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At critique group yesterday, one of the recurring critiques I received from my writing buddies regarded cultural references. I’m stumped as how to react. My main character has a background in Art History and thinks about things in relation to art. The passages in question are clear with or without the reference to El Greco or Turner but lack a certain sparkle. Which brings me to my question for you all.

Does the reader need to understand every word? I feel that if I take out every 50 cent word and reference, I’d be dumbing the writing down.  How much of a background can you assume the reader has? Is it unreasonable to think the reader could look something up if they don’t understand?