When Is Something ‘Objectively Bad’?
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.
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.
But that’s just my opinion.