Experiments published in 1999 by Cornell University researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger showed that unskilled individuals tended to rate their competence higher than average. The researchers figured the ignorance of standards of performance was behind a great deal of incompetence in a wide range of activities — reading, grammar, geography, driving a car, playing tennis.
They also found that competent people often underestimated their prowess because they falsely assumed that others have an equivalent understanding of their processes and problems.
For a given skill, Dunning-Kruger proposed that incompetent people will tend to overestimate their own level of skill, fail to recognize genuine skill in others, and fail to recognize the extreme nature of their own shortcomings.
The partial good news is that some incompetent students improved their ability to estimate their rank after minimal tutoring, even though they may not have actually improved.
In art workshops and mentoring sessions, I’ve noticed a few beginning artists who are impaled on Dunning-Kruger. One of the main reasons, in my observation, is the vast amount of incompetent work out there that is touted as either interesting or valuable. Because of this situation, art schools are rampant with cynicism and despair. Confused, the beginning student may think that good enough is good enough, it’s all a mug’s game, and the only thing that’s important is some form of self-expression.
In comparison, in the game of tennis, results are measureable, and folks will pay to watch only the top pros. Not being Novak Djokovic is no joke. When I was a kid, the only one to stick around and watch my serves was my dad. I thought I was pretty good, and I told him, but that was when he decided to find me an art teacher.
In art schools and out, many beginning students are defying the Dunning-Kruger effect. In my experience they’re mainly loners, hard workers and networkers who believe study and private application lead to quality. These same beginners are the ones who will become the competent artists of tomorrow. And they will always question their own competence.
PS: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.” (David Dunning and Justin Kruger)
Esoterica: The Dunning–Kruger research was done in the USA where over-confidence, fashionable optimism and hubris might have played a part. Further studies with East Asians showed opposite results. Asian incompetents knew they were doing poor work and took it as an opportunity to improve and to get along with others. These attitudes are deep-rooted in Asian cultures. “Real knowledge,” said Confucius, “is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
On a wider scale, the Dunning-Kruger effect has been with us since the dawn of mankind and knows little of national borders. “The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole.” (William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 1599)
Define incompetency please
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada
I really do need someone to define incompetency as it applies to art. I can discern when technical mastery of the media serves the artist’s intent — and, of course, the converse. However, in the absence of hard metrics to measure against for aesthetic competency then inabilities cannot be measured in absolute terms. Therefore aesthetic competency is judged against a relative set of values that are not absolute. Each of us have our own aesthetic values (and they change over time, I have discovered in myself). A masterpiece in my present day judgment — say, one of the many of Frances Bacon’s triptychs — may well be considered by many to be an incompetent piece of art by others. Without a definition of aesthetic competency, I assert that competency/incompetency is solely in the eye of the beholder — and we are all different.
(RG note) Thanks, Mike. Of course competency is in the eye of the beholder. Take the print we’ve illustrated here, sent to us by Mike Barr. The cutline under the illustration on the FAC (Australia) website says: “Fremantle Arts Centre have announced the winners of the 38th Fremantle Arts Centre Print Award. Western Australia artist Alex Maciver was awarded the $15,000 Major Acquisitive Prize for his conceptual work, Faces, Faces Everywhere. How would your eye rate this one, Mike?
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The mysteries of competency
by Jennifer Meyers, Ocala, FL, USA
So can the Dunning-Kruger effect lead a person into the dilemma of being highly competent and incompetent at the same time? If you think you are competent but really are not or if you are competent but think you are not… how does this play out in real life? How does the impact of a person’s own psyche play into the equation? What if a highly competent person with low self-esteem is in a workplace with incompetent people? Your email newsletter is wonderful! There is always something thought provoking or comforting or nurturing.
(RG note) Thanks, Jennifer. If you are quite sure you’re competent, you may not be. On the other hand, if you think you are incompetent, there is a very good chance that from time to time and on certain occasions, particularly when you get lucky, you are actually competent.
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Overlooking the errors
by Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, BC, Canada
As an art dealer and gallery owner, I’ve had artists come to the gallery with the idea of becoming a showing artist and I do a critique of the work because they are not there yet and they may never be. It is particularly needed and helpful for the beginners because, as you said, they either overlook poor work or consider it good enough. I think a lot of them overlook their errors. I’ve noticed that some people who do figurative work have never taken a workshop with a model or looked at informed reference books. I tell them to look at various joints and they agree that bodies do not bend in the way they painted them.
Loner and networker?
by Bill Sander, Sarasota, FL, USA
As always, interesting and informative (and competent :-) However… how is one both a loner and a networker?
(RG note) Thanks, Bill. This letter evoked more interesting questions and confusion than any for a long time, which makes me think either I’m an incompetent letter writer, or that I’m at least a bit competent in stirring up a den of breeding nematodes. Yes, loners can be networkers. It just means they don’t go to bars, restaurants, clubs or guilds to do it. And when they do turn up at workshops, they are the ones out there half a mile, set up and painting quietly by the glacier, who, after a rocky trudge by the guide or instructor, are reminded that the helicopter back to their private room in the lodge is coming in half an hour.
What’s it all about?
by Regan Tausch, Bayville, NY, USA
I happen to be a self-taught artist, true to my Folk Art style. And I see evidence of artists who overestimate their accomplishment or maybe the patrons overestimate it, or both. I had very little self-esteem for much of my life, and thought I was a terrible artist and still think so in some ways. Having said that, I found my niche, and my art has improved greatly over the last 15 years — coinciding with when I started showing and selling my art. And my art has brought my fans much joy, and in turn given me back joy and insight into my own artwork. And that’s what it’s all about.
(RG note) Thanks, Regan. In my opinion you’re onto a good thought here. Artists who might consider themselves to be overestimating their competence should note that their patrons, who have often never tried their hand at art, nor do they know much about the subject but only know what they like, may themselves be among the ranks of the incompetents. And that’s what it’s all about.
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Finding the vision in the artist
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Well, yes, there is that for sure and we have all witnessed it. But there is something else as well, which is shoehorning of talented beginners into doing what we do. I am talking about those brilliant newcomers with a vision of something new and exciting, who get harped at because they painted the lacrimal caruncle too pink.
I’m just saying that Dunning-Krueger thing is sometimes very obvious, but can also be grossly misused. Many ingenious inventions are results of overcoming a lack of skill, or from lack of interest in using skills.
Picasso is a prime example of the latter. If one had never heard of him and he brought his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to a crit, what might a critic say? Maybe you would have understood his vision and acknowledged all the skill that he already possessed, but the first critics who saw it did not. There is only one Picasso, but the urge to bring something new to the table is not that rare. That’s what I think we should be careful not to stifle.
Not everyone is focused on bringing something to be graded. Some people approach the teacher with hope of sharing a vision. Of course it’s also up to them to communicate this. You would probably give a different crit if Picasso said that he was just learning how to realistically draw a female figure or if he said that he was trying to break new grounds. That’s one reason why crits are difficult; you really need to make an effort to understand the person, not just what they made.
What would I say to Picasso about his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? I guess the best thing I could have done was to buy it!
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Perfecting the art of schmooze
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
Contemporary art these days seems surprising and baffling. The application of paint in many paintings appears to be done with the opposite of skill, and it’s not just my opinion. Recently, I read an article in ArtForum about the “de-skilling of art.” Skill in the painting process is a definite hindrance these days. Skill in sculpture is left to the artisans who manufacture the sculpture for the blue chip artists who come up with the idea and perhaps a sketch. Some major fine artists employ 50 – 100 other artists and artisans to actually hand make their art objects. This is good for the young artists who are employed while making valuable contacts in the high flying art market. In fact, some young artists are now using this employment as a beginning step to a blue chip career of their own. And good for them.
But back to skill. Is skill just another talent to be outsourced by the dynamic, big bucks artist who spends most of his (or her) time & energy perfecting the art of schmooze? Competence can be hired. The artisan who pours your bronze and inks your etching plate or glues your doodads to the diorama is competent. The manager who hires all the artists who work in your gigantic studio is competent.
The big idea artist is prized not for competence, but for that singular, original, raw vision. O.K., my cynical opinion is formed by reading way too many art and fashion magazines and spending way too much time online googling the art world. Sour grapes? You betcha! I just want to keep painting and have people admire and buy my work. But it isn’t about being a “good” painter. People collect the art of artists who are already famous, or soon to be famous. What is a “good” painting? If the artist has proven to be in several museums and in the collections of discerning and successful art world collectors, then this artist is a good investment. This artist has galleries lining up to offer solo shows that sell out before they open. Skill does not even enter the equation. Searing, blazing, originality coupled with relevant comment on the state of our culture created with raw intensity subtly displaying the blips and splodges of the machine/hand of the artist… now that’s a painting fit for the cover of the great art magazine.
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oil on board, 14 x 10 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Marc Lemonnier of Pointe-Claire, QC, Canada who wrote, “I was glad to see one of my very favourite citations from Confucius come to life in your letter. Being a painter with little schooling, I am certain it applies.”
(RG note) Thanks, Marc. Great minds worldwide throughout history have expressed this idea in one way or the other. “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” (Bertrand Russell). “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” (Charles Darwin)