Pleasing The Crowds
In 2015 Public Policy Polling asked voters in the US primary elections whether they favoured the bombing of Agrabah. A third of Republicans said they did, with 13% opposed, the figures reversing for Democrats. Agrabah is a fictional town from Disney’s ‘Aladdin’.
It’s now known that people ignore science that doesn’t fit with their currently held views, a triumph of feeling over data. When faced with results we don’t like, we blame the research rather than our own thinking. If there’s something we don’t understand, we ignore it rather than ask what it means. This is a development that universities are heeding in their anxiety not to offend wealthy students.
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols, looks at this exasperating phenomenon, and how Trump is simply part of a larger wave of anti-rationalism that has been accelerating for years.
When in doubt, get the glitter out; theatre director Emma Rice was appointed at the Globe, eyebrows were only slightly raised when she said she didn’t get Shakespeare, and wanted to mike up Sam Wanamaker’s faithfully recreated building. When her charmless, hyperactive production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ opened with characters in motorised wheelchairs, balloons and David Bowie, reviews were toothless. It’s great fun to reinvent, of course, but reinventions work best when they’re undertaken to provide insight rather than random sensation.
Now, a new director arrives at the Young Vic with a ‘Twelfth Night’ consisting of hardly any text, endless jolly carnival songs and Malvolio arriving on a hoverboard. Beware any Shakespeare production that introduces its characters on motorised transport. The result is, with the best will in the world, pretty awful. Balancing these are the quieter, more nuanced works by new authors who expect thoughtfulness to be reciprocated.
Meanwhile, Banksy’s buyer says she’s going to keep the £1million+ shredded picture that self-destructed at its Sotheby’s auction in a Youtube-friendly event because ‘it’s art history’, not because it has intrinsic artistic value. Trust Banksy to create a genuine artistic statement, destroying an ironically sentimental picture called ‘There Is Always Hope’ and turning the art world on itself at the same time.
But in most cases it goes on without irony; debate stifled, provenance ignored, history dismissed, education bowdlerised – and this is just in my area of expertise, the creative community. I have friends who are company directors required to attend team-building, trust and feelings exercises wherein up to 200 senior staff members travel somewhere far away to play with Lego bricks and poster paints before hugs, tears and cheers. They all agree it’s an infantilising exercise in humiliation that ignores their training, as well as being a complete waste of time and money. But it’s a nice little earner for the creators who have sold such awaydays into corporations.
When I read insulting reviews of books by fellow authors, I check on the reviewer. I often find a young expertise-denier who hasn’t picked up on the book’s themes at all, someone not qualified to understand what has been created. This comes from the arrival of the amateur reviewer who champions gut instinct over comprehension. There are some great amateur reviewers too – some bloggers are better than their professional counterparts in the UK media, but the vocal idiot often runs roughshod over the thoughtful and gifted.
But employing gifted experts is expensive, and they’re a dying breed. One, a good friend of mine, is Barry Forshaw, whose knowledge of crime fiction and film is wide-ranging and astonishingly well researched. But like many, he is not read by the skimmers who simply surf their tablets looking for bullet points and clickbait. This leads to mature experts being judged by the immature and unqualified, rather as Prince Charles trusts quack cures over empirical data.
I’ve had some hilariously inept reviews over the years in which critics simply missed the point. One said, ‘If you’re going to make up a Gilbert & Sullivan opera, surely you could come up with something more believable than ‘Princess Ida’? I was mauled for mentioning the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ tragedy in 1756 because I had not balanced it with incidences of British reciprocal atrocities. I was not seeking ‘balance’ but using the event as a plot hinge, but my (caucasian) critic sought representation rather than fiction.
These occurrences were once few and far between. Now they’re everywhere, all the time. Me, I go on in the knowledge that there are enough educated readers out there who ‘get it’, whatever I’m writing, because they know I will do the groundwork and put in the hours. The alternative is to pander to the simplest, least sophisticated tastes. It doesn’t matter if you’re not an expert; throw glitter on it and everyone will be happy.