Critical Evaluation, Part One: The Human Element

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?

The Tatami Galaxy

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!

Space Dandy

29 thoughts on “Critical Evaluation, Part One: The Human Element

    • Or the work would speak for itself given the viewer has the “correct” grounding for appreciating and evaluating the work, which is what a fair number of discredited systems of critique attempted to “prove.”

    • You’re being overly optimistic there. While no human activity is completely devoid of subjectivity, there are certain empirical scientific statement that go as close as possible to being irrefutably objective, yet you still find people arguing with them. Ever been on the Flat Earth Society website?

      • I’m fully aware that there comes a point when opinions go to far. That’s what separates the good critics from the bad critics. And if you support Nazis (oh god that boyscout article), you’re sick.

        But no, I’ve never been on said site.

  1. I don’t quite see the difference between the hypothetical and non-hypothetical critical lenses; the combination of aesthetic values they consider indicative of whatever they consider important to artistic merit strike me as things that are simply products of a person’s emotional biases, personal artistic preferences, and cultural grounding.

    • The main distinction I see is conscious versus unconscious elements. I might consciously think “I enjoy characters who are well-articulated according to these various methodologies I’ve internalized,” but I might unconsciously be more liable to be impressed by characters that remind me of my own father, or something. The hypothetical lens would be fully conscious of and acting as a counterbalance to the personal, attempting to negate the personal and make your evaluations wholly based on whatever theory of criticism you deem valid.

      Of course, that theory itself is chosen based on your personal circumstances, so as you say, there’s no real way to erase the individual even if you could take emotions out of the picture – and most art is intended to play on your emotional circumstances, anyway.

  2. My hypothetical lenses are always mixed up with my enjoyment one. Contributing to one another. In the end a work that meet well his goals and make me think critically about it in a good light will heighten my enjoyment of it. The main difference being that one comes instantly while the other is build over time. I mash both side together and call it a day.

    And yea since a pure objective view is impossible then defining what is good for you is important. The same is applied to philosophical essays where you have to explains the meaning of the words you’re using to make it reachable.

    • Yeah, the mix only gets messier the more you think about it. A lot of my “critical evaluation” is just rules I’ve completely internalized at this point – does that make them part of my “enjoyment?” And you could say that eventually you’ll enjoy everything according to your full set of internalized critical assumptions, but that presupposes both one “correct” set of critical assumptions and the idea that you’d ever internalize everything relevant to one fully articulated worldview, neither of which are reasonable assumptions.

      • Yea knowing they are biased is one reason I prefer to put everything under the enjoyment umbrella. I always enjoy anything according to my own set of bias but I’m open for this said set to change with new experiences and knowledge and I think it’s key to not shut yourself in your own system.

  3. I’d go with Nietzsche’s epistemology, at least when applied to criticism, where claims of objectivity are just specific, and damning, forms of subjectivity. Adhering to it limits the potential richness of what any particular story, genre, and medium can contribute to its audiences.

    • Agreed. Frankly, there are so many books, shows, and movies that actual revel in their own rich ambiguities that it seems crazy to think otherwise. Art offers a series of signs – some of these signs are less ambiguous than others, but it’s never just an essay, and that’s part of what gives it power.

      • Art’s at its best when it invites thought, and doubly so if that thought’s something different from one’s own customary way of viewing things.

  4. Trying to see what makesme tick and watching many different thing was how I approached anime. There’s some things I will never watch again (mostly Harem related).
    I guess it’s the same for everyone.

    The other downside of trying to being “neutral” on the aniblog world is more… practical, cynical some could even says.
    If I read the exact same opinion on every blog, then why would I choose yours insteas of another ? Wy wouldn’t I just keep with one ? It’s because this blog have a unique view (that is quite close tomine, but not entirely ) that I still come back to it.
    I like the different (or similar) views I get on the different blogs I visit, which helps me form my own opinion.

    • Glad you enjoy my perspective. And I completely agree, it’s what makes all of our viewpoints different that makes criticism compelling in the first place – starting from someone else’s base perspective, we can often see potential truths we’d otherwise be blind to.

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  6. Sorry to be brusque, but the sentiment of this post (all art must be evaluated under contextual frameworks, objectivity is an impossible demand for art, etc.) comes across as somewhat naive. When people talk about objectivity in art, they are referencing a conception of objectivity derived from modern science (a concept which has, incidentally, only existed for roughly a century). If you’re saying art can’t be objective because surrounding cultural and philosophical context massively impacts one’s conclusions, then science and math certainly aren’t objective. What does “objectivity” mean, then?

    • Not sure how you’re drawing a comparison between art and math/science here. The history of literary criticism has been a long line of progressive frameworks through which stories can allegedly be evaluated, tempered by the growing acceptance of the fact that language’s power is always partially a social construction – to that, I’m merely adding the caveat that our evaluation even according to these somewhat mutable frameworks is generally influenced by personal factors. Comparing that to the hard sciences, where consistent conclusions can actually be derived from repeated experiments, seems very strange.

      • In that evaluations made in reference to an artwork’s properties (and, more specifically, it’s merit) are comparable to observations made in science. You say the hard sciences produce consistent conclusions derived from repeated experiments, but any cursory look at the history of science reveals this to be a precarious standard: Ptolemaic/geocentric theories were supported by an abundance of scientific literature, backed by much observation. For someone like Galileo to advocate heliocentrism would seem as unscientific to his contemporaries as geocentrism is to us. This isn’t to say science is relativistic, but that objectivity in science, as in art, is a complicated matter, not one to be dismissed with platitudes.

        The way you frame literary history, as series of progressive frameworks eventually resulting in the acceptance of language as a social construction, is similar to how pop scientists use the metaphor of evolution to explain scientific developments (and, similarly, write off history’s scientific errors as purely a product of religion and superstition rather than methodology). Ultimately, the assumption that artworks are ultimately social constructions, and that discussions about them are unable to reach any kind of objectivity comparable to the sciences, is too frequently parroted in the humanities and often serves to hamper serious discourse. An 18th century literary critic like Samuel Johnson would have no problem calling Richard’s Pamela a masterpiece, and Tom Jones trash, because he could present cogent and logical reasons why

        • Your argument here seems to be less that art is objective, and more that the course of scientific progress demonstrates the hard sciences are also not necessarily objective, or at least that their assumptions shift over time to adjust to new information. Which I’m not disagreeing with!

          I’m also not saying art criticism and evaluation is a meaningless pursuit. I am saying that if you call something a masterpiece, you are calling it a masterpiece according to a certain critical lineage, and not a masterpiece according to how the universe defines masterpieces. The fact that criticism always exists within a given framework should not hamper serious discourse – as I said in the piece, these frameworks are useful and meaningful, and have built on each other in a manner conducive to a successively richer relationship with art. Which seems to me to be something you’d support, given the Galileo example – whether it’s in literature or the sciences, assuming our preexisting frameworks are infallible stymies the acknowledgment of new, conflicting ideas and perspectives.

          • I guess my question to you is, given the arguments you present here, what is objectivity? How would you define it? This is a legitimate question, I’m not being facetious or anything

          • No, it’s a fair question, since I think our disagreement here likely is more a disagreement in terms than anything else. I’m just defining it as “a lack of bias,” which in the context of the historical trends we’re talking about sets a pretty high bar.

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  10. Criticism is definitely shaped, to a good extent, by one’s own opinion and mindset, and sometimes I feel like people tend to forget that. A lot of people throw the term “objective” around, and while I understand what they mean (after all, it’s much easier to defend Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as a solid and developed story than Mars of Destruction), I feel like it’s often a pointless (and thereby not at all objective) term. That’s not to say there’s no value in analyzing the workings of a story and focusing on how its development progresses (as I find it quite interesting to look deeper into works and to better justify why I feel something is a quality series), but all too often I’ve seen critics dominated by their obsession with “objective quality” and such a thing would definitely be missing the point. Even if everyone valued the same elements of a story (such as strong characterization or significant development), not everyone would agree on what those mean and it’s disheartening when I see people who instantly disregard other possibilities because they are so fixated on what they feel constitutes a strong story. I do have standards as far as what I watch to some extent, though I’ve found that I’ve actually gotten a lot more lenient in regard to criticism over the years (compared to most others who have probably gotten a tighter and stricter standard for series and criticism over years of watching) as I tend to enjoy things pretty easily and I prefer to accept a series for what it is and to find the good in whatever series I watch, even when some other people might insist that such a thing doesn’t exist. There are certainly elements in stories that I dislike (some that I genuinely could not defend for the life of me) but for the most part, it does hurt a bit when I see someone label a series as “bad” or “poor” since such a statement often feels expressed like an absolute, even if it isn’t meant to be that way.

    It really is a matter of opinion and I certainly find it worthwhile to engage in intelligent discussion about various series and such things can definitely give me a stronger understanding of what I am discussing, though it is intimidating when I see people so focused on objectivity and oblivious to other thoughts, and sometimes I start to wonder about my own taste when I see people determining a series I love as being bad. It is a stupid thing to worry about since I did just go on about how it’s best to enjoy what you enjoy, but it’s more discouraging than it should be for my opinion of a series to be shut down by people who believe they know better, whether directly or indirectly.

    • Yep, I definitely agree – even if it were possible to seek “objective” evaluation of a work, that’s just not a meaningful way to go about engaging with art in the first place. Criticizing stories can be valuable because it helps us understand how stories work for people, but just putting shows in an “objective worth” hierarchy? That by itself isn’t really worth anything. And of course all this presupposes you really could measure works objectively, when all of our evaluations actually exist within subjective frameworks and sets of assumptions in the first place.

  11. I’m not seeing the appreciation of the formalist viewpoint in this argument. It’s true that if you’re saying whether something is good or not then personal preferences can’t be forgotten, but artistic criticism is about a lot more than the valuation of a work as a whole. One can objectively – and I mean objectively – assess the connectivity between elements of a work and how they function as the code of storytelling that we’re all familiar with. That’s why there are only seven basic plots, for instance.

    I just don’t like the words ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ though. Much better to address the relationship that forms the focal point of your analysis – what lies within the work itself, or from the work to the context, or from the work to the author, or from the work to the recipient, etc. Some approaches work more scientifically than others, and do indeed require the critic to distance themselves from their own preferences.

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