I’m writing this post because I love to debate about the relative quality of works of art, the characteristics that comprise good and bad art, and – yes – the semantic distinctions between words that we like to use a lot. (My favorite example: When is it appropriate to use ‘douchebaggery’ as opposed to ‘douchebagginess’? Such questions inspired spirited debates in my college dorm room. The answer is at the bottom of this post.) I often make the distinction between ‘good’ art and ‘great’ art, as well as ‘bad’ art, and this distinction between great and very good is a source of a lot of angst for a lot of people. Is Atonement a ‘great’ book – or merely a very good one? Similarly, we sometimes rebel against movies that have been anointed great by critics but which seem to us to be boring or overwrought or just blah.
Accordingly, I thought I’d put down some of my thoughts on how we can properly rate works of art, particularly with reference to movies, both because that’s what I know the most about and because it’s the main subject of this blog, anyways.
The central question at issue in this debate usually has to do with who has the authority to say whether art is good or bad. This issue is particularly apparent right now, with the Academy Awards rapidly approaching. Especially in recent years, the Oscars have tended to favor smaller ‘prestige pictures’ that don’t find nearly as large an audience as the major blockbusters, movies like A Beautiful Mind taking precedence over movies like The Fellowship of the Ring. Indeed, it was precisely the omission of The Dark Knight from the ’09 nominees that led the Academy to change the format of the Best Picture category. This kind of preferential viewing leads to public outcries of elitism on the part of members of the Academy, the idea being that the people who choose these prestige pictures are out of step with the general culture.
That may be true, but it doesn’t make the accusation any less silly: after all, the goal of the show is to honor the best movie, not the most popular one, and it’s a personal pet peeve that people so often try to argue that popularity determines quality – if that were the case, McDonald’s would be the best cuisine on earth.
Still, it gets at a more concrete complaint, which is that many of these prestige pictures are, to put it delicately, an acquired taste, focused more on experimentation and subversion than on storytelling. “How can you tell me this was the best movie that was released this year,” the question would go, “if I can’t tell what the hell is going on?” This can be modified only very slightly and be applied to almost any form of narrative art. I’ve been told time after time that Finnegan’s Wake is one of the great masterpieces of the English language, but – honestly – I have no interest whatsoever in reading it (this coming from a person who read, and enjoyed, Gravity’s Rainbow in its entirety, snobbish though it may be to express it in those terms). Why should I be willing to consider FW a great work of literature if it’s so deliberately difficult to understand that I have such a complete and utter disinterest in opening it?
That isn’t to deny the brilliance of FW—or, to reorient to film, of a movie like Mulholland Drive. I’m sure that for people who know a lot about literature, and in particular about Joyce, and understand everything that he does in the novel, it makes perfect sense. The problem is that, when a book or movie raises itself to that level of complexity, it effectively renders itself irrelevant, because it’s lost an ingredient central to its status as a work of fiction: its ability to tell a good story.
We can, therefore, distill this concern into our first criterion: For a work of art to be considered great, it must be able to be appreciated for itself. That is to say: We have to be able to enjoy – or at least appreciate – the work of art without reference to outside material. In the case of a movie, book, or play, this means that it has to have a good story; in the case of a photograph or a painting, it must give us pleasure to look at outside of our knowledge of the subject. (There are some obvious limitations on this rule when thought about philosophically: isn’t all art somehow in reference to our existence as human beings? Don’t all works of narrative to some degree draw on our familiarity with ingrained cultural biases like moral values and extant concepts of structure? What about even the prerequisite that we understand the language? All valid counterarguments that I’m nonetheless not going to deal with here.)
This isn’t enough, though, because it’s far too wide and because it seems like there are plenty of stories that are really good but which don’t leave any sort of impression, which we dismiss as being somehow lacking, or which simply fade from view after enough time. A perfect example of this is the Harry Potter franchise. Outside of the die-hard Potter lovers who get lightning tattoos on their foreheads and play Quidditch, most people will acknowledge that they’ve read the Potter books because they’re fantastic stories, but will refuse to grant them the status of ‘great literature.’ This isn’t because of some generalized elitism. It’s because the simplicity of the Potter books – the same characteristic that makes them so charming – also ensures that they can’t hold up under scrutiny.
Based on this, I would assert a second rule: that for a work of art to be great, it has to go deeper than the surface. It’s not enough for a novel or a film to tell a great story, or for a photo or a painting to be pretty. There needs to be more than that: the work of art needs to hold up under scrutiny; when we ask questions of it, it has to be able to respond.
Even as I write that I feel like it’s not conveying the point that I want to make, and clichés like ‘there has to be something going on under the surface’ don’t adequately express the point, either. So let me offer an example instead. Readers of this blog will be aware that I chose Inception as the fifth-best movie of 2010, though of my five picks it was far and away the one that reached the widest audience. Why was it only number five, then? Because, though it’s extremely well-made and extremely entertaining, there’s not a whole lot of substance to it. It doesn’t tell us anything about people, and you’ll never have an argument about it that goes beyond trying to understand the structure of the plot (which I must concede is an extremely academically interesting topic). The Hangover is another great example of this. It’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time; it’s very, very good, and probably should have been a Best Picture nominee last year, especially with this new 10-nominated-films anarchy. But it isn’t great: it’s all about the story and nothing more.
It’s the combination of these two factors – the combination of immediate appeal with what we may loosely term artistic brilliance – that separates the great from the very good. Very good works of art may have a lot of one and little of the other, or some but not much of each. Great works of art, on the other hand, have both. This is why Shakespeare is our greatest author but John Webster is rarely performed; why The Godfather is a great film but The Departed is only very good; what separates Thomas Struth from Tina Barney.
And if you don’t agree… well, send me an e-mail and let’s have an argument.
Next time I post on aesthetics I’ll talk more about what art should do in general and less about semantic distinctions. On which note, the answer to my semantic question: ‘douchebaggery’ refers to an act characteristic of a douchebag (ie, ‘What douchebaggery did Joe get up to this time?’) while ‘douchebagginess’ refers to the quality of being a douchebag (ie, ‘Hank’s essential douchebagginess was the major reason that Greta hated him’). Am I right or am I right?
Gentleman of the Day: