Standing before a Jackson Pollock painting in an art gallery, the uninitiated famously quips, “My five-year-old can do that!!"
The question really shouldn't be about why Pollock’s work rises above the conventional kindergartener’s. (Let’s just stipulate that it does). Oceans of ink have already been spilled on this point. Instead, the question really should be this: if a person can't tell the difference between genuine quality and middling commodity, does it matter what so-called experts say?
This sets up a troubling, albeit interesting, provocation. Taste immediately sounds like the determination of a self-interested cultural elite. It rings of gatekeeping and exclusion. But the fact is, taste does have a legitimate vocabulary. It can be described and it can be identified.
Nonetheless, most people can’t tell the difference between “good” and “excellent”, regardless of the medium. These days there’s so much stuff being created in so many disciplines that the market for creative goods and services has been completely upended. In an era of creative ubiquity where teenagers and retirees and amateurs of all stripes can make and distribute stuff with limited technical barriers to entry, the big bulge of quality’s bell curve gets fat. Unless somebody has a particularly refined sensibility and the tenacious perspicacity to sift through massive mounds of midden, it can be difficult to detect mellifluous signals against thumping background noise.
This puts tremendous downward pressure on professionals who actually do know the difference. More to the point, this pressure inhibits professional potential to persevere. A glutted market suppresses prices. A glutted market reduces overall value of subtly, but appreciably better work. Supply and demand only apply if there’s a common language about what constitutes differences among products. If everything is roughly equivalent at levels of collectively accomplished amateurism, demand for rarer, professional excellence diminishes. Why provide grants to writers and artists when many believe they could just earn livings by churning out words and pictures for greeting card companies, or become pitch-people for PR firms? When qualitative distinctions lose their potency, high levels of achievement lose their value.
He calls out the problem this way:
Nobody would argue against the idea that art has a social value, and yet almost nobody will assert that society therefore has an obligation to protect that value by acknowledging, and compensating, the labor of the people who produce it.
I’m expecting some resistance to this sentiment. Respectable thinkers like Chris Anderson, Cory Doctorow and others have long stoked the growing belief that democratization of tools—of all sorts—can profoundly encourage freedom, inventive energies, education, and ultimate cultural advancement. There’s a lot to their arguments; they’re not wrong exactly. But the Law of Unintended Consequences has a long arm. Ubiquitous ability to create things of all sorts may be a profoundly positive trend, but the cultural challenge it presents requires careful consideration. Without a deep appreciation for a professional class of creators, the average quality of many things may rise tremendously, while professionals—those people who actually move various disciplines forward—gasp for air. Yes, I’m hugely in favor of millions of people writing their own music and painting their own paintings, but that doesn’t mean that the world is suddenly flush in equivalently worthwhile new work. With so much more competition, the dismal economic realities of flush supply threaten to bruise the entities that move us most. It may very well be possible and even desirable to consume “good enough” when “top of the line” isn’t necessary. But if that top tier can no longer compete for an audience, the potentials for superlative, inspiring, and ultimately transcendent creative work faces perilous headwinds.