Etsy.com and Amanda McKittrick Ros are brilliant examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, “a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.”
Or, in street-speak, “You are not only not as talented/smart/beautiful as you think you are, you are too ignorant/self-delusional to understand that.”
Amanda McKittrick Ros was someone I first stumbled onto in college, where she was trotted out by a world-weary English professor who wanted to gently warn all of us Speshul Snowflake Creative Writers about being clear-eyed and honest with our writing. (Thank you, Dawn!) Dear old Amanda is going through a revival of sorts; I just saw an article about her on Slate.com, and it brought up the old twinned horror and fascination I’d felt in college.
Here was a 19th C social climber more shameless and oblivious than Hyacinth Bucket, a hair-trigger litigant more ready to defend her honor and property than a wolverine on meth, a woman with apparently no discernible sense of humor, and possibly the worst writer in the English language. Her works go beyond the merely terrible. Read too much unadulterated Ros, and even sparkling prose begins to look bad. I’m not kidding. The Slate writer and Aldous Huxley both noticed this. I have heard it rumored that the late great Douglas Adams may have modeled Vogon poetry after Ros and her efforts.
Some movies are like that, too, such as Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’, or *anything* from Uwe Boll. Both of these unsung geniuses get the same general reception as Amanda, especially on the hilarious media commentary site RiffTrax LLC
Yes, that is a paid affiliate link for one of my favorite online comedy sites. If you click on the link and decide to try one of the RiffTrax commentary streams alongside your own copy of the movie, I’ll get a few cents. But I’m including RiffTrax in this post for Reasons beyond making this blog earn its way now and then. Read on…
Etsy.com is an internet site originally founded to provide an online sales portal for handmade crafts (link not provided, deliberately.) Market forces being what they are, the site is now regularly outed as being a haven for mass-produced resold goods and counterfeit accessories. There are still enough actual handcrafters around to keep the site legal. Many of those, alas, are the artistic and creative descendants of Ros. This is not to say that Etsy lacks its share of amazingly-talented artisans–they’re there, but finding them in the sea of Blah is getting harder and harder.
I’m selling, theoretically, on Etsy now. We’ll see how it goes.
I’m eclectic in my appreciation of craft and art. If it’s well-made and beautiful, I’m likely to enjoy it. I’m also likely to be a horrible snob if the quality isn’t there. I have to paraphrase a Maynard Dixon quote, because I don’t have access to the primary text. Speaking of a San Francisco art league exhibit in the early 20th C, he said something along the lines of “These are fools who mistake sincerity for skill.”
Art done for therapy’s sake is a wonderful tool to heal wounded human minds. Sometimes it has a raw emotional power, cousin to the most visceral of Outsider Art, and for the same reasons: it is devoid of the trappings, tropes, and pretensions of the Fine Art world. But student art and art done for therapy is not always great art, and sometimes it is awful. Many new artists have better ideas than the skills to realize them, and have no ability to objectively assess their own progress.
The current patron saint of artistic Dunning-Kruger-in-Action has to be an elderly Spanish woman who ruined a church fresco she was trying to restore. The distorted Monkey Jesus has now become a meme, a tourist attraction, and even a favorite 2012 Halloween costume.
Art has been democratized in the developed world. Hobby stores sell every kind of kit or supply imaginable, and often the classes needed to gain a rudimentary skill. Wine bars and empowerment seminars offer painting sessions where previously non-artistic folks can get in touch with their inner five-year-old and just play. And that’s good. Higher mammals, avians, and cephalopods play. It’s a sign of a big brain letting off steam and processing what-if situations before they arise.
Something miraculous often happens at these human adult play-date sessions: the participants discover that Art is Fun. Because it is such fun, its products must also be laudable – even sacred – reminders of the glory and joy felt by the participant. To the new artist, the object becomes a symbol of that brief escape. The objective critic or possible buyer can’t see that, of course. They see a hot mess. When they speak out about it, they are accused of being bullies. Etsy, DeviantArt.com, and many other democratic display sites are filled with vicious flamewars by artists who are emotionally scarred by any critique. When these artists have a little more experience, if they’re lucky, they begin to realize that not all art is going to be perfect on the first try. Everybody learns from their useful mistakes.
Writers’ sites also fall prey to this kind of victim culture. Here’s where an understanding of EtsyFails, Amanda McKittrick Ros, and few hours of laughing along with the RiffTrax folks might help.
Many of the Etsy artisans are pouring their hearts out, with no idea how bad they are. The market being the blunt instrument that it is, some of them will find customers happily just as clueless. Some will come to the ashamed understanding that they started in the wrong place. Some will quit…and some will buckle down and learn their craft.
Amanda found great satisfaction in writing, but apparently read little other work published in her day, beyond the few authors who inspired her. Initially sure of her originality and genius, she retreated behind those delusions when the wider world didn’t welcome her efforts. Because she had no sense of humor or irony, she could not understand that most of the writers and celebrities who courted her approval did so because they were poking fun at her magnificent delusions.
The founders of RiffTrax (who were previously behind the zany and beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000) have a double-edged approach to Really Bad Movies. Some movies are transparently trashy, get mocked for it, and we all have a good time. But some are so transcendently horrible they become forces of nature and rites of passage: respected for their failures and their creators’ unwavering self confidence.
Added 9/28/2017: Now that we’re in an American Presidency characterized by the same traits, it’s up to us to respect passion, but remain objective AND kind. There are a lot of people hurting out there, and a little laughter and sympathy goes a long way.