The Matthew Effect


January 29, 2013





"The Matthew Effect" in economics was named after the verse in Matthew in the New Testament of the Christian bible: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." (25:29) A popular way of saying this is, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer."


The Matthew Effect as applied to education was first described in 1990 by Canadian psychologist Keith Stanovich. You can get the idea with all the talk these days about the importance of third grade. Children who move into fourth grade without knowing how to read suffer significant disadvantages for the rest of their lives. Learning to read is the vital precursor to reading to learn. Poor readers drop out. Later on in life, good readers get the good stuff, and poor readers don't. 


The Matthew Effect can be applied to art. Historically, would-be artists who didn't learn the basics of drawing, composition, colour and form put themselves at a disadvantage. But with the widespread democratization of art, particularly in the Western hemisphere, folks these days often feel self-expression is up ahead of proficiency. It seems many artists are simply educated with a sense of entitlement and audacity.


In many places, big, decorative art is popular. Artists with very little training or academic instincts can often make effective, even sensitive, wall-fillers that make people happy. One of my more conservative dealers calls it "the end of connoisseurship." He tells me people are not looking so closely for exquisite rendering, good drawing or the skillful nailing of light and shadow. "Right now they want 'em mighty, moody, and splashy," he says.


"Because traditional skills aren't so respected anymore," my dealer says, "there's an industry in teaching people to be amateurs." As he said this I was remembering Picasso's remark: "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." I'm curious about this. Is "painting like a child" just a trend? Are skill, technique, and connoisseurship truly on the endangered list? If so, what is this doing to people?


Best regards,




PS: "Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many tasks." (Keith E. Stanovich, Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology, University of Toronto) 


Esoterica: Another friend regularly attends courses where everyone is encouraged to throw paint onto giant, inexpensive surfaces--often from a lineup of commonly-shared pots of colour. The idea of these events is to free up the creator within, express oneself, shake out demons, and have a good time. Colour mixing and other basics are not part of the curriculum. After a weekend of emoting and splashing, my friend asked if she could bring her results to me for a crit. In a diplomatic manner I pointed out what I thought were their strengths and weaknesses. After a while she hesitantly asked, "How much do you think I should charge for them?"