I hate Shakespeare: artistic canons and the expectation that certain art must be liked

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.

Tracey Emin's "My Bed"
Tracey Emin’s “My Bed”

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.

Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"
Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”

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 Hate Shakespeare meme
Thanks a lot, internet meme.

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Good for you. I’ve written on similar things myself, and am all for honesty, and am totally opposed to dictatorial, ‘elitist’ aesthetics. If you’ve put the groundwork in – which you obviously have – then your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. What I do object to is people dismissing stuff off-hand, without paying it due attention. There are lots of ‘greats’ I wouldn’t give house-room to – El Greco, for one: yuk – and I’m not shy about saying so. At the end of the day, not everything can ‘do it’ for everyone. (Thank goodness.)

    1. “At the end of the day, not everything can ‘do it’ for everyone” – you summarised in a short sentence exactly how I feel too. This just seems so obvious to me, and I’m frequently amazed that so many philosophers, art critics, and art historians assume that certain works are just great. This attitude ignores the psychological reality of the vast amounts of human individual differences in taste.

  2. So you dislike Shakespeare- partly because of the language- but is that something particular about him, or do you also like dislike other pre-18th century writers? Do you also dislike Shakespeare’s sonnets?

    It’s also a bit weird to say you dislike the plots, when they are basically the same plots that he was recycling from earlier sources, and have been constantly recycled since.

    It’s always dangerous ground to say you dislike a canonical work (and much less so with modern work) because it is plainly the case that people have found value in this stuff generation after generation- so it is much more likely that you are missing something that they are getting. I have certainly gotten value from Shakespeare’s plays- both studying them and seeing them performed, and acting in a few of them. Though I would say that I have never found any of them to be remotely funny.

    1. Rather than delve into the specifics of why I dislike Shakespeare, there is a part of your response that seems to have missed something in my post: “It’s always dangerous ground to say you dislike a canonical work (and much less so with modern work) because it is plainly the case that people have found value in this stuff generation after generation- so it is much more likely that you are missing something that they are getting”. I was arguing that despite the widespread acceptance of greatness that canonical works have, certain people will just not like them, even if these people possess the right sort of historical knowledge and analytical abilities which – arguably – are needed to “properly” engage with such works.

      I didn’t go into a huge amount of detail about this in the post (focussing solely on the case of modern art), but there are undoubtedly examples of this happening all across the board. Take a sample of English Literature graduates and you are bound to find some who don’t particularly like Charlotte Brontë or John Milton, for example. These people will undoubtedly understand their historical importance and all the reasons why these authors are respected, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into actually liking the works. Of course I’m just using anecdotal evidence here, but I’m pretty certain this isn’t a strange phenomenon. In my thesis I discuss a large body of evidence regarding human individual difference in tastes and psychological makeups which give us reason to expect a large amount of aesthetic disagreement. I’d try and summarise it here but I’d need about 5000 words…

      Dismissing anyone who dislikes a canonical work as just simply not “getting” it seems like a post-hoc attempt to defend the canon against any criticism. It makes much more sense to just accept that some people don’t like some art. After all, what seems more likely: 1) despite individual differences in taste a canonical work is so good that every single intelligent and educated individual should like it or b) a canonical work has many qualities that are appealing to many people but given the sheer variety of human tastes it is an inevitability that some intelligent and educated people will not like it? I’m fairly certain inference to the best explanation favours b).

      1. Ok, we can agree there are many art works and whole genres that you don’t have to particularly like. And the same point can be made about not necessarily being in the right mood to enjoy something at a particular time. But there’s an important difference between not liking something, and not seeing the value of it or not appreciating it. Appreciation is more broad than subjective pleasure.

        So I guess what I object to is the implication that if you don’t enjoy something, you can just dismiss it, or not trouble yourself with trying to get it. Canonical works are canonical for a reason, so it is definitely worth trying to understand their value. And even if you don’t end up finding value in them, it’s definitely worth exploring what exactly it is that bothers you about them.

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