I recently read an article entitled I’m Sick Of Pretending: I Don’t “Get” Art (and its follow-up I Still Don’t “Get Art, and its follow up Ok, Do It: Teach Me How To “Get” Art) with interest. Each article is essentially a humorous diatribe written by an exasperated art school graduate viciously expressing his dislike of the kind of art style that can be loosely grouped under the terms contemporary, modern or conceptual (I’ll use modern for the rest of this post). Considering he is an art school graduate, he clearly does not equate all art with modern art; the titles of each article are clearly designed to be deliberately controversial. What he is actually saying is that he doesn’t “get” modern art, not the entirety of the human cultural practice of art itself. Most of each article is dedicated to declaring how poor he thinks certain examples of modern art are, in the first article focussing solely on a Tracey Emin retrospective.
What’s particularly interesting about these articles is what happened after they were posted. They caused a huge stir amongst social networks: people were sharing it left right and centre, enthusiastically agreeing or viciously disagreeing in equal numbers. Some of the Facebook comments on the original article bring up some pretty interesting points. One of the reasons for enthusiastic agreement with the anti-modern art stance is the perceived expectation that this art should be liked. Many people felt a sense of relief when reading these articles, some going so far as to thank the author for “finally” saying what they were all thinking. Many people seemed slightly embarrassed that they didn’t “get” it (including the author) and felt much better for finally coming out and admitting it. One comment was particularly illuminating:
I was totally laughed at and unfriended by a few for expressing the same opinion about the last Turner prize held at the Baltic, I had all sorts of abuse hurled at me for my opinion.
This is pretty shocking. It demonstrates the feeling of intellectual superiority experienced by some of those who like this kind of art, which helps explain, to a degree, why people would feel embarrassed for not “getting” it: they felt like they themselves were to blame. Perhaps they were missing something? Perhaps they were just not clever enough to grasp it?
This is another interesting comment on one of the articles:
the intertextuality of postmodern art, the ‘pastiche’ requires a good amount of modern and post modern art theory and context to even begin to “criticize” the art. WHY. WHY did he write this article? Some of these pieces are a little over the top, but there are a few whose ‘blatant’ connections to past famous pieces- when put through a contemporary socio-political filter while at the SAME TIME relating to/ referencing that which relates to said inspirational piece- create a relative profundity that warrants at least a little respect. If you don’t ‘know what you’re talking about’ why get on a box and start talking?
This commenter is arguing that the author doesn’t “get” modern art because he has simply not read enough or seen enough art. The implication is that he would respect the art if he had the knowledge. His opinion, therefore, is defective. His difference in taste is just not accepted.
The modern art canon
It seems that certain modern art works have become canonical, respected works, and certain modern artists canonical, respected artists. Modern art is an all-encompassing money-making behemoth; some famous works sell for staggering amounts of money, and some prominent modern artists are ultra-famous celebrities – Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin for example. Many influential people in the art world (the taste makers) have elevated it to this position. This isn’t a controversial claim: certain artists or artworks are held in high regard by influential artistic critics, and this occurs across all genres of art. In classical music, Beethoven and Mozart rank highly in the eyes of influential critics. In literature, Homer and Shakespeare. In pop/indie music, Radiohead and Arcade Fire. The influence this critical consensus has is undoubtedly significant in shaping preferences. I do not wish to discuss why these artists remain critically appraised by so many critics. Regardless of how this has happened, this critical consensus is a fact, and is likely to have some influence on the preferences of those who respect the preferences of these critics.
This is likely to be reinforced in certain cases by peer-group pressure. If one’s peer-group is particularly fond of a particular artist or of the opinions of a particular critic, then this is likely to be a powerful factor influencing one’s preference towards that artist/critic whilst one is in that peer-group.
A situation has arisen where there is an expectation that this art must be enjoyed. If your peers say they like it, and all the influential critics say they like it, then it creates a feeling of intellectual worthlessness if you don’t. This, clearly, isn’t a pleasant situation to be in. People are tired of feeling like it is their fault for “missing something”, or being made to feel like they just aren’t clever or well read enough to get the point of a piece. Sometimes, people just don’t like art, regardless of what the respected taste makers or critics have to say about it. One of the most interesting aspects of the social media response to the I Don’t “Get” Art article was that there were so many artists and art students coming out in support of the author’s stance. These are individuals who are (most likely) relatively experienced in the field, some of which who have definitely read enough about art or seen enough art to have the right amount of knowledge to criticise it. Despite this experience/knowledge, they just don’t like it. There is an intractable difference in taste, a fundamental aesthetic disagreement.
The wider, Western canon
I have personally experienced something similar with many works that can be argued to be part of the artistic backdrop of Western civilization, e.g. works by Homer, Shakespeare, and Mozart. There is a general consensus amongst the artistic and academic elite that these works are just great and that those who are intelligent and well read will appreciate them. Writing a PhD rooted in the philosophy of art has exposed me to a kind of shared assumption amongst academics that these artists created the greatest works of our time. Examples in philosophy of art papers and classes are frequently drawn from the works of these artists, further reinforcing the canonical assumption for future philosophers.
It’s time for me to come out and say it: I don’t like Shakespeare. I’ve tried. Like other British schoolchildren I studied several of his plays at school, and I’ve tried to read them again since. As I just explained, he’s been rather unavoidable during my academic career. I could probably give you a decent précis of most of his plays, and explain the theatrical importance of certain characters. But, crucially, I don’t like them. I gain no pleasure from them whatsoever. I find his linguistic style to be intensely tiring and unpleasant, and the stories to be dull. It’s not like I lack the knowledge to “properly” appreciate Shakespeare either. I’ve read a rather large amount of narrative fiction and poetry in my time, and I’ve studied the philosophy of language, literature and narrative at several different levels throughout my academic career.
I feel like I ought to keep this opinion secret, however, like it is some kind of terrible shame. I remember one occasion a few years ago where I expressed this opinion to a colleague, and I was met with shock and dismay and, quite visibly, a loss of respect. I’ve rarely mentioned it since, despite the constant presence of Shakespeare in my academic environment.
So here I am, coming out and saying it. I don’t like Shakespeare. Not because I’m ignorant and have “missed something”. I just don’t like his works. It is simply a difference in taste.