Book Review: What the Hell Are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley

What the Hell Are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley

What the Hell Are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley by David Shrigley

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Let me start by stating my credentials:

I’m legally sane;
I’m reputedly reasonably intelligent;
I have several graduate and post-graduate qualifications and training including several in Art History;
I love art – in particularly the Surrealist and Dadaist schools;
I have a staggeringly (possibly obscenely) huge appetite for humour – from moderate, conservative show-in-front-of-your-mother comedy to bizarre watch-on-your-own-while-eating-pot-noodle-secretly strangeness.

All of these points – and most of all the last – make me at least as credible as anyone else to review this supposedly ‘essential’ collection of David Shrigley’s work.

Not to put too fine a point on it: it’s shit.

I have wasted hours of my life I’ll never get back poring through the pages of this book (bought as a gift for me last Christmas) trying to find things that amuse me or even just make me stop and ponder for a moment. Both are there, I’ll admit – and once or twice a page will do both – but there’s precious few pages in this rather thick tome which hit the spot.

On the front of my copy is a quote from Harry Hill: “Funny and profound and surprising all at the same time.” All I can say is that Harry Hill clearly has no sense of humour and his level of profundity is rather at the shallow end.

Yes, I know, I know – I’ve just said one of the UK’s top comedians has no sense of humour. And I’ve trashed a well-revered British artist qualified at the Glasgow School of Art and with his works on display at the Tate and MoMA. Although I’d never heard of the chap before, it seems his cartoon work is much loved by many. I guess it must be if they’ve brought out an ‘essential’ book?

So I’m sorry, I know that current wisdom and opinion must say I’m wrong, but I’m sticking to my assessment. David Shrigley is a fraud. The artwork is appalling (I looked for depth and purpose to what I suppose is a deliberate effort to make childlike and amateurish work, but couldn’t find it) and the humour is almost always based on being shallow or nonsensical. I guess this could be an attempt to bring the spirit of Dada to a new generation but I have to ask: why? There was a point to that movement 100 years ago, as a rebellion against elitist bourgeois art of the 19th century, to shock the public and bring about new thinking. Today these things are taken for granted. Nothing shocks anymore – why should it after 100 years or more of artists and comedians trying? This is the weirdness of Monty Python without the talent, the surreal darkness of The Far Side with the light switched on, in short, the artistic equivalent of Theresa May doing the Maybot dance (but less funny). That last comparison is probably the most accurate. Shrigley is cringeworthy in the extreme.

As I concede, there is some funny pieces in there. I’d tell you a few but I really can’t be bothered to plunge back into the book to try and find them, it’s too depressing. Instead I’ll point you to the front cover – a cow being milked shouting ‘WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?’ Literally, that’s as funny as it gets and I’ll admit it made me chuckle – but I say this simply to defend my position again that really, honestly, almost anything will make me laugh and I love to do so. Shrigley failed, on the whole. In that sense, I suppose he is unique – but disappointing nonetheless.

View all my reviews

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. His third book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways and Lancashire Life magazine. Currently reviews for Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 5.5 million times.


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