Ever hear of Sturgeon’s Law? It states that “90% of everything is crud.”
For arts, I’m not a believer in Sturgeon’s Law. I’m a liker. I like stuff. That doesn’t mean that I don’t look at things with a critical eye, but that despite their flaws I often find something worth appreciating.
Here’s another place I disagree with the mob – the primary goal of the arts shouldn’t be to entertain. Entertainment is fine as a secondary goal and there is also absolutely nothing wrong with the consumption of art that is pure entertainment. But that is like junk food – a steady diet of nothing but is bad for you.
My primary interest is the narrative arts – stories. Short stories, novels, movies, serialized comic books, graphic novels, tv. I like that stuff, i’m a liker. But I’m always looking for how the work does more than just entertain. How does it challenge me? What does it reveal about myself, culture, and history? What ideas is it trying to portray; is it trying to convince me of something?
To that end I’ve come up with a four category system for evaluating these arts. It works like this – if a work is excellent in any single category and sucks in none, I’ll recommend it. I’ll recommend it with caveats. 2 or 3 categories likely means that is is very good indeed. And good in all four is something everyone should check out and has the potential to become a classic.
Garbage is a category? And another caveat. If it is excellent in some of the other categories it might be worth checking out for a fan. Garbage is two or three? Well, if you really like this stuff. All four? It is crud.
See it is pretty hard to get into my crud category.
In many ways this is synonymous with suspense. Do you want to turn the next page? Delay your bathroom break to not miss a second? Does it provoke an emotional response – laughter, tears, outrage, fear?
A work that is purely entertaining will allow you to enjoy yourself. But it probably won’t be an experience you are still telling people about in 5 years.
I list it first, but it is not the most important. It is not the least important either. If something isn’t entertaining why bother? (There are lots of reasons to bother, but they require some dedication.)
Is it well done? Does it have all those elements that you learned about in English class? Plot, character, setting, theme, rising action, climax and so on.
Does it adhere to the genre conventions?
Is it well written? A good use of language – word choice, grammar. Is it well illustrated, acted and shot? Is it logically consistent throughout?
A work that is excellent in this category will be of interest to fans of the medium, but potentially dull as dirt.
Does the work say something worth listening to? Does it hold up a mirror to nature (impossible says Douglas Adams)? Reveal something about people or culture? Explore a topic.
This is the area that earns you a Pulitzer or Nobel award. (Although those often don’t suck in other categories as well.) It can examine an topic from one side or multiple sides.
A work can almost ignore this – summer blockbusters. Or it can take important topics and do them in a trite and hackneyed manner – after school specials.
What does it have that hasn’t been seen before? Does it break genre conventions? Apply a new plot structure, filmed using a new camera technique, use a coma victim as the POV character? I dunno.
A work that is all about the new is artsy. It will only be liked by professional critics of that sort of work. A work lacking in the new is a Harlequin or “just another cop drama”.
New means that the consumer will need to put in effort to get through the work.
We used to complain about the boring works in high school english class. The teacher would respond that they were great works because for 200 hundred years or 20 years critics had been extolling the virtues of the work. That is balderdash.
People can be wrong. Large numbers of people can be wrong. They can even be wrong over long stretches of time. Art critique has to involve some amount of subjectivity. But my categories can applying some measure of objectivity too.
In truth, most of those works in high school were great. They would generally hit high in at least two of the categories – Idea and Craft and often New as well (or at least New to us). So they were well worth our time in studying. Entertainment is the most subjective category, but it is also trainable. Maybe no one likes Shakespeare on their first attempt because it is challenging, but repeated exposure will show that it is stuffed with goodness.
So if I was the teacher, I wouldn’t have been so easy on us. “Suck it up princesses,” I’d say. “Not all art is about being entertained, but with application you’ll find the rewards and eventually entertainment might come as well.”
Of course, I’m not a teacher. So go ahead and talk amongst yourselves.