Should We Need to “Relate” to Art?

In this article New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead rejects “relatability” as a cultural “scourge,” as she comments on popular radio host Ira Glass’s tweeted response to a performance of King Lear: “Shakespeare sucks…No stakes, not relatable.”

Mead provides a quick survey of the rise of the use of “relatable” as a cultural demand vis-a-vis art, and she explains why it’s such a problem:

Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Read this fine piece here. Then go read, watch, experience some art form that feels totally “unrelatable,” and see what happens.

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