I’ve noticed these days that many people seem to have a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to the critical evaluation of creative work. Put bluntly, all critical evaluation is subjective. It may be rooted in objective observations and statements, but if it’s any good at all, it rapidly descends into the realm of subjectivity. Being able to distinguish between objective and subjective discussion of artistic work is critical, because otherwise it’s impossible to engage with critical evaluations.
Disagreeing with an author does not mean that his or her criticism is wrong, hopelessly flawed, or tainted by the presence of an assertion with which a reader disagrees. Disagreement simply means that one does not have the same subjective reaction to an artistic work. That one reads a work in a different way. Yet, again and again, I see people asserting a piece is simply wrong or not worthy of attention because they don’t personally agree with something someone says in the course of a critical discussion. Often, this disagreement is rooted in a fundamental lack of perspective, and the inability to accept that other people have differing points of view which might be equally valid.
Just because artistic work can only really be discussed subjectively does not mean that it shouldn’t be discussed. On the contrary, contrasting subjective responses and talking about why people interpret the same thing so differently is, I would argue, a pretty critical part of critical evaluation and processing of creative work. Just because two people have totally differing views doesn’t mean that either one has a “wrong” read on something. It means that they read a piece and responded differently, which is really not terribly surprising, because they are different people.
Everything that we interact with is perceived through the lens of our own subjectivity. Countless experiences and characteristics inform our responses to things. Each person is a unique makeup of traits, characteristics, beliefs, and experiences, which means that everyone responds to things in a unique way. A friend and I, for example, can watch the exact same Dollhouse episode and have totally different responses.
The flaw in logic that people make is the assumption that because someone is responding differently, he or she is wrong, because one’s own experiences are believed to negate someone else’s. That’s not the case. If I think that True Blood is an allegory for racial segregation in the American South and someone else thinks that it’s an allegory for homophobia, that doesn’t mean that either one of us is wrong or right. It means that we have different reads on the same creative work. I can come up with plenty of supporting arguments for my read, informed by my subjective viewing of the work, and someone else can come up with an equal number of arguments to support the other point. Both of us, in our own way, are right, and it’s in engaging with each other that we actually learn something.
Media criticism can straddle the divide. Objectively, for example, one can say “the production values on this film were poor.” That’s an objective statement, based on an understanding of poor production values, the distinguishing characteristics of poor production values, and the circumstances which lead to such values. But when one makes the next logical leap, such as “the poor production values on this film are an artistic choice which is designed to feed into the themes of this work,” or “this film is bad,” one has transitioned into the world of subjectivity.
“Bad” is subjective. There’s no way to get around it. De gustibus non est disputandum, as they say, and it’s a good thing to keep in mind. My definition of bad is not the same as someone else’s, and just because someone thinks that something is bad doesn’t mean that my reading of it as good is wrong. It just means, again, that we are responding to the work in different ways. My read of a character as hopelessly cliched and stereotyped, or a scene as problematic, comes from my own experiences, including a lot of serious evaluation of things from a feminist perspective which definitely colours the way I respond to media.
The point of discourse in media criticism, for me, is to explore the different subjective readings of creative work. It is to say that many people can interpret something in radically different ways, and that all of those ways should be explored, acknowledged, and discussed. I think it may be time for people to start learning to identify the difference between objective and subjective, to explore the fact that these are two distinct things, and to keep that in mind in discourse about critical evaluation of creative work.
The critic is not responsible for holding the hand of the reader. It is up to the reader to understand when a critic is being objective, and when a critic is being subjective. It’s also up to the reader to know that the critic’s discussion of the work is coming from a personal perspective, because all criticism is inherently personal. The critic does not need to issue a disclaimer or tag text with explanatory footnotes differentiating between the personal and the impersonal. The reader should innately know this, or he or she is unable to engage with criticism. Conversely, of course, critics cannot confuse subjective judgments with objective facts, nor can they dismiss critical responses to their own work out of hand.
The ability to distinguish between one’s personal response to a work and indisputable facts associated with that work is important. Because it is in the differing personal responses to art that true art lies: if we all felt the same thing, we wouldn’t call it art.