Todd’s Theory of Art Critique

Start

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.

Entertaining

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.)

Craft

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.

Idea

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.

New

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.

End

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.

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5 thoughts on “Todd’s Theory of Art Critique

  1. Dano says:

    What about beauty?

    Perhaps for fiction literature this is not as easy to assess, but in all arts this must be important. Beauty is the heart of art.

    Beauty is far beyond entertainment, though beautiful things entertain. Beauty reaches in to the human soul. Beauty lifts us up. Beauty speaks directly to our hearts and compels us. Is not beauty the ultimate issue in art?

    Before anyone says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I want to say that is poppycock. Beauty is objective like nothing else, beauty is inherent to a thing. Not only does the long tale of human history show us that beauty is universal, all modern research points in this direction. I won’t make the case here, but I am compelled by reason and evidence to insist that beauty is a metaphysical reality (using this term in the philosphical not the stupid new age sense).

    I also think that beauty is at the crux of modern art’s failure. Our world is severly lacking in beauty. “Sculptures” that look like twisted metal from a car wreck, blobs of paint splatter, the horrible music they play at the climbing wall; these things all lack beauty. This is a problem in the modern Church and Mass, we have banished the beauty and desperately try to make it “entertaining” to try to woo people into the pews. Studying drama in university I saw a ton of ‘shock theatre’ and not a single piece had any beauty. I think history will look back on our era and say that we hardly had any art at all because we have produce so very little that is beautiful.

    Interestingly, literature is the one area where I do see beauty being produced. Partly because of the nature of the English language. For all its quirks and oddities that people complain about, English is beautiful. It is precisely these things that make it so. There is a reason no one writes poetry in Esperanto. There is a reason that English produced Shakespeare.

    As a second thought, I question whether ‘newness’ validates art. So much of art these days is about being new for the sake of being new. It has no other quality than being new. Often these things pass the ‘new’ test with flying colours but still remain garbage. Sometimes because they sacrifice craft for the sake of newness, sometimes because what is new is just plain dumb. Like the ‘Road less travelled’, sometimes it is less travelled becasue it is full of potholes and leads to a swamp. Our world is so full of people desperate to be on the road less travelled that they are completely uncritical about the objective realities of the road itself and its destination. So too with art. The stuff proporting to be art today tries so hard to be cutting edge that it looses any actual quality to make it artistic . . . like beauty.

    • Hmm – very platonic of you. I suppose I’d say that I found something possesses beauty if it excels in all four areas. Kinda. The point of having criteria is as much to provide a common language to converse and share ideas. I agree that there likely is an essence or form to a work that could be judged objectively true and beautiful. But, but, but. Explicating that beauty is a very tricky thing. Certainly my way may lack the poetry that your approach would. I’m just not certain I’m a capable enough writer to create that link.

      Alternatively, I might capture this in my Idea category. It is sort of there that I’d examine the worthiness of the work. Using art to express beauty would certainly be an example of a good idea. Attempting to portray the inner truth of a thing, person, moment – that is pretty nifty.

      I’m not sure I’d use beauty though as my word. I also like the ability of art to explore ugliness. Fear, cowardice, anger, hate, discordance and din. Not to elevate, but to demonstrate. It would be awesome if all art needed to show was the great and good, but that is not all that there is. So I’d like to have art explore that truth regardless of its beauty or ugliness.

      Although, I’m a bit of a wimp and certainly my own preferences focus more of the former. 🙂 Heroism and virtue are aspects I generally enjoy more, but I often learn more from the other.

      We are probably apart on the cult of the new thing. I’m certainly not opposed. My approach is that excellence will find these things in balance. It isn’t wrong to have some folks out there creating and consuming these works that focus on experimentation. But that wouldn’t be all I’d want out there. But I don’t think art can be expanded by new people trying the same thing as the last people. Possibly they may find new deeper depths, but often they might just produce a copy.

      I’m not a Pollock fan myself – I like my art more representational. But I’m happy he was out there doing it.

  2. Dano says:

    I never meant that art could only ever represent the beautiful, I meant that it should be beautiful. That is what makes it art. I think art can explore ugliness without being ugly itself. I remember a painting of an old lady crying. the woman was ugly and sad; the painting captured lonliness, sadness, and pain, but it was an amazingly beautiful painting. Of course, the ulimate example of this is the cross. The crucifix captures the most brutal ugliness in the history of humankind, but I have seen some beautiful crucifixes. Does that make any sense?

  3. […] The Kite Runner or The Davinci Code deserved to be on the list.  Way back in April I gave my own theory of art critique. I didn’t go very far in determining what should be considered a […]

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