Apologies for the long gap between posts—it’s been a hectic couple of weeks. This post is something of a departure from the steady stream of political/philosophical type posts of late, but it’s probably the sort of departure you should get used to (in degree, if not necessarily in kind, though I am very much into aesthetics). I’ll undoubtedly be back to ‘normal’ in the next post, though.
It has been an enormous source of frustration for me over the years that a majority of people seem to conflate the quality of an artistic work (using ‘artistic’ in a classificatory sense—meaning film/fiction/poetry/whatever—not in an evaluative sense) with the direct enjoyment they get out of it, down to the very silly notion* that a film without a happy ending is inferior to a film with a happy ending. This is mostly harmless, in that the personal enjoyment of a work is probably the most meaningful and readily available gauge for most people, but it shouldn’t be confused with the quality of a work in any universal evaluative sense. I should probably also specify up front that I’m talking about works/genres/mediums with a significant literary or representational element—mostly film and literature, though some visual art and music too. I’m less confident about evaluating non-representational art, though I think a lot of the same principles likely apply.
(Continued below the fold.)
Specificity of Purpose
That last paragraph is by way of introducing a certain interpretive and evaluative problem. I don’t particularly want to get tangled up in the ins and outs of the art-entertainment spectrum, so we’ll mostly leave that part aside for now, except insofar as it can illustrate that works of art (again, art in a classificatory sense, not an evaluative one) can have different aims, different projects. One work can aim simply to entertain, without any other, more complicated sort of representative agenda; more specifically, such a work can aim for example to entertain a specific group, say teenagers. It wouldn’t be appropriate to call such a work a failure just because it doesn’t entertain anyone over the age of 22, though we could certainly form opinions on how much value the work had (if any) in other areas, or on the relative worth of entertaining teenagers as an artistic goal. Similarly, it’s asinine to dismiss a work that doesn’t have a happy ending or a likeable protagonist, if that work is aiming for something other than the traditional (and often vacuous) formula narratives of, say, big studio cinema or the bestseller shelves at your favorite bookstore.
We can also think of this sort of artistic-goal relativity from an audience/reader perspective. Different people read for very different reasons—escapism, humor, emotional effect/affect, curiosity, desire for insight. It is clearly meaningless to arbitrarily say that a book is ‘bad’ on a general objective scale because it doesn’t indulge a particular one of these reader impulses. I’ll try not to belabor this point too much, though there are numerous analogies that could apply here. The crux of my argument here is this: in order to coherently interpret and evaluate an artistic work, we must understand the project of that work, so that we can form meaningful judgments about it. Calling A Tale of Two Cities a failure because it doesn’t make us laugh or calling Dr. Strangelove a failure because it doesn’t make us cry are not meaningful judgments in any universal, normative sense.
Does this mean there’s no way to evaluate an artistic work without our evaluations being reduced to individual preference? No! It just means that interpretation and evaluation of a work must begin with an understanding of what sort of project the work is undertaking. This is why genre is an important concept—not because it helps us find the books we want in a book store, but because it is central to the way we understand art, in that it gives us convenient structures by which to identify the aims of a given work. It’s not the only way for us to understand these things, but it’s certainly the most obvious way, and it’s a good device to establish relevant continuity between different works.
Evaluating a work is, as far as I can tell, a three-part process. The first and perhaps most crucial part is what I’ve been discussing so far: the act of identifying the project of a work, identifying its aims so that we may have some scale by which to judge it. It’s almost too obvious to point out, I guess, but evaluation depends on interpretation. If we fail to arrive at a coherent interpretation of what the work is ‘trying’ to do, then our judgments about the work will be shallow and misguided. I don’t mean to suggest the primacy of authorial intention, because aside from the way the author’s intention manifests itself in the work, that intention isn’t of any particular consequence. We do, however, have to have some framework by which to judge the success or failure of the work. Some works demonstrate their intentions more readily than others; unless someone’s being silly, there’s not going to be much argument about what the ‘goals’ of Dumb and Dumber are.
Obviously this is a fairly nebulous concept. You’re likely to ask what sort of a questioning this is, the attempt to determine ‘intent’ or ‘aim,’ whether it’s an attempt to discern some intrinsic quality of the work or whether it’s “merely subjective.” The answer, as much as I loathe dismissing things simply because they’re relative to some framework, is that unless we’re willing to say that authorial intent is the definitive source of interpretation for an artistic work (and I know very few people willing to say that, given the complications it creates), we have to accept a certain amount of subjectivity in this judgment. This doesn’t mean (contrary to those who would suggest there’s no middle ground between absolute truth and chaotic relativism) that any judgment is as worthwhile as any other, simply because there’s no absolute ‘right’ interpretation. On the contrary, there are quite a few interpretations that have little or no rational basis.
On the other hand, this brings up the question of what exactly the importance of accurately characterizing artistic intent is. Most of the artistic/literary elite would decry certain interpretations of their works as ‘wrong.’ What they mean, I think, and what I mean when I say that not all judgments of artistic intention are equally valid, is that a ‘bad’ judgment of intention is bad because it is meaningless, because it doesn’t contribute to an understanding of the work—because it doesn’t address the ways in which the work has meaning or significance (and very few works are completely without these things). What I mean by this is that merit of interpretation is not so much a matter of right and wrong as it is of useful and useless. A mischaracterization of an artistic work isn’t bad because it’s a moral travesty or a crime against some higher sense of aesthetics—it’s just not useful. It doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion to evaluate a work by a rubric that doesn’t really apply.
Part two of artistic evaluation is to judge, based on whatever we came up with in part one, how successful the work has been. If it set itself up as a tearjerker, did it make us cry? If it set itself up as a raucous, irreverent comedy, did it make us laugh so loudly that people gave us dirty looks? If it set out to pose questions about the nature of human existence, are our intellects sufficiently stimulated? This part is relatively simple, assuming we came up with a coherent determination as to what the aim of the work was. Obviously as the project of a work becomes more complex and ‘literary,’ our evaluative task becomes more complex too, but evaluating according to a certain framework tends to be a hell of a lot simpler than discerning and articulating that framework in the first place.
Which brings us to part three: evaluation of the work’s project (as distinct from the work’s fulfillment of that project). I guess this doesn’t really need to be the final step, and doing it earlier in the process could save us from wasting our mental energies on something we don’t think is worthwhile, but I’m getting to it last because I think it’s the source of the majority of the disagreement about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ a work is. Most people are only amenable to certain sorts of books or films or paintings, and if they encounter a work with aims that they don’t find interesting or compelling, they’ll often label such a work ‘bad.’ What they mean by this is not really that the work is a failure on its own terms, but that it’s a failure on their terms. This is the evaluative mistake that prompted this post. Choosing to dismiss a work because we aren’t interested in its project is fine, but it shouldn’t be confused with a more objective evaluative statement about the work. This is not to say that we can’t make objective evaluative statements about works we’re not particularly interested in, but we need to understand context. Works deserve to be evaluated on their own merits; if we’re going to dismiss them because we don’t care about their apparent goals, then we should be intellectually honest about it.
I will likely be writing more about interpretive issues in the future, but I wanted to get this rant about the evaluative side of things off my chest first, even though it’s predicated upon interpretation. Perhaps the distinction between disliking a work and the work being objectively bad isn’t one that most people care about, but I think it matters, especially when works with unpopular artistic projects (read: something other than pure entertainment) are dismissed as ‘bad’ by hordes of people who don’t understand that film and literature can accomplish things other than just entertaining us. At the very least, it’s an important distinction to me.
* “In her testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Mrs. Leila Rogers said that the movie None But The Lonely Heart was un-American because it was gloomy. Like so much else that was said during the unhappy investigation of Hollywood, this statement was at once stupid and illuminating. One knew immediately what Mrs. Rogers was talking about; she had simply been insensitive enough to carry her philistinism to its conclusion.” (Warshow, The Gangster as Tragic Hero, 1948)