What is Quality? How does one measure it?
July 13, 2005 12:02 PM   Subscribe

The recent question about quality science fiction has led to an ongoing debate with some friends. How does one measure Quality or Beauty in art? For example, what makes one painting better than another painting? Are evaluations of this sort purely subjective? Somehow the argument that there are no objective standards for Beauty — that the Quality of art is purely a matter of personal preference — seems dangerous to me. (If one cannot measure Quality in art, then how can one measure Quality in science or law or any other field?)
posted by jdroth to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are evaluations of this sort purely subjective?

Yes. But, they are the opinions of those who really know/love the specific field. Generally, there are two types of works - those that have immediate popular appeal and those that have a lasting sense of quality.

For obvious reasons, anyone can discern the first category. But it takes time and/or expertise to distinguish the latter. One particular art critic may disagree with all the others, but among them, they generally do come to consensus.

In the field of sci-fi, for example, if you look at any best-seller list, its mostly over-rated or over-hyped crap. But, if you take a smaller sample of people, who know and love sci-fi, you get quality.
posted by vacapinta at 12:13 PM on July 13, 2005

The thing is--you're right, it is subjective. But there is a certain standard, however ambiguous it is, for some things. Like in video-games--I'll often dislike a game, but I realise its merits and why other people like it, and in fact, why it is, essentailly a well-designed game. This can apply to anything.

Of course, when it comes to two phenomenal pieces of, let's say physical art, there shouldn't have to be a measure of which is better--we don't always need to categorise things like that.

With science fiction, it would be a story that presumably fits all the criteria of a good novel--that's not to say some middle school list of "beginning middle and end," but rather the qualities that hook us, that draw us in. However, if every book followed the same formula, they would be boring, no? So it has to be an eclectic mix--I often find some of the best science fiction is pseudo-science fiction, with a touch of surrealism, modern life, love, and just that touch of down-to-earth attitude.

So, yes, there are no "objective" standards for beauty. I came to the conclusion a while ago, essentially that aside from religion (being an atheist here), life is subjective, and there really are no objective truths. This doesn't mean I believe nothing--I apply this when it comes down to believing in moral rights and wrongs, or, in condescending art reviewing, aesthetic rights and wrongs. Often something is pleasing and we can not pinpoint why.

Even the quality of the art, if it is widely accepted to be 'quality,' may be for different reasons. In one person it may be that it evokes something in them. Another might be a neoist and enjoys the completely random scene it portrays. Another might like the form and drawing techniques involved. Another may just find it aesthetically pleasing. So despite these different reasons, we come to a similar conclusion.

Ramble, ramble...so yeah: you can't say "this is good period," "this is bad period," but it's all about...elucidation I suppose. Explanation gives life to things, or lack thereof. "Well, I enjoyed this movie...this book...this game...from this angle...because..." discussions like this are always very interesting to me.

hope i helped in some way! ^_^;
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 12:14 PM on July 13, 2005

I highly recommend "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", which deals with precisely this issue (although never quite reaching an answer), although not necessarily pertaining to sc-fi.
posted by LionIndex at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2005

Response by poster: Hm. Perhaps I should have mentioned that I'm in the middle of re-reading Zen. It's been a decade since my last reading, though, and I'm only a quarter of the way into the book. (IIRC, Quality isn't mentioned until about midway through.)

I hope this isn't getting way too meta about the whole thing, but to follow the complete train of thought, begin with the aforementioned AskMe thread, read the weblog discussion that resulted from it (featuring plenty of dogmatic hyperbole from me), then pick up the thread back here. (Or don't.)

I'm not really looking for support on one side of the question or the other; I want to learn how better to approach the question so that I can make my own evaluations.
posted by jdroth at 12:26 PM on July 13, 2005

You can look at the objective qualities of an art piece, for example the originality, the craftsmanship, materials, display, etc. Then you can see if those elements come together in a way that is pleasing or meaningful or surprising. You would think that the second half would be so different for everybody that there wouldn't really be a lot of "popular" art, but obviously, there are a lot of art pieces that seem to have a universal appeal.
posted by slimslowslider at 12:35 PM on July 13, 2005

Does art have utility in the same way that science or law has utility? That is: measurable results that matter to the public and can be compared?

Personally, I think of myself as preferring one piece of art, literature or entertainment over another. I don't try to spin some kind of absolute quality statement out of it. That seems kind of solipsistic to me and ends up being a big waste of time.
posted by selfnoise at 12:41 PM on July 13, 2005

Mm, if you knew anything about me, you'd know how much time I spend worrying about exactly this sort of thing. I'll throw this chestnut out there for discussion:

Mathematics are represented in nature, you can witness the logarithmic (or "golden") spiral in a chambered nautilus shell, or in the pattern of seeds on a sunflower. Suppose then that all life holds to some mathematics we don't understand yet. So humans would be defined by mathematics, so suppose things that humans create would be defined by mathematics. If there is an inherent mathematical quality to the things we create, suppose it is possible that there exists a function to quantify these things. Once quantified, you just have to sort the list and see what comes out on top. So is the quality of art not quantifiable, or do we just not understand how to do it yet?

I don't know how helpful this is, but it's something to ponder.
posted by patgas at 12:50 PM on July 13, 2005

Response by poster: On preview: Personally, I think of myself as preferring one piece of art, literature or entertainment over another. I don't try to spin some kind of absolute quality statement out of it.

So, are you saying that Quality is not a concept that should be applied to art? That art lacks Quality? That the only basis for judgment is personal preference?

I know and practice two arts with a moderate degree of skill: writing and photography. For both, I have learned certain rudimentary rules (or guidelines) that help me produce what I consider a Quality product.

For example, I understand how to use a semicolon. This is one small piece of writing, but one that contributes (in my opinion) to the overall Quality of a piece; if a semicolon is used incorrectly, the piece in question suffers in Quality.

Similarly, with photography, I've learned simplify my photos so that the image of my subject is not distracted by a busy background. To me, a photograph in which the background is cluttered is (generally) of lesser Quality than a photograph in which the subject stands uncontested.

These are small examples of individual elements that contribute to an artistic piece. It seems that there are objective measures for at least these components. Obviously, there is more to art than just these technical considerations. For example, what is the subject of the piece? Do I connect with it? Do I like the colors? Do I like the story? Reactions to these components are, I grant, more subjective. But is there not some measure of Quality one can apply to them? And if there isn't, does that mean that any measure of Quality in art becomes impossible?

Patgas brings up an interesting concept, relating mathematics with Beauty and Nature. It reminds me that the Euclidean golden ratio has long been used as a tool to create Beauty (and presumably Quality) in art.
posted by jdroth at 12:58 PM on July 13, 2005

Best answer: Well, I'll give you my current supposition on this front.

I measure Quality and Beauty in art the frequency at which people say "This is good". The higher the probability that a viewer of a piece of art will respond positively to it, the higher I rank its Quality and Beauty.

I suppose that you will consider this a subjective argument.

I do admit that it relies on the personal responses of art viewers, but since those viewers are the only instruments available that seem able to perceive Quality and Beauty in any way, I must make do with what I have. They seem to me adequate enough instruments, since they appear capable of, at the very least, ordering various pieces of art according to how much they like them. A piece of art ranked very highly for a lot of people qualifies as "better art" to me.

I see no danger in not having an objective/Platonic standard for beauty or quality in art. We haven't come up with one yet, and any future attempt to devise such a standard will probably meet with failure also.

Let us assume you find a standard. If I walk into a room, look at a "highly rated" painting, and say, "No, I find this quite ugly and poorly-made," should you consider me ignorant of the standard, stupid, or mentally defective? The situation would surely occur frequently, since just about every piece of art on the planet has its detractors.

In my system of thought on the matter, there is no need to classify me. You simply add my result to the quality tally, and inform me, perhaps, that lots of people do like the painting.

I see a possible side effect, namely that we might find our collective sense of beauty and quality constantly changing. I have seen much evidence that it already does so: clothing styles, "movements" in art, musical genres.

If "Beauty" and "Quality" were timeless, universal, and objective, the Beatles would sound like Mozart would sound like Metallica would sound like Lakota songs. One may define Beauty and Quality however you wish, but to describe them requires a realtime, feedback-rich metric.

If you mean, however, to know why we preserve and revere certain pieces of art more than others, you ask another question entirely.

The answer seems as much related to history as anything else. We preserve certain pieces because people once found them beautiful, and we hope to maintain a cultural identity through having examples of what people used to find beautiful. We also preserve pieces because they are unique in some interesting way, tell a story, or communicate information we feel needs preservation. Or, because they are widely influential, or a "first", or because they were made by artists who produced other work that is generally considered "good" or "important".

Also remember that it requires large amounts of money to collect, house, and tend paintings for longterm preservation. As a result, the rich have controlled most of the fine art market. In contemporary times, academics have gained some control over the process, also. So, in short, about a millionth of the human population makes the art-preservation decisions for all six billion of us... based essentially on what they like.

On preview: I don't buy the "the consensus of critics judges art" hypothesis. My argument follows:

1. Since I cannot find a Turing-complete AI, nor does any non-human animal speak any human language I have heard (exception/question: what does Koko the Gorilla think of The Mona Lisa), I must conclude that only humans communicate to one another about human art.

2. Most critics are identified by most people as human. The folks they criticize often disagree with that analysis, of course.

3. Humans seem to inately have an aesthetic sense. In other words, people seem to consider things attractive or unattractive across the board. This aesthetic sense may manifest itself with different outcomes in different groups of people, and most definitely between individuals.

4. The aesthetic sense of a critic may, or may not, produce the same results as the aesthetic sense of a non-critic. True, a critic may have devoted more time to the study of art, and may "know" more about the history, techniques, and influence-patterns in art. But, he or she performs the same basic operations as any other person in determining whether or not they find a piece of art aesthetically pleasing.
posted by Netzapper at 12:58 PM on July 13, 2005

One aspect of quality is judged only in context of a genres history. I can remember hearing a jazz fan talk about Miles Davis. Initially the fan didn't like Miles, but after years of learning about jazz he began to understand. Ask a Hong Kong Person what they think of Crouching Tiger...

There are other aspects of quality... Technical skill is important. There is also an aspect of evaluation that is truly subjective, completely beyond evidence.

So why is there such a debate about quality as it relates to science fiction... Great Sci Fi is great because of how interesting the speculation is, not how interesting the characters are. Sometimes (all of the time?) traditional literary critics don't understand, so they see it as lacking quality.
posted by Chuckles at 1:19 PM on July 13, 2005

(WARNING: Several Bizarre run-on sentences ahead)

From my own observations, "subjective quality" is in part based off of the amount of experiences one has to a specific genre, movement, medium, whatever.

As an example: a person relatively new to a medium may be able to discern what they like versus what they don't like. Their opinion of quality is based upon their initial reaction to said medium. "I liked the movie because it had lots of action" or "I disliked the music because it didn't make sense to me". Or, if you wish to visit a quote "I don't know what art is, but I know what I like".

But if a person revisits said genres, movements, mediums, whatever, made from different producers (or even the same producers), they may start seeing patterns within these items that allow them to draw new and different opinions about what is good and what is not. "The way this person writes in ways I've seen in other works and by other authors" or "this video game introduces new and engaging technologies which keeps me playing". As such, their baseline from which a person defines quality is not based so much off of initial reactions as it is a response drawn from similar experiences from which the new reactions are compared against.

Logic dictates that the more knowledge and experience a person has on a specific specific genre, movement, medium, whatever, as well as knowledge on peripheral subjects relating to said genres, movements, and mediums, the better the odds that they can recognize the patterns and techniques used in their creation. So again the basis on which quality is judged has changed to include these new criteria.

Often times when it gets to this level of observation, personal responses are often discarded. The reason is that (hopefully)some people have developed and understand their own biases and have tried to exclude them in their own judgements.

At least...that's what I think is going on.

So, to get back to your point, the basis on which people evaluate quality not only differs from person to person, but changes in each person as they expose themselves to a wider array of similar experiences.

Or, to put in on an evolutionary scale-
Phase 1: This music is good because it speaks to me (makes me happy, makes me sad, makes me think).

Phase 2: This music is good because the musician shows a fair amount of talent needed to make me feel happy, feel sad, make me think. More talent, in fact, than other similar musicians.

Phase 3: This music is good because the musician has created an innovated and/or unique way to make other people feel happy, feel sad, make them think.
posted by AccidentalHedonist at 1:24 PM on July 13, 2005

I would say in reference to art the place to start the response is with Duchamp. It is in his thinking that the concept of the the artistic triangle find formation. This concept places the work of art, the viewer and artist at the vertices of a triangle. In order for any work to be considered art it must complete this triangle. So as the viewer you have an integral part in the work, without the viewer the work fails. This is a non-subjective matter. How you choose to participate can also not be considered completely subjective. This is in part because you must connect to both the work and the artist. If the work does not inspire such a connection than it fails. In looking at a work it becomes apparent that certain things always become immediately clear, and others require some work on the part of the viewer. Now this work can be considered subjective, but if this is the case then all efforts of intellect must also be considered the same. As for the critic, there is no special place for them in the triangle the are simply viewers just like everyone else. The role of the critic is one of marketing (maybe this is to jaded). They function to market the social and monetary value of the work in addition to market there own value with in the modern structure of the art world.
As for;

Does art have utility in the same way that science or law has utility? That is: measurable results that matter to the public and can be compared?

I assume this is meant as a rhetorical question, to which the obvious answer is yes.
posted by iwouldificould at 1:34 PM on July 13, 2005

i doubt that askme can help you on this one - google for philosophy and aesthetics - but i'm surprised at your comment: If one cannot measure Quality in art, then how can one measure Quality in science or law or any other field?

in science there's a fairly clear set of standards (i don't claim that the philosophy of science is perfect, but it's way less bogged down than aesthetics). the basic ideas were spelled out by popper and, to the extent that "quality" fits within science at all, a good theory is one that has survived many tests.

curiously, these tend to be described using simple (at least, compact and elegant) mathematics. it's not clear why mathematics should be so good a tool for describing the way the world works, but the fact that it does so with economy is a source of beauty to some. that kind of beauty, however, is largely irrelevant to whether science "works" or not.

no matter how pretty or ugly the maths, what happens when you switch your tv on is critical. if you get a picture, it's good science. if you see nothing, it's bad. quality is objective.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:52 PM on July 13, 2005

Does art have utility in the same way that science or law has utility?

damn, i read the perfect quote to answer that last night in david pye's book on design. wish i could remember it.

but anyway, he argues that design is largely art. when you design a car for one customer you're designing part of the landscape for thousands of others. if you find the industrial landscape opressive - or exhilerating - then that is your (lack of) utility in the art of design.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:56 PM on July 13, 2005

For example, I understand how to use a semicolon. This is one small piece of writing, but one that contributes (in my opinion) to the overall Quality of a piece; if a semicolon is used incorrectly, the piece in question suffers in Quality.

Similarly, with photography, I've learned simplify my photos so that the image of my subject is not distracted by a busy background. To me, a photograph in which the background is cluttered is (generally) of lesser Quality than a photograph in which the subject stands uncontested.

this is pretty decent description of Modernism (which is not too surprising, because they too believed in a sort of .. Platonic Form .. which, for example, in painting, was all about reducing a painting to just the essential elements, in this case, the paint and the canvas).

of course, if writing was all about "rules of writing", then how interesting would it be?

that's why i'm guessing most modernist plays bore you to TEARS.

that said, most folks would say we're living in a postmodern world, where we've decided to say that these rules can't be nailed down. How do you know you're using a semi-colon correctly? it's all very abitrary, really.
posted by fishfucker at 2:02 PM on July 13, 2005

My mother in law had perfect pitch and could play Tchaikovsky by ear. She cooked and ate burnt fish sticks because food was an incomprehensible nuisance. My father in law was a gourmet, but tone deaf.

Question of sensibilities, really, and they were both clearly at the extremes. For the middle ground, the average bright person who will never play Carnegie Hall or win a Booker is presumably open to thoughtful suggestion. A good critic can, with one well aimed phrase, destroy a juvenile enthusiasm forever, or, conversely, make a seemingly dull classic sing.

On the edges, of course, you place your bets, you takes your chances. It leads to such irrisistable stories as this

Is art useful? Well, Plato liked martial music because it put the men's backs up. Khomeini, noted anti-westerner, found value in that kind of music for the same reason. Before son et lumiere became a cheap tourist trick, Nazis used it to inspire the faithful.

More happily, good art brightens up the otherwise tedious day to day. I'd say that's useful.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:21 PM on July 13, 2005

If there is an inherent mathematical quality to the things we create, suppose it is possible that there exists a function to quantify these things. Once quantified, you just have to sort the list and see what comes out on top. So is the quality of art not quantifiable, or do we just not understand how to do it yet?

Determinism, yes? A function to derive the world? Art evokes feelings in people, feelings that are rooted in both memories of actual events in the world and emotional pathways in the mind (which maps the world). So this would be one mammoth motherfucker of a function. And it definitely does exist (you can watch it in action), but the problem is that you and I, as citizens of the world, can never discover it. So there's no "yet."

But there is a "yet" when you speak of your own subjective understanding of a piece. Asking how much Quality a text has is like asking how much Humanity a person has. If the answer is "not enough for me," then you just haven't spent enough time with it. Or, you haven't learned how to appreciate it yet. It's your fault you don't like a certain artist or musical group, not theirs. They understand what they're doing, and they dig it. Why don't you? Or, maybe they don't understand what they're doing, and they're doing it anyway. That's okay too though; there's still something that understands, because it's happening. Maybe it can be you. There's tons of music which I hated 6 months ago but love now. It's very exciting to listen you music you don't like because you never know when that moment is going to hit, where it all becomes clear.

That's the problem with critics. I wonder if they ever look back on the music they criticized so harshly earlier, and realize that they just didn't get it. What a terrible feeling that must be.
posted by Laugh_track at 3:38 PM on July 13, 2005

One thing that tends to hold together "good art" is someone who has mastered the most traditional/rigorous forms and then gone on from that to innovate.

When we read epic and other poetry in my British Literature class, the one thing that came up again and again was that if you took a decent chunk of Milton and actually analyzed the verse, it didn't match up to its form exactly. Because that would be 1.) nearly impossible and 2.) kinda boring. But having very little structure tends to also be boring.

Of course, most of us aren't writing epic poetry, but it still applies. If you want to be a great writer, you need to understand the rules of your language. After that, if you want to question certain usages, go right ahead. You may not think that what the author has in the back of his head is important, but I think it's fairly simple for anyone with experience in the field to know the difference between someone who's made a conscious decision to be experimental and someone who just never learned the rules and uses experimentalism as an excuse.
posted by dagnyscott at 3:49 PM on July 13, 2005

Best answer: Hoo boy. This is a subject I've done a whole lot of thinking, writing, and arguing about.

To me, as a music composition student, I will always reject the idea that the quality of art is 100% subjective. It strikes me as the sort of argument usually put forth by a layman who lacks the ability to engage in substantial discussion about a piece of art. However, I will not argue that music is 100% objective. There is always possibility for disagreement even among the most knowledgeable art critics. However, I think the "margin of subjectivity" narrows significantly as the art consumers become more experienced/knowledgeable about the type of art in question. I think the room for disagreement between two hypothetical people who are intimately familiar with every piece of such-and-such type of music ever made is much less than that of two people who only casually listen to music on the radio. I think it's possible and important to distinguish between one's personal preferences and the actual quality exhibited by a piece.

Also, I think this notion from upthread is flawed:

If "Beauty" and "Quality" were timeless, universal, and objective, the Beatles would sound like Mozart would sound like Metallica would sound like Lakota songs.

I'm not familiar with Lakota, but the Beatles do sound like Mozart. Metallica, too, to some extent. They all share much of the same musical vocabulary (diatonic western harmony), and their best work succeeds for the same reasons. A musical analysis of their respective oeuvre reveals this.

This brings me to the subject of form and standards. A good percentage of art is conceived as an example of a form, or a genre. For example, a pop song. A love song. A jazz tune. A portrait. A landscape painting. A piece of western music. A piece of Indian music. Etc. These forms are long-established, and have sets of standards, some well-defined, some not. When examining a piece, we can examine how it applies those standards, and how it does not. An experienced art critic has a much better chance than a layman of being able to tell the difference between innovation, i.e. the subversion of old standards and creation of new ones, and simply a poor understanding or lazy application of existing principles.

I could go on and on about this, and I feel like I've left out a ton of things I wanted to say, but I've gotta run now. Here's a woefully incomplete but possibly interesting article I wrote awhile back on the subject as it relate to music: What Makes Music Good. Anyone who'd like to discuss the matter further can feel free to contact me via e-mail.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:31 PM on July 13, 2005

this is a pretty decent description of Modernism-which, for example, in painting, was all about reducing a painting just the essential elements, in this case, the paint and the canvas.

Modernist painting requires more then just a limitation to paint and brush. A modernist painter was also limited by the optical experience of the painting. "Each art had to determine, through the operations peculiar to itself, the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself." States Clement Greenberg in his seminal essay Modernist Painting. He goes on to point out that a painting must be seen as a "picture first" and be completely flat in order to separate itself from sculpture. Thus the only illusion allowed in a modernist painting is optical. Rothko is a great example of such illusion. This is also the reason that the movement eventually had problems with Pollock whose paintings where not flat enough. This is only one example of what was central to Modernism, authenticity. In this case authenticity of medium.
Walter Benjamin who states early in "The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that "The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical - and, of course, not only technical- reproducibility." This problem of reproducibility in photography detracting from authenticity is only the beginning of Modernism problems with photography. What jdroth is referring to is a stylistic choice, which as he describes it is not just arbitrary. Because it is not arbitrary and based on the conventions of the medium I would say it's not subjective either.
posted by iwouldificould at 4:55 PM on July 13, 2005

There are plenty of objective standards of quality. ("Has it remained popular for over 500 years, and thus proved its merit is deeper than cultural fads" for example), but I'm happy to just think "I like many things with great merit, and I like many things with very little merit at all. My taste in many areas is not discerning, it's just peculiar to me, and many things can appeal to me because of me, not through fault (or credit) of their design or implementation".

There is no shame in liking rubbish, (unless perhaps it's the only thing you like :)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:13 PM on July 13, 2005

Does art have utility in the same way that science or law has utility? That is: measurable results that matter to the public and can be compared?

Certainly - because art is a major difference between surviving and living, it's utility is making life itself better. In some areas, that's dead easy to measure and compare (the box office for example), while in others, you'll have to resort to the same fuzzier techniques resorted to by scientists, economists, etc when the same wildcard of the variety of human experience likewise muddies their attempts to evaluate something intrinsically connected to it.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:26 PM on July 13, 2005

Best answer: People use the would "quality" in several different ways (probably more ways than I'm about to list), and then create confusion by using the word in conversation without being clear what they mean by it.

By quality, some people mean a ranking system for what they, personally, like and dislike.

Others are speaking about the likes and dislikes of an elite class, critics, to which they may or may not belong.

Still others are talking about economic power -- how much money the work has generated. (People will often claim they are not talking about this when they are. They will claim that they are talking about how many people LIKE a work, but they gather their statistics by tallying how many copies of said work have sold, which isn't necessarily the same thing. People sometimes buy things they don't like, i.e. for status or to read/see/listen-to what everyone else is reading/seeing/listening-to).

Some people use "quality" to mean "influence," and by this measure, a work has high quality if it has inspired other works or trends. Note that a work judged bad by other standards can still influence. And a works influence is not always good. (Example: "Lord of the Rings" has been so influential that it has inspired a whole genre of similar works. How many of these spin-offs is any good?)

Some people simply mean lasting power. To them, if we're still reading something that was written several hundred years (or some other arbitrarily long period of time) ago, it has quality. Some people say a work has quality if it conforms to certain standards -- standards which have usually been laid down by critics (for instance, at one point in history, dramatic critics decided that all plays had to take place in real-time, so that if the play was two-hours long, it could only cover a two hour period).

Of course, many people define quality as a combination of these things and still more use it as a fuzzy term, not quite sure what it means, but with a general feel of "I like it and a bunch of other people seem to like it too."

John and Jane have no basis for conversation if, when they speak of "quality," John is talking about influence and Jane is talking about whether or not she personally likes something. Alas, they will probably converse anyway.

People get really confused about whether qualitative judgments are objective or subjective. This confusion stems from a much larger confusion: are people individuals or members of a group? In other words, can an artist create a work that affects our general human nature or must he try (and often fail) to appeal to each person individually?

The answer to whether we are individuals or herd animals is simple: we're both. We're herd animals with individual differences. But this is too complicated for most people, and throughout history, people have tried to deny it and flip the personality-coin to either heads or tails. In reality, it is forever wavering between heads and tails.

People are based on shared genetic code. We all start out with the same code. (Or do we? Some people have mutations not shared by others. We all start out with SIMILAR code. It's not exactly the same). Then, our life experiences -- upbringing, books we read, etc. -- changes us into individuals. Which means you will always be different from me, even though we are members of the same herd.

The mind is incredibly plastic. On the other hand, it's not completely plastic. The are some aspects of the mind that are the same in most people. Artists can try to appeal to these parts. If they appeal to the plastic parts, they will create works that appeal to some people and not others.

Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has been studying art and the human brain. He seems to have uncovered certain patterns that artists can use, which, in general, cause certain effects in normal human minds. Interesting stuff.

I believe that the most useful way to view art is to simply ask, "Do I like it?" "Does it move me?" "Does it change me?" "Does it entertain me?" Why seek out art if you're not trying to be moved, changed or entertained?

Well, there are other reasons. Many people seek out art in order to seem more intelligent. They read, say, Camus, not because they want to, but because they think people will be impressed. Others read certain works because they think these works are good for them. They read, say, "King Lear," not because they want to, but because they've been told that they won't be a complete person without having read it.

I'm not a big fan of these reasons to seek out art. But I don't mind them if people are honest with themselves and each other about them. I'm deeply saddened when (as so often happens), a friend sees a movie or reads a book and says, "I don't know if I like it or not." This friend is letting other people's judgment -- or personal desire to look smart -- to interfere with their natural feelings and thoughts. Most likely, this friend went to SCHOOL. School is where many people sustain damage to their thoughts and feelings. It's where authority figures (professors and other students) tell you what is good and what is bad. It's a rare (but wonderful) school that helps you grow into a person who feels and things deeply for yourself. Most schools just say, "look, we know you're in a hurry, so we'll tell you what's good and bad and let you get on with your life." Beware these schools. They are killing small parts of you.

You DO know if you like something or not. You MUST have some feeling when you read it or watch it. Did it bore you? Did it move you? Did it make you laugh or cry? When people say they don't know if they like a work or not, they generally mean "I didn't like it, but I have a feeling it's a Great Work, and I'll look like an ass if I admit I didn't like it." Or they mean the reverse: "I have a feeling this is generally considered bad, but I actually enjoyed it, and I don't want people to think I'm stupid." Of course, they might also mean they liked parts of it and didn't like other parts. Which they should say. A book CAN have a good first chapter and a lousy second chapter.

(Sometimes -- rarely -- a person means, "I didn't like it, but I have a feeling I MIGHT like it if I studied up a bit and read it again." This feeling might be worth listening to. More below.)

So is it okay to say a work has "quality" if I like it and that it doesn't if I dislike it? Yes. But I would add some advice, which you should only follow if you wish to. The reason to follow it is that they might lead to a richer life: a life in which more works move you or a life in which you might be moved more deeply by works you already know. But you should STOP following this advice if it interferes with your subjective quality gauge. The most important aspect of art -- for YOU -- is they way in which it moves you. So if you find yourself being moved less (if you start saying, "I don't know if I like it"), then STOP following all external gauges. STOP listening to professors and critics. For God's sake, just read and watch and listen! Experiencing art should be like falling in love. Don't marry the girl because your father tells you to! Marry her because you love her!

Having said that, it is worthwhile listening to (some) critics because they can lead you to art you might not know about or be able to find on your own, and this art might move you.

Some art can't be enjoyed (fully) without knowing certain things before you experience it. For instance, you have to understand some archaic words before you can enjoy Shakespeare. A critic may be able to give you this contextual information.

A critic might point out some subtle aspect of the art that you missed when you first experienced it. Knowing about it might totally change the way the work affects your brain, which may make the work move you more deeply.

A critic can point out which works have endured. If a work has been read for centuries, this might be just because an elite group has kept it in the curriculum for centuries. On the other hand, it might be because this book has moved hundreds of thousands of people. And if it has, then there's a good chance that it will move you too, because though your nature is plastic, it's not completely plastic.

I have written about works MOVING you. As humans, we are moved mostly by things that tug at our animal nature. We are moved by surprise, whish hooks into our fight or flight instincts. We are moved by things that make us want to eat or fuck. We are moved by certain patterns that fire our sense-systems. And we're also moved (I believe to a somewhat lesser extent, but still truly moved) by intellectual games (generally by experiencing surprising new thoughts).

Critics (especially academic critics) often tell us that a work is good (or bad) for all sorts of obscure reasons. And they make us feel stupid if we like a work because it scared us or because we fell in love with the heroine. We're taught that these are the effects of "entertainment," not "art." Yet these are the things that appeal to the deepest part of who we are. Look for those works that make you hungry, that turn you on. Look for those works that make you say, "what's going to happen next?"

"King Lear" is a great play because it deals, in a deep way, with parents and children, with love and aging and fear of death. It deals with all of these simple, eternal aspects of being human. "The Brady Bunch" deals with parents and children too. I'm not saying "The Brady Bunch" is as-good-as "King Lear." My internal quality gauge tells me that "The Brandy Bunch" is trash, whereas "King Lear" is a masterpiece. But "King Lear's" lofty status doesn't stem from the fact that it deals with obscure, highly-intellectual, philosophical truths. "King Lear" is great because it's a well-told tale which deals with simple human truths. Whereas "The Brady Bunch" is a poorly told tale which deals with simple human truths.

By well-told and poorly-told, I'm talking about technique: world-choice, avoidance (or non-avoidance) of cliche, etc. But these stylistic concerns are important because they allow me to FEEL more deeply. They have a greater (or in the case of "The Brady Bunch") a lesser chance of hooking into my human nature and moving me.

But what if you're not moved? If you read "Hamlet" and are bored by it, should you say it's bad? I think you should first note than many people think it's a great work. You might want to investigate why they think so and if there is any prep work they had to do before reading it (i.e. learning what certain words mean) in order for the work to move them. If you follow their advice and are still bored, then yes, you can say it's bad. Your subjective judgment must ultimately trump all other judgments, because the most important aspect of art for any person must be the effect art has on that person.

(Note that as a culture, we are flooded by information and must discard some of it. Our libraries aren't big enough to contain all works and our lists of 100 best movies can, by definition, only contain 100 movies. So we must use odd means of choosing what to preserve and what to discard. We can't consult every person on Earth when a decision has to be made. Since these choices are made in a practical (but imperfect) way, they should be taken with a grain of salt. Just because a book is or isn't in the library, we can't say that book is good or bad. We can only say it's good or bad if we like or dislike it.)

"Quality" is best used as tool. Don't use it to place works on some cosmic scale. There is no cosmic scale. Use rankings as a way of finding works. If a NY Times critic says, "go see this film; it's the best film to come out in the last 10 years," then you might want to see the film (especially if that critic has steered you right in the past). But if you see the film and dislike it, don't say, "I didn't like it, but I know it's a good film." Please, please, please don't sell your soul. Be brave. Say it was bad.
posted by grumblebee at 7:25 AM on July 14, 2005 [3 favorites]

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