Sunday 28 December 2014

Capping Shakespeare at 99

What's Shakespeare good for anyway? Why don't we just get rid of all his work and move on?

Well, it turns out, for plenty of reasons.

For one thing, people like Shakespeare's work. Millions of people get enjoyment from his plays.

Secondly, his plays have the ability to change audiences for the better. Studies show that reading literature can increase empathy and tolerance and improve social skills and theory-of-mind.

Thirdly, literature can allow audiences to change in their own way. This sort of change is likely net positive.

Fourthly, Shakespeare's plays are important cultural artifacts that say a lot about the society that produced them.

Fifthly, the production of Shakespeare's plays creates jobs.

Sixthly, now that Shakespeare is so influential and talked about, reading his work will let you see how he influenced other writers. Plus, you'll finally be able to get all the references.

Seventhly, Shakespeare had his own style and authorial voice. You won't get quite the same product from reading a different author or playwright.

Eighthly, reading Shakespeare's plays improves reading skills, which are very valuable.

Ninthly, reading Shakespeare can be a good stepping stone toward an interest in "intellectual" stuff.

These are all perfectly good reasons to support Shakespeare. They're also perfectly good reasons to support JK Rowling.

Then why does it sound wrong to put these two writers in the same sentence like that? Maybe each reason applies to both authors but they apply more to Shakespeare than they do to Rowling.

So Harry Potter teaches reading skills but Shakespeare's plays teach better reading skills? Harry Potter creates jobs but Shakespeare's plays create more jobs? Harry Potter has millions of fans but Shakepeare's plays have even more fans? Harry Potter is an important cultural artefact that says a lot about its environment but Shakespeare's plays are even more representative of their time? This doesn't sound very plausible to me. Maybe it's true for some of the nine reasons but some of the others are probably more true of Rowling's work than they are of Shakespeare's.

I think the reason why this comparison feels like blasphemy is that most people have another reason to support Shakespeare: Tenthly, he is a shining spiritual knight of creativity with god-given gifts of artistic splendidness.

Shakespeare has the "it" factor. His work is high in "artistic value," meaning his work has the properties that most people incorporate into their rubrics for evaluating artistic value. His work requires a high level of training and skill, it has proven to be timeless, it has high emotional impact, it contains profound ideas, there is high aesthetic value, and so on. These are the sorts of qualities people look for in a Great Godly True Artist.

But these judgments are (1) largely rooted in arbitrary facts of evolutionary biology, (2) largely affected by the idiosyncracies of your particular culture, (3) partly affected by your personal experiences, (4) partly affected by the context (lighting, mood, position, time of day) in which you experience the art, and (5) are virtually never made in any formal, coherent way but are instead blended together with a mix of intuitions and arguments.

We can definitely say that Shakespeare scores very well on traditional rubrics of artistic value, as well as any artist in history. But all that tells you is that lots of different kinds of people like his stuff. It doesn’t tell you about any kind of “real” value that transcends groupings of opinions. If we look at artists in terms of how much they offer the rest of us, the Tenth Reason starts to look pretty empty. Even if it was true that Shakespeare was orders of magnitude better than JK Rowling at each skill (which it isn’t), that still wouldn’t mean much in terms of what the two of them have to offer the rest of us.

If we look at art according to what it accomplishes in the world, the artists that entertain and inspire us most won’t necessarily be the artists that deserve the most praise. Just like how it feels better to donate to a specific face than to donate to a statistic. When you’re running on corrupted hardware, the outcomes that satisfy you aren’t necessarily the outcomes that should motivate you.

The reasons we use to trumpet great artists into angels are the same reasons we use to justify good-but-just-good artists existing at all. When we reduce artists’ skills and effects to their LCDs, there are no longer enough cracks to store the magical ingredients that make it seem like some artists are orders of magnitude more skillful than others. Even Shakespeare gets capped at 99 – at best.

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