friend (celebrity)”. Against such noble principles, who could complain if the art is not good?