When Is Something ‘Objectively Bad’?

And also something or other about this movie.

And also something or other about this movie.

 

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is what we mean when we say that something is ‘bad’ or ‘good’.

For a piece of art in particular, we tend to see ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as concepts that are universally agreed upon.  When someone admits to liking a film, book, still image or Television show that is largely considered ‘bad’, we all tend to operate under the idea that liking said things are ok, so long as it’s lack of quality is still acknowledged.

I am just as guilty as anyone of calling a work ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but the question remains; Are there universal, definitive standards by which a work can be judged?


I personally don’t think so.
For context, my thoughts on this subject started in a discussion with fellow film critic  MrTardisReviews, or “Trilbee”.  In particular, we were discussing our conflicting opinions on The Amazing Spiderman 2.  Trilbee stated that he has “no qualms calling TASM2 an objectively bad movie’, and in his own review stated that that the film has “no plot, no character arcs, no meaningful relationships.”  He goes on to say that “the scenes are cliche, the jokes are nonsensical, and the CGI is poor.”

 

 

For the sake of focus, I won’t go completely in depth about how much I disagree with the latter statements.  But the fact that I’m able to disagree with then at all lends credence to my thesis that the FORMER statement is just straight up wrong.

I found the humor and CGI in TASM2 to be incredibly entertaining, and I was quite invested in the character relationships (though I credit this more to the acting than the script).  The movie DOES have several lapses in logic, and is contrived beyond belief at certain points.  In spite of this I can firmly say that I liked it because it was an experience enjoyable enough for me to overlook the moments of stupid.

 

Hence it was a “good” film, in my eyes.  Subjectively.

 

It’s clear from Trilbee’s review that the film offended him personally, but I found his mistake to be in assuming that just because the movie’s flaws offended him, that they should have the same effect on others.  By stating the quality of the film as “objective”, Trilbee inadvertently implies that if you liked the movie or thought it was “good”, there’s something wrong with you.  That if you could recognize the problems of the film without being bothered by them, your opinion on how good or bad it is is just wrong.

As someone who takes films seriously, I can sympathize with Trilbee when I say that a film that is lacking in the elements that we value can make us…  passionate in our dismissal of it.  But I think of this kind of mindset is a very misinformed one.

It’s been said to me that “common sense”, regarding the quality of a work, is derived from consensus.  If a large number of people agree that something is “good”, then that’s the core standard and all outlying positions are wrong on some level, or just aren’t using “common sense”.  While this obviously isn’t true, it’s easy to see why one would think it is.  We apply things like common sense and group consensus to concepts dealing in morality or logic.  We have to have some form of agreed-upon standards for these things (no matter how loose they are) if we want a functioning society.
right and wrong
An act like murder or theft is bad because it has real, immediate consequences for the people involved, and often indirect consequences for those not involved.  We don’t agree on it universally, but the majority shares the ideal that people who create unnecessary negativity and consequences through these types of actions should be stopped.  This agreement is why we have a system intended to minimize these behaviors, and no one in their right mind is ever going to say something like “Murder/thievery should be encouraged.”

 

For art, however, it’s different.  Art is, by definition, a series of mediums with no immediate consequences for anything in the real world.  There’s nothing immediately gained by having universal agreement on what elements are necessary to make a book a good read, or a show watchable, or a game fun to play.  Likewise, there’s no need to have exact definitions of how these elements must be implemented in order to be done well.
Unfortunately, we spend so much time on our art that we take it almost as seriously as our morality.  When we perceive said art as rotten, we treat it as such, without considering that others may not find it rotten at all for equally valid reasons.  We treat a displeasurable experience with a piece of art as a crime against us by the artist.  Our first instinct is to punish this crime with vitriol and a complete lack of comprehension that any sane people would side against us.
Art shouldn’t be that way.  You can like a work that is stuffed to the brim with flaws, and dislike a work that is masterfully crafted beyond perfection.  Whether it’s “good” or “bad” in your perception of reality, is entirely dependent on how you feel about it.  I’m aware that sounds like a cheap way of ignoring any and all criticism, but the point is that there is no objective perception to anything in the world of art.  The quality of anything differs between different people, for different reasons.

 

I thought ‘The Amazing Spiderman 2’ was a good film because it gave me most of what I wanted from it.  Trilbee considers it a bad movie because it didn’t give him anything HE wanted.  Neither of us can ever be definitely right or wrong, because to have a definitive, all encompassing scale for the quality of a movie is impossible.

 

One factor I consider in judging a work is if it succeeded at what it was trying to do.  Whether this be telling a compelling story, getting some laughs, tugging the heart strings, or just being a bit of light fun, the work will lose points from me if I think it failed at its intended purpose.  But for every time such a failure occurs, I keep in mind that there is someone out there who see the work as succeeding at that exact thing.  I may find their reasoning faulty, but even then there’s no way that either of us can be proven abjectly wrong.
The fact is, that criticism is entirely opinion based.  Even if we go into minute detail about why we see a work the way we do, the fact is, those standards are influenced by our own individual biases.
So what’s the solution?

 

Sadly, there isn’t one.  The best we can do is admit to ourselves that when we say something is ‘objectively good or bad’, we’re being inherently hyperbolic.  Not hard to grasp, considering we live in an age that thrives on hyperbole.

 

There are no ‘definitive standards’ we can use to judge any work of art.  We can only judge by our own standards, and hope that we can adequately explain ourselves.

 

hyperbole

 

But that’s just my opinion.

Posted on June 15, 2014, in Editorials and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I LIKE THE REVIEWS. CAN YOU SEND ME SOME OF YOUR CARDS?

  2. One part of the problem is many people, myself included, view criticism of a piece of art that we like as an insult to us. I liked Mia Wasikoska’s performance in “Stoker” and the movie in general. My friend could not sit through 10 minutes of it, he was bored. I can not help feeling a little insulted myself although I had nothing to do with the work. something can not be objectively bad when we have an emotional attachment to the work even if it is simply our personal opinion of it.

    Another part of the problem is that the work gets the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ applied to it as an adjective would. It is used to describe the work. How can a performance, (I will use Mia again), be both? In Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (2010) Mia played the title character. She only played it once so there is only one version of it. One person would say the performance was great and yet another would say it was bad. They say the performance was good or bad but both saw the same performance. It is somehow two opposites at the same time, The real issue is that one of these people is flawed in their ability to assess the performance. Which one it is, I do not know.

    nicholas, in your essay above you mentioned that a performance “will lose points from me if I think it failed at its intended purpose”. Are you always sure what the intended purpose is? If you are incorrect in that assessment then the film will fail in your eyes because it did something that you did not think it was trying to do.do you take this into account when evaluating?

    One final thing that might not line up perfectly with the subject but it is close enough for me to feel comfortable to bring up. In sports a lot of players are either overrated or under rated. Again just like my 2nd example the player’s performance is the same. Yet, *he* is the one who gets labeled as overrated when the reality is the people doing the rating guessed wrong and do not admit it. They blame the player.

    Anyway, I think this was a good subject to discuss. Thanks and good luck

    • Very well made points.

      nicholas, in your essay above you mentioned that a performance “will lose points from me if I think it failed at its intended purpose”. Are you always sure what the intended purpose is? If you are incorrect in that assessment then the film will fail in your eyes because it did something that you did not think it was trying to do.do you take this into account when evaluating?

      Of course, I have to take into account that maybe my perception is wrong. That’s really the point of the essay: perception is flexible, and since we have no real way of knowing which one is wrong, we should all just approach it as what it is. That being opinion and nothing else.

      Keeping your example of Mia in Alice in Wonderland, what I considered the “goal” of her performance was to come across as a strange girl who was very odd by “normal” standards, yet just normal enough to acknowledge the craziness of Wonderland as just that. I think she succeeded at getting that across…for the most part. I personally think this same thing was achieved much better in the older Animated film, with Alice being much quirkier and more expressive then any Disney protagonist up to that point. As such, I consider the animated Alice to be the more well done version of the character. That was a bit of a tangent, but there you go.

      For a better example, I found the goal of Burton’s “Wonderland” as a whole to be ‘make an interesting and fun journey in a wondrous world that puts an exciting twist on an old story.” I think it failed at this since I found the whole story to a bit of a clichéd slog, without any of the fun. I usually associate with Wonderland. That’s how I interpreted the film and thus how I judge it. But. I won’t for a second say that someone is wrong for finding the film more fun than I did.

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