Confessions of an Art School Douche Bag

wpid-wp-1422687942719.png Recently I had the misfortune of reading one of the most snobby, pompous, self-important, and ironically (deliciously so), poorly written blog posts I’ve ever encountered. Let’s say it was called “As All True Artists Know, There’s a Lot of Bad Writing on the Internet.”1

No, I didn’t write it – that’s not my confession; although there was a time in my life when I absolutely would have, especially if I’d thought I’d have an audience for it.

I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t realise just how truly bad this post was until I had read it in its entirety, nodding more often than a North Korean at the Supreme People’s Assembly as I did so. I wish my shame ended there, but after I finished reading (and nodding), I clicked ‘Like’. Then I clicked ‘Comment’, mentally preparing some smug, sycophantic approval not dissimilar to most of the other comments the post had received.2 But when I started writing, something I wasn’t quite expecting began to materialise in my words:

I read your post, and I was challenged by it. It does have a whiff of snobbery to it – and I went to art school, so have been throughly trained in art snobbery. I loved it, lived it, and was encouraged to fully develop it. Ah…but how the tables have turned.

I am new to writing, have not yet found my voice, do not know if I am good or not. Doubt myself. But still I want to write, and publish, and see where it goes. I am not alone, obviously. I have been writing full-time for 6 months to this end. Can I call myself a writer? I think I can. Am I a good writer? I don’t know; probably not. Not yet. Will I be one day? You bet your ass. I wish we could know how many people responding to your post with comments like “Yes! I so agree!” are actually contributing to these towering garbage piles you describe. Statistically, it’d have to be a fair few.

I agree there’s so much crap out there; woeful, semi-literate, poorly researched, trite, you name it. But it’s like that in all of the arts. We can’t be saying Beethoven is a musician and Miley Cyrus is not for example (though there was a time in my life when I pretty much did). There’s good writing and there’s bad writing; but unless you’re talking purely about technical aspects, deciding which is which is largely subjective, and it’s all produced by writers.

Before I tell you what happened, you need to know what was so bad about this article. I apologise in advance because this will take a while; but a lot was bad about it. In fact, pretty much everything that wasn’t a quote taken from another writer, was bad about it. Really. And I’ve now studied it in far more depth than I ever wanted to.

From its very first words: “I’m going to say something that’s a bit controversial…”, this article raised my eye brows. The fact that there is a lot of bad writing on the internet is not even remotely controversial. Anyone who disagrees with that either doesn’t know what the internet is, or can’t read. I’m going to say something controversial though: It is forbidden by law to be a criminal. OK, No, really, here we go… The problem at this point, is that there is a problem. No, wait, that’s Captain Obvious. Here it is: Her article’s headline is not controversial, it’s blatant and highly successful click bait.

The basic position of the author, is that the internet is awash with “shit” writing. She’s so adamant about this that she uses the same descriptor about 5 times in the space of 2 paragraphs. She describes “towering infernos” of shit, “opening flood gates of shit.” Shit this, shit that. She’s angry too. Likable characters “bore the fuck out of” her. She wants to “torch” anyone who doesn’t use the word ‘viral’ “sardonically”…yeah, sardonically. So add pompous, and arguably, vocabularily challenged.3

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But here’s the most poignant example – the core message of her article is (and this is a quote): “…for me the art of writing is simple: you’re either an artisan of language or you’re not.” This sounds OK initially, but when you think about it; is she saying that writing is simple for artisans of language? No, that’s just what her words are saying. What she’s trying to say, is that if you are an artisan of language, you know how to make art by writing. So not only is her primary message so poorly worded that it carries the incorrect meaning, but what she’s actually trying to say is the equivalent of: “The art of painting is to be an artisan with paint”. It’s redundant and it’s banal, to the point of meaninglessness.

But why does this tick me off so very much? There is, as she correctly points out, a huge amount of bad writing out there; though she fails to recognise that her own writing is contributing to its ranks. And then I realised…it’s because I was her! In the past, maybe not as far back as I’d like to think; I was just like her. Maybe I was worse! Certainly at art school, I was a total douche bag. I was pompous. I was utterly convinced that my work was better anyone else’s, even though my grades suggested otherwise. I used to run around subtly and not so subtly deriding other people’s work because I thought, on some level, that it made my work look better.

So what does she write back in response to what I thought was a fairly restrained comment about her article? After all I said that her article had only “a whiff of snobbery”, rather than “your article reeks to high heaven of snobbery because every thread with which it is woven is steeped in it”? What was her response to my revealing comments about my doubts and fears as a writer?

Stephen,

Great points here, although I still don’t see the bit on snobbery and how it contributes to the overall discussion. I’m talking about innate talent. You either have it or you don’t. Talent makes you good, not great. The art is in the practice and work.

Is it snobbery that not everyone can truly create great art because these words are hard to hear? I’ll never be a great surgeon because I don’t have the innate passion and dexterity matched with years of study + I accept that. I don’t see this as snobbery–I see this as honesty. Not everyone who sets down to write has the innate ability to achieve greatness. It’s the difference between natural and learned. Good and great. I think you might find this talk interesting: http://channel.louisiana.dk/video/marina-abramovic-advice-young

I watched it this morning, and really agreed on her words on being an artist and refining one’s craft.

Really? You really agreed on her words?

If she is correct about this, and she already has all the ‘innate talent’ necessary to be good, then maybe all she needs to do to attain true artistic greatness is to remove all of the jarringly grammatically incorrect sentences from her work:

“Also, I wonder whether we’ve been exposed to so much shit that what we think is good is no longer?”

 ….because adults always find ways to ruin the worlds children have built, brick by brick, intentional or unintentional.”

“Are we simply a character in a sitcom?”

“…and then I started the year off reading a succession of good fucking books that made me feel the way books should–they gave me hope.” That’s right, not fucking good books, but good fucking books… maybe it was the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy?

And then there’s this: “Writers can dissect the process of how they architect and develop characters, scene and story,…”
Writers architect what? Is architect a verb now? Well, yes, technically it is. But what about the fact that it just sounds wrong to a huge proportion of the people who read it? What about the fact that it takes the focus off of what she is trying to say, and puts it instead on her writing technique? Is this the best word to use in this context? Why not use design, conceive, create, formulate, plan or even ideate? Given that this word jars for most people, and that there are numerous suitable alternatives, it is difficult not to conclude that by using ‘architect’ here she’s trying to show us how intimately she knows the language, how skillful she is at her ‘craft’.

During my time at art school I was endlessly crapping on about form and light, repetition, juxtaposition, intentional and unintentional referencing, abstraction of the subject within the confines of the frame and blah blah blah ad infinitum. I would make jargon laden and pretentious comments like: I think you need to consider the subtext that’s carried by the negative space in this image; and Perhaps in this context, some of the formal compositional elements need to be relaxed to give your work a more spontaneous feel.
Were I not such an arrogant twenty-something twit, I might have been embarrassed.

I did this initially because I was taught to, but I embraced it whole heartedly because it was a unique language that served a dual purpose. It enabled me to speak about photography in greater detail, but it also served to show everyone that I had formal training in the ‘art’ of photography, and it enabled me to quickly identify others who had similar training – those in my club.

But in my defence, even when I was at art school, I didn’t make these comments to people who were shooting holiday snaps, or portraits of their kids. In other words I didn’t go around comparing all photography to art photography, and denouncing as garbage everything that failed to live up to those lofty standards.4

In contrast, the author’s article was itself published on the internet. And as such she knows, and is hoping, that it will be read by a broad range of writers, including many that are not in her club. Writers who didn’t study writing at college, or even study it at all. Writers who don’t care if they never create great art as defined by her or anyone else. So what is she saying to them with this article? She’s saying “I’m better than you; and my fellow club members are also better than you.” And why is she doing this, in such a public forum? In a forum that she knows is inhabited predominantly by amateur writers? Because not so deep down, like nearly all of us are at some level, she’s afraid that her work just isn’t that good5 – exactly like I was afraid that my art wasn’t that good all those years ago, and just like I’m afraid now that my writing isn’t that good.

Thanks Annie,

I’m surprised that you don’t see the point on snobbery, because I’m not the only one commenting on it, but I’ll flesh it out for you a bit.

In my opinion it’s snobby first and foremost because you’re writing from a thinly disguised position of “I have innate talent, while so very many others don’t.” It’s snobby because you’re lumping a whole bunch of internet work into your ‘heaping piles of shit’ that neither aspires to be nor needs to be art. And it’s snobby because you’re basing your comments about what is good writing and what is not, on your subjective opinion of what constitutes art (and therefore implying that you know art when you see it).

Snobbery is a form of elitism. Elitism is a belief that you and your group, are inherently better than others and theirs. There are people out there writing that may not meet your ideal of ‘artisans of language’ who have every right to write, and to call themselves writers. Some of their work is extremely fun/moving/educational to read. You don’t build yourself up by attempting to tear others down. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but you asked, and I think this is an important contribution to the discussion.

The author has every right to create less than perfect writing as does everyone else, and my aim is not to humiliate or intimidate her for it. But when the medium you use to criticise people for their poor writing, is itself a poorly written article based on a flawed argument, you should expect that it’s going to be pointed out. I’m sure there will be those who will point out the flaws in my article to me. But I am not claiming, either directly or through implication, that I am making great art with my writing – nor are the large majority of others writing blogs/articles/journals/diaries/poetry/short stories etc. on the internet.

One could easily argue that by writing this post, I’m attempting to do exactly what she was doing with hers. Showing off by saying: “Look at me.”; “Look how smart and deep I am with my opinions that disagree with the mainstream opinions.”6, “Look how skillful I am because I can find errors and weaknesses in her work.” Maybe unconsciously I am. But I believe that I know what my issue is with this work. It is true that we hate most in others what we dislike in ourselves.7 The more I considered this article, the more I cringed internally at the way I acted when I was at art school, and the more I wondered if I had really changed all that much. After all, my total approval of her article was only a click away.

I’ve come to writing finally, at age 47. But you know what? I’m glad I didn’t come to it at 27; because if I’d written with the same pretentious, arrogant, art school snobbery that I brought to my work as a photographer all those years ago, my writing would have stunk. And maybe it stinks now…but I can say unequivocally that it don’t stink now like it wudda stunk then.


  1. It wasn’t, but this serves the purpose. 
  2. She did get some criticism, but about 85% of comments were “I can totally relate to this” and “Great writing! Thank you sooo much” type comments. 
  3. Yes, I know vocabularily not a real word. How do you use the word ‘viral’ in a mocking or cynical way? “That work is soooo viral.”? Sarcastically, yes: “15 readers? So it went viral then.” Literally, yes. Sardonically? I don’t think so. I think what she’s trying to say is that anything that goes viral is worthy of scorn, derision and mocking, simply because it want viral. Viral fund raising appeals for breast cancer research for example. 
  4. The temptation to write “looking at it all through the same lens” here is almost overwhelming, so maybe I’ve not moved on as far as I’d hoped. 
  5. To her credit, she admits having been previously plagued by the fear that she was a second-rate writer. 
  6. I think that many more experienced bloggers would have scanned/read her article, seen how bad it was and simply declined to like or comment on it. I wish I’d done the same. The energy I have expended on her article is energy I can never get back, and the only way I can get benefit out of it now is by gaining insight into myself through writing about it. 
  7. This is generally attributed to Laurell K. Hamilton. 

7 thoughts on “Confessions of an Art School Douche Bag

      1. I understand, and you’ll never get your about page right. I’ve revised mine fifty or more times. I realise, though, that I am a different person every day (a scary thought). I don’t want to touch it again, so I don’t read it. xoxo SB

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