Shakespeare and Hip Hop? The cognitive bias of art appreciation


When it comes to defining great art and literature, most people encounter a thinking problem that explains what Man Vs. Brain is all about. That separation between the role our unconscious emotional brain plays in our thinking versus our logical, rational thought processes. The reason why art and literature make such a good example is the fact that, logically speaking, there are no criteria to rate one artist’s work over another, it’s a purely subjective decision made on the grounds of emotional responses. But what we encounter time and again is attempts to do just that and rank artistic endeavours against each other. When it comes to comparing the relative worth of Shakespeare and Hip Hop, it’s a fascinating insight into how our minds work.

Fortunately, a data scientist called Matt Daniels recently illustrated that very issue by applying a unique word count to various rap artists and contrasted the results with Shakespeare. Now on the surface, Shakespeare is obviously a “higher” form of art than Hip Hop, if you were to consider the context in which it is presented and the artistic sensibilities of the audience. It’s great art and literature vs. Pop culture. However, the data showed something quite different.

So are great art, masterpieces and masters merely expressions of social and emotional factors and devoid of any logical, rational reasoning? Is pop culture and transient consumer art just as valid as the legends of culture? It’s a thinking problem alright…


What makes an artist special?

Let’s get to the juicy bit. Many people regard the works of William Shakespeare as being special. However, this judgement is biased because for centuries everyone who encounters the work of Shakespeare is told (by parents and teachers) that it’s great art (read more about that here). This creates a cumulative cultural bias, it skews your view to be more accepting of the work without making a purely critical evaluation of it based on its merits and your own reaction. It also creates an unconscious bias in most people’s minds that Shakespeare was a better playwright than his contemporaries.

The problem is caused by the way communities evolve standards that govern their expectations. This is a social phenomenon, known as a social control: it’s the assumption of a certain kind of social worth which makes a community self-regulating in its behaviour and attitudes.

Normally, social controls can be explained by looking at accepted social attitudes to certain kinds of viewpoint or behavioural expectation of a community, for example, obvious social controls are things like the once commonly held belief that having children outside marriage was somehow a source of shame, or that in centuries past, it was perfectly acceptable to kidnap people from Africa and Asia and keep them as slaves. Today, those viewpoints are no longer socially accepted. However the change in attitude is self generating by society, it began before the law recognised the issues, and even after the law changes, the old attitudes persist within society. It takes time and changing generations, a cultural shift, for one set of socially acceptable rules for our behaviour gives way to another. In this respect, society spontaneously makes its own rules for how we behave and view the world we grow up in and live in as adults, hence the name social control.

Social controls are everywhere and touch all aspects of our lives within a community. They are fluid and change all the time. They’re not always negative in their effect, either. You might consider that the fight for democracy and freedoms that dominated the 18th and 19th centuries were a function of changing social controls, as community expectations of life changed from the era of monarchy and aristocracy to the industrial age. The abolition of slavery, child protection, the right to public education and so on all reflect the way societies change the way they self regulate. Our expectations of how things should be are socially learned behaviours, and at any point in time you’ll see that what was considered perfectly normal to one age appear to be outlandish or immoral to another.

When social controls clash (as they do all the time) we encounter a psychological responses, normally anger and confusion. Put simply, if you have a set of expectations that clash with someone else’s expectations of the same social interaction, it causes problems. For example if you buy a car and you’re expecting it to be honestly presented, but the seller assumes that you’re expecting him to lie about all the problems it has, when you discover the problems and complain he won’t understand why you’re angry because you should have expected him to lie.

The whole notion of Caveat Emptor (“let the buyer beware” or “always read the small print”) is a reflection of the role of social controls in the way we conduct transactions. If you’re expecting honesty, and the seller assumes you’re expecting dishonesty, that’s a clash of social controls – which is where the concept of “getting screwed” comes from – it’s the difference between your expectations of how people behave socially, and how someone from a different kind of community expects people to behave socially.

The clash of social controls lies at the heart of most differences of opinion about life and business. It’s difficult to see in some aspects of life, easier in others. It’s often expressed in words ending in -ism. Racism, sexism (and snobbery, prejudice, bias etc.) are functions of social controls, clashes between the assumed cultural norms of one community or generation versus another. These clashes are also very common in our appreciation of art. In all cases, most people will look for logical reasons to explain why their view is correct because they don’t realise their viewpoint is a social construct rather than an intellectual one.

In my own case, I had precisely that kind of art clash with one of my in-laws, who insisted that fantasy and science fiction is a lower form of art than realistic fiction and drama. Her view was that unless a film or a book was about events that could actually happen, she couldn’t relate to them, they were “silly” to her mind. From my viewpoint, the fact a story is set in space or set in a launderette is irrelevant, the events and characters are no more or less believable, the launderette story is still wildly unreal. We have a different social expectation of what entertainment for adults should be about, for her they should be about adult life, for me, they just need to be good stories and well told. But there’s no logic in either argument, it’s merely a rationalisation of how we feel about Lord of the Rings versus American Beauty or whatever.

Shakespeare and Hip Hop, closer than you think?

In the case of Shakespeare versus Ghostface Killah, you’ll see an obvious clash of social controls. To many people, the two aren’t comparable. That might be because Shakespeare is great art and rap music is just commercial, tuneless nonsense for kids or because Shakespeare is boring and Ghostface Killah spits dope rhymes from the street (etc.) However when you try to justify that obvious emotional response, as both sides of the argument do, you find the comparison of the two is unexpected.

Which one has the larger vocabulary? After analysis by Matt Daniels the winner is… Ghostface Killah. In fact Daniels discovered another 15 rappers whose lyrics topped Shakespeare for vocabulary richness and diversity. This is important because the richness of your vocabulary is often used as a measure by which people rank the quality of your work. It’s the reason why foul language is often identified as being an indicator of a lower intellectual value in art than work without it. However, it turns out that using foul language doesn’t indicate a lack of vocabulary at all. More relevant is the fact that a rich vocabulary is seen to be an indicator of intellectual progress and merit, it’s a criteria against which schoolchildren’s work is assessed, it’s often cited as a criterion against which ones skills as a communicator might be graded. By the way we grade schoolchildren, Ghostface Killah is a better writer than William Shakepeare.

But if you were to ask most people who was the better communicator, Shakespeare or Ghostface Killah, the answer would of course be Shakespeare. But Daniel’s work has illustrated that at least one of the assumptions that response is based on is faulty. In terms of their mastery of words, the rapper beats the bard.

Of course, that feels like a very wide distinction because of the different contexts in which we hear music versus watching a play. But even in the world of literary classics, Daniels discovered that comparing Herman Melville with Shakespeare put the Moby Dick author way ahead on vocabulary. He beats Ghostface Killah too, although rappers Kool Keith, GZA and Aesop Rock still have the edge over Captain Ahab’s creator.

History skews the value of art and literature

When compared against his contemporaries, Shakespeare ranks almost identically to the likes of Webster, Marlowe, Kyd, Fletcher and Massinger. Yet Shakespeare’s work is hailed universally as the great popular name of his era and the others are known mostly to English literature or drama students. You will seldom see The Tamer Tamed (1633) these days, whereas the Taming of the Shrew is considered a Shakespearian great, although at the time Fletcher’s play was considered the better.

Of course, Fleetwood Mac didn’t theme elements of their album Rumours around Fletcher’s work, they used Shakespeare’s less popular offering, The Taming of the Shrew. Which brings us to the point again, Shakespeare’s cultural baggage dominates contemporary culture. Most people don’t even attempt to explore Elizabethan plays or literature, they accept the majority view that the best examples of a particular artistic form are what history records and culture celebrates, so therefore, Shakespeare is the best example of it’s kind. But it’s not. All you can ever say is it is an example.

That explains why, without the historical and cultural preservation enjoyed by great works, people find it harder to make similar judgements about contemporary art forms. Art and its value is distorted by popularity. The one hit wonder pop star, Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame”, the smash hit bestseller “50 Shades of Grey”, the next big thing, the must have gadget… it’s impossible to tell which ones fulfil their potential and go down in history and which are passing moments, fads and insubstantial trends. In his day, Shakespeare was similarly mass market, popular culture. It’s only in the centuries since his death that his work achieved recognition. If you had done a word data analysis back then, you might have ranked him as being the same as his contemporaries, not remarkable for his use of words.

By the same token, will Ghostface Killah be celebrated in a few hundred years? Maybe, but more likely the works that are remembered from his genre will be the biggest sellers, or the seminal early artists that helped define the genre, such as Public Enemy or NWA. No doubt by then, there will be art critics and classical music buffs that write essays and papers about the importance of Flava Flav shouting “What time is it?”, or Ice Cube declaring it’s time to “Fuck da police” but ultimately, their work will be remembered because it’s remembered, not because it had greater worth than The Goats or Ithaka, who disappeared into obscurity relatively quickly.

This is the historical and social context that shapes our tendencies to intellectually justify our emotional liking of creative works. And the reason we like them is heavily influenced by their familiarity. We are emotionally inclined to respond positively to thinks we recognise, that trigger memories, that help us confirm the things we already know. This is why selecting the right track for an advert or a movie soundtrack can hugely influence its success.

There is a very important crossover in our unconscious minds between our senses, sounds and smells dramatically influence the way we accept or reject what our eyes are seeing. This is particularly effective when it draws on themes that are culturally passed down to us from our social behaviours. For example, one tip often suggested by people selling their homes is to brew some fresh coffee before people come to view the property. The smell of fresh coffee makes people feel at home. It’s a comforting smell, something we associate with waking up and with taking a break from chores or work. However, the same smell would have made people feel uncomfortable back in the 1700s, when coffee was not widely drunk. Back then, because of the lack of coffee and coffee drinking as a social expectation, it would have made people think your home had a funny smell, and discourage them from making positive associations with it in their memories.

The ‘If it sells, it’s art’ factor explains artistic cognitive bias

“If it sells, it’s art” is a quote from architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sums up the cognitive challenges of defining art. Literature and music too. What it demonstrates is something unique to creative works, that they can become recognised and valued in time when they were once worthless. Consider artists like Van Gogh, writers like Edgar Allen Poe, classical greats such as Homer, or blues legend Robert Johnson. They all rose to prominence after their deaths. At the time their work was derided by the establishment or ignored because of the social controls of the day that prejudiced their opportunity to achieve fame on the grounds of their social status and ethnicity.

The work of many greats (as they are considered today) that have spawned entire genres of art, writing and music which in turn have spawned their own great heroes in the years since, weren’t considered great at the time. In fact, people thought they were rubbish. It’s a remarkable thing and again illustrates how reason and logic play no part in defining our tastes. The net result is quite simple, if you judge any work of creativity it is in part a communication of your own social values, partly an expression of community belonging and partly a matter of personal taste. There is no correct viewpoint, merely a viewpoint.

Which begs the question, how can we teach people about great art? The answer is, of course, we can’t. What we’re really doing is teaching them about cognitive bias in decision making and the relationship between different parts of our brains.

From that perspective art becomes many things – neuroscience, psychology, social history, politics and (obviously) entertainment. It touches so many things, in fact, that it’s incredibly valuable to us as a means for exploring the human condition. And that means all art has merit and deserves consideration, be it Shakespeare, Ghostface Killah, comic books, reality TV, kid’s cartoons or anything else. In many respects, developing that kind of wholistic analytical perspective means everything you watch, look at, listen to and read presents you with a snapshot of life in that era, not in it’s actual format or presentation, but when viewed in context.

As Shakespeare put it “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” a sentiment echoed by Ghostface when he wrote “Aye Yo, this shit be off the knock it rock whatever cock block it”. If you see a difference in the wisdom of those sentiments, it’s not a rational commentary on the sentiments therein, it’s an emotional reaction.

Word to thy mother, ye all.