So, I recently decided I’ve watched maybe enough shows to put together a useful Top Shows list, and in light of that, also decided it’s probably time to lay out a few of my own evaluative patterns and biases. I’ve talked about evaluation before – I covered it briefly in this piece, where my three main points were that people seek many different things in media, that evaluating shows requires taking their own goals into account, and that I believe not all goals are equally artistically valuable. But all of that doesn’t really tell you much about me – it’s just about systems in general, and if you’re going to get much use out of a “top anime list,” you really need more context than “these shows are great because I say so.” Who am I to say so? Well, the person who wrote all those essays on the right, at least. But can I offer a little more clarity than that?
Possibly. I believe that for every person who attempts to apply a critical eye to media, there are actually three lenses being applied. There’s the pure “enjoyment” lens, the viewer’s un-self-conscious, visceral reaction to the piece. There’s their hypothetical “critical” lens, the combination of aesthetic values that they consider indicative of creativity, insight, passion, or whatever else they believe contributes to artistic merit. And then there’s the non-hypothetical critical lens, the one they actually apply critically, wherein their interpretation of critical value is colored by their emotional biases, personal artistic preferences, and cultural grounding. So yeah, I lied about three lenses, because the second lens doesn’t actually exist – any evaluation of “objective” merit will always exist within a specific personal, cultural, and critical frame, and outside of those frameworks, the things we value have essentially no meaning. This doesn’t mean they actually are meaningless – it just means that attempting to separate the personal from the the objective is a meaningless pursuit, and that your critical evaluations must be made with the tacit acknowledgment that they are relative values.
In fact, this point goes beyond that – I’d argue that attempting to remove the personal from your “critical” evaluations is actually worse than useless, and is actively harmful to the usefulness of your evaluations. Because no-one can really do this – many of our gut feelings about works are just that, gut feelings, and attempting to rationalize them just results in meaningless critical structures. People do not read art critics because they assume art critics are infallible – they read them because they know some given art critic has some given set of priorities and base assumptions about art, and this is what makes their statements meaningful. Attempting to deny the personal simply removes some of the personality from what will always be a fractured critical system – it does not make your system “more objective,” it simply makes it less clearly and usefully subjective. I have certain things I consider artistically valuable, and I have a mass of opinions on what constitutes good writing, storytelling, and characterization, but my values are my own – a combination of my base nature, experiences, and critical education. And readers know this – no matter how I try to shave off my personality, it’s always going to be some version of me that finds a given work successful, so I might as well make it a consistent, honest version of myself for the sake of the readers and my own sanity.
This isn’t to say criticism is a useless and wholly wibbly-wobbly field, of course. Our collective assumptions are useful – though they apply to some specific cultural framework, they exist because they work within that framework. My opinions on what defines good dialogue may not make sense to everyone, but I’ll still keep refining them, because they make sense to me within my system and thus apparently make sense to whoever finds reading my stuff stimulating. My personal world of fiction is forever becoming more rich and rewarding as I refine and broaden my critical understanding, and if that’s not the measure of a successful critical system, then what is? Putting the “critically correct” before the “artistically effective” is a backwards, dogmatic view of artistic evaluation – don’t praise things because you’ve read they’re worthy of praise, praise them because what they do works. Fundamentally, “critics like it, so it must be good” is no different from “it’s popular, so it must be good” – both of them are attempts to avoid acknowledging or understanding your own preferences. I believe attempting to hone your critical perception of media will always lead to a richer, more stimulating relationship with art, but you have to start with an honest engagement – by starting with what works for you, you won’t just learn more about storytelling, you’ll also learn more about yourself.
Got a little off track there. We were talking about my system, right? Alright, let’s get into that.
Actually, this has gotten long enough, and since this is the point where we switch from general thoughts on evaluation to my own system, I might as well save that for a Part Two. Until next time!