In our virulent world of web-journals, web-diaries, webinars and the dreaded 'blog, it's not at all uncommon to see opinions contested. This causes me to consider the true core of what Criticism proper is and what role in our "culture" it actually supplies, thinking that it might in some small way provide a conclusive and applicable determinant towards an objective system of qualification for those of us still gestating in the gestalt of the amorphous amateur world of logging our supposed insights; in short, who's hot and who's wrong.
So in my typical blackened-white view of the world, I will attempt to categorize all modes of criticism (focusing more on the published and professional forms as I find them more distressing) into two distinct and mutually exclusive categories.
The first and more digestible is popular, or qualitative, criticism. It is the attempt of someone with an apparently educated opinion attempting to place a judgment on work offered to the public in a manner that the less educated, or initiated, can understand. I give those who work in this category the benefit of the doubt that they set out with the best intentions, to inform others of whether or not what is being advertised as good or the best truly is, to keep movie-goers from wasting money on a bad film or demanding more from an artist selling work for millions.
This is rarely the case, though. We often find ourselves presented with no more than an individual's point-of-view that is granted authority by some vague qualification, such as a diploma. The views become inflated, self-laudatory and obscure, often based on some contemporarily conceived or historically posited criteria that isn't relevant to those that the judgment is originally supposed to be created for. Then of course, these opinions are then called into question, often quite literally, in such forms as "Who are you to say that?" "Who asked you?"
Even if the genuine effort is put forth to offer a somewhat valid and fair judgment, a public service, the concept of the Opinion of course defeats and deflates it immediately, as someone's opinion is bound to differ. We have no standards anymore (in both senses) to differentiate, much less qualify "good" and "bad", whether regarding contemporary work or revising stances on dated works. Look how often the indicators "critically" and "commerically" are paired for juxtaposition. If someone acheives both, then this is assumed to be universal acclaim, but we neglect the fact that Professional Critics (or now bloggers) hold some respected influence for their assumed heightened sense of appreciation, as well as the fact that both critics and a population of some 7 billion people never represent more than a minority percentage. And of course, this doesn't account for my most loathed MOR stance, usually stated as, "I can appreciate what they're doing, but I don't really like it."
As is my usual aim, I want to complete an objective standard for qualitative criticism. Normally, I would speak up in support of technical proficiency, but this is tenuous territory when talking about any type of work intended for a mass audience with widely varying tastes. At some point, skill becomes a veil, merely decoration, a showy distraction intended to compensate for a lack of substance. This applies really only to the world of the liberal arts though, for in some fields, such as athletics and culinary, skill is all but in rare flukes directly related to the quality of the product. In all fields, though, the same notion applies that even the most technically accomplished chef may not create a dish of universal appeal, as some prefer more common recipes. A classically trained musician may lack the emotion to truly connect with a listener, or may by the simple virtue of the demonstrative pomposity of one's skill, distance someone whose preference is for an earthy jugband. For these two basic reasons, one cannot determine the quality of work based on its technical appeal (this itself being another academic artifice).
In its stead I want to offer the concept of sincerity, or as labeled above, "substance" or what is called in the fields of athletics, business and politics, "heart" as the only valid qualitative judgment. I want to, but as we'll encounter shortly, there stand too many complexities to present it as a useful and measurable standard. Even the proclivity for choosing the "inner beauty" of a presented work is a post-modern attitude, but that we will investigate later on. Although I want to...
First, of course, we need to define what we mean by all these vague terms that we are blanketing under "sincerity." I think, mathematically, were I more talented in that venue, I could create a direct equation, but verbally I can say that it is the amount of effort exerted into a particular piece of work proportionate to the individual's skill level toward the focused intention of the process and the product itself. In other words, it's what someone is able to execute on the basis of ability given genuine intent on communicating through that work. Again, the rejection of simply assessing someone on solely one's skill as opposed to their intent is is a post-modern attitude, (I'll take a moment to demystify "post-modern" which is a peculiar and useless term to me--In the modern age, everyone railed against what they saw as black-and-white objectivism that had lost its functionality due to an archaic method and academic set of standards that allowed for only certain styles of work to be publicly acknowledged; this applied to literature, painting and sculpture, music, fashion, cuisine, etc., so whenever Post-Modernism was invented at a debated date, the concept already had its foundation in this abandonment of standardization as plastic and rigid; but so far, nothing has been replaced that narrow albeit objective determination.)
The argument here is that what may take someone a matter of months to accomplish to an acceptable degree may take another merely a matter of days to complete to an aesthetically superior degree--acknowledging with our newly acquired post-modern sensibilities that even this assessment lacks any acceptable rubric--so we even see a natural gulf distancing degrees of ability in a given field, and on top of that, some may appreciate what appears as the result of meticulous and methoidcal training, whether the actual product of innate talent or acquired skill, and others feel more connected to the apparent result of unfettered and uncluttered purity of raw expression. So as for the relativity part of the equation, we lack an agreeable measurement on that point. We have now concluded that it is impossible to determine quality based on the perceived effort exerted, and the proportional effort exerted and now we can focus on the core of "Sincerity"--the intention merely to communicate through the process of creation and the product created.
This is a muddle, I'll say from the outset, because we all know Sincerity, unlike technical ability, can easily be faked. I feel there is no need to clutter this discussion with an exploration of that truism. But additionally, sincerity can be confused with sentimentality, which can also be faked. We deal with false sentiment on a daily level, in advertisements for consumables, in hypocritical gestures, and most certainly in pieces of work falsely presented as the work of inner struggle to connect oneself with the outside world, especially by someone perceptive and opportunistic who simply emulates a popular type of emotional depth or perceptual sensitivity. It can only be said that the absence of aesthetic does not automatically mean the presence of genuine emotion, as well as that the skillful execution doesn't necessarily diminish or eliminate the heart, soul, or emotional import of a work [I will admit I have noted a more than circumstantial inverse correlation of that which I perceive as "Sincere" or "Substantial" to that which I feel to be technically proficient, often extending the possibility that an academic or educated approach to a field does somehow limit one's intuitive abilities in that same field.]
That is to say that we have no way of definitively determining, through all the mired presentiment and postulation, what is completed with genuine intent or because of a sincere question felt posed by the world as opposed to that which is completed with an ulterior motive such as financial gain. So all one can confidently do is react and then, for the intellectuals, attempt to decipher why that reaction occurred. How can we interact with the work offered by others for our consumption, then??
This brings us to the second--and less useful--type of criticism, artistic or speculative. This applies to the set of (mostly) academics who offer opinions and interpretations on all various works offered for public consumption. The idea of an objective evaluation "good" or "bad" is generally discarded at the outset as it is already regarded as irrelevant. There stands in its place an understood evaluation by omission, that any work in the particular field not considered is not thought-provoking enough to warrant consideration.
This form of criticism allows us to fall into the circular and circuitous pattern of undercutting popular/qualitative criticism based on both technicality and sincerity, by offering so many theories on creation and subjectivity, and multiple perspectives that we can never come to a conclusive consensus. It is more concerned with engaging in a closed and privileged dialogue with the source works and the creators. Here, criticism and opining become an artform themselves, most often found in hard-bound published volumes, but occasionally in the more irritating amateur venues of conversation as well (like, well... hi how are ya!).
To me, this is isolated, insular and pretentious. It does nothing to further the fields wherein one exists as some self-validated authority on the product of that field. Rather, it is more akin to or more wrapped up in philosophical arguments based on what the work's creator intended, which my staunch argument against is that it is solely up to the artist to explain the work, although in our age even these explanations, when even given, are open to interpretation. It is a way to establish one's own voice where it is not needed, the product of over-population, under-motivation and the reason for these thoughts to first occur to me.
I do believe we should question everything and demand the best from ourselves and others, but I also feel that both forms of criticism are simultaneously self-perpetuating and self-defeating to the point of absolutely unnecessity. I envision a world absent of criticism. I smile at this, but then I wonder, as previously hinted, what would await us in this presumably much less pretentious world. We already exist and labor in fields of ambiguity where all participants are hiding under the blanket of subjectivism. Without critics, we would, one can conjecture, have absolutely no system of measurement and a complete lack of refinement in quality or understanding. Everyone's art and food would be considered excellent since everyone's opinion would matter and then music and art would lose all meaning, since it's meaning is so highly subjective without regulation or accountability.
The creator's job is not to cater to specific niches, nor to justify their own individualized existence, but rather to unify, to be the one profession that attempts to please everyone all the time. The artist should be the one person devoid of subjectivism, whose expression is not individual, but universal, not self-satisfying or cathartic, but relatable and altruistic. The good artist's touch is invisible. But this does not exist and thus spawned the supposed need for the critic. Likewise, it is not the critic's job to speak for others, as that's impossible, or get into a position of defending one's own opinion. Often we see vicious debates between these two glorified posts. Artists say, "This is my art, and my vision, so if you like it then great, but if not then don't bother with it, take a hike," and critics say, "Hey, this is only my opinion, it doesn't necessarily reflect anyone else's, so if you don't like it then ignore it, take a hike."
And we're no closer to understanding the reason that any of it exists. The essential fact is that no one likes to be criticized, especially not by anyone with a title, because it is essentially rejection. But some people are frauds on one level or another, even though other frauds appreciate the fraudulence, so we have no way of separating it all, at least not satisfactorily and universally. So maybe this was a waste of time, but hey, if you don't like it ...