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Saturday August 23 2008

As already noted here, I’ve been reading John Carey’s book What Good Are The Arts? In this he presents a radically subjective definition of “art”.  Art is anything that anybody reckons to be art, even if it’s only art for them.  And he similarly debunks highbrow proclamations about the objective superiority of high-art over merely popular art.  Shakespeare, for instance, is now high-art.  But he didn’t use to be, as Carey explains in this passage (pp. 61-63):

Shakespeare is probably the writer that most high-art advocates would select as a universally acclaimed genius, whose reputation proves that there are indeed artistic values that surmount place and time. But even here the consensus argument breaks down, not only because there are clearly more people in today’s world ignorant of Shakespeare’s works than knowledgeable about them, but also because even among the intelligent and educated across the centuries there has never in fact been consensus about Shakespeare’s greatness. The disparaging opinions of Voltaire and Tolstoy are well known.  Charles Darwin found ‘tremendous delight’ in Shakespeare as a schoolboy, but his view changed when he grew older.  ‘I have tried lately to read Shakespeare and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.’ Norbert Elias, in his book The Civilizing Process, quotes from Frederick the Great’s treatise On German Literature (1780):

To convince yourself of the lack of taste which has reigned in Germany until our day, you only need to go to the public spectacles.  There you will see presented the abominable works of Shakespeare, translated into our language; the whole audience goes into raptures when it listens to these ridiculous farces worthy of the savages of Canada ... How can such a jumble of lowliness and grandeur, of buffoonery and tragedy, be touching and pleasing?

This, Elias stresses, was not an idiosyncratic view, but reflected the standard opinion of the French-speaking upper class of Europe in the late eighteenth century. For that matter, university-educated intellectuals in Shakespeare’s own day such as Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene would have found the suggestion that he was a great writer utterly ridiculous.  On the contrary they derided him as an ‘upstart’, semi-educated plagiarist, on the fringe of the literary world. The orthodox educated view in the seventeenth century, as represented by the contemporary cultural commentator George Hakewill, was that the only work by an English author that could possibly challenge comparison with the classics of Homer and Virgil was Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. It was certainly not Hamlet or King Lear, which Hakewill does not even mention.  Shakespeare himself, it might be added, made no effort to publish his plays, or to correct or proof-read those his acting company had printed.  Far from regarding them as a cultural treasure of which the human race must not be deprived, it seems he did not care whether they survived or not.

To dismiss the opinions of Voltaire, Darwin, Tolstoy and the rest as stupid and blind, and insist that our own estimate of Shakespeare’s universal value is the correct one, is to fail to understand that cultures change, and that their most fundamental convictions fade and change with them. If we are intent on finding something of’universal significance in our culture, it is likelier to be in science than art. Richard Dawkins, in his book A Devil’s Chaplain, imagines superior creatures from another star system (they will have to be superior, he notes, to get here at all) landing on our planet and acquainting themselves with our intellectual stock-in-trade. It is unlikely, he suggests, that Shakespeare, or any of our art and literature, will mean anything to them, since they will not have our human experiences and human emotions. Equally, if they have a literature or an art, they are likely to seem alien to our human sensibilities. But mathematics and physics are another matter.  Though the star-travellers will probably find our level of sophistication in these disciplines low, Dawkins suspects, there will be common ground. ‘We shall agree that certain questions about the universe are important, and we shall almost certainly agree on the answers to many of these questions.’

None of this, of course, is a reason for thinking less of Shakespeare. But it is a reminder that talk of the ‘universal’ value of his or any art is meaningless. Nor can Shakespeare’s value be established by a ‘consensus’, whether it is organized on democratic, head-counting lines, or by restricting the ballot to intelligent and educated people across the ages. Well over a century after his death many such people did not consider his plays ‘high’ art at all. The fact that they were once popular art, despised by intellectuals, but are now high art, itself suggests that the differences between high and popular art are not intrinsic but culturally constructed.