We’ve been hearing a lot of it lately, at least from the more gurgly and questionable-smelling corners of the internet – a demand for “objective reviews.” Reviews that leave politics at the door, and simply give audiences an untainted appraisal of some media property. If you read my stuff at all regularly, I’m sure you can take a guess as to my thoughts on the validity of this request – given how often I stress the variability of personal experience, art experience, and critical evaluation, it should come as no surprise that I find this demand pretty misguided. But it keeps coming up, and it actually reflects on a number of more interesting elements of both how we parse media and how media is constructed, and so I figured I’d take my own shot at the topic. So let’s get down and dirty with objectivity in criticism!
Which we will begin by debunking immediately. Sorry, but it’s only really possible to entertain the idea of “objective criticism” in an extremely small bubble, and once you start engaging with the history of actual criticism, that bubble pops in a hurry. On the most immediate level, every single person has their own tastes, and these tastes will meaningfully affect what media is successful or unsuccessful for them. And if you try to circumvent that by assuming some “objective system” of evaluation that separates good art from bad outside of our personal feelings, you’ll quickly run into the unfortunate fact that all such existing systems are limited frameworks. What kind of storytelling is effective or ineffective, what level of dramatic affectation is poignant or maudlin, and even what great art should be about are all questions with many answers, depending on your values, culture, and moment in art critique history.
The systems we develop to evaluate art can be very useful for critiquing it within the context of certain assumed priorities, but the priorities we choose are not objective – they are arbitrary, based on our cultural climate, aesthetic priorities, and personal experiences. Schools of criticism rise and fall in popular favor, and you can meaningfully criticize a show from multiple frameworks and arrive at a variety of very different but equally valuable conclusions. Which is good! Art would be far less interesting if there were actually a “correct answer” when it came to analyzing and evaluating it – the great power of art is that it brings together complex ideas to create intangible emotional resonances, and this power would be terribly diminished if art always provided an easy solution. Additionally, even beyond formal schools of criticism, the very purpose of media is different for different individuals – whether you want your media to entertain or validate or inspire or challenge is an open, personal question, and all of these needs are valid, and no critic can account for all of them. And in the middle ground between formal schools of criticism and personal media preference, we run into the central, overwhelming fact that none of us experience the “same” media, because each of us bring our own selves to the table.
There is no “objective reaction” to a piece of art – art is too complicated, and interacts in too many ways with too many of our own emotional/cultural/historical touchstones. A Jane Austen novel means something different to us than it meant to one of Austen’s contemporaries, because even though the text is the same, our very different position means different elements of the text are unusual, exceptional, worthy of notice. We can’t parse art that was groundbreaking at the time in the same way its first audiences did, because groundbreaking art tends to not stay groundbreaking for long – it’s the “Seinfeld effect,” where the immediate impact of Seinfeld is lessened due to our culture having absorbed so much of its humor as a given. And we can’t hope to recapture the cultural climate a given audience experienced a work in, which always informs assumptions that run from as small as how a joke works (since jokes generally rely on subverting assumptions that are reflective of specific cultural expectations) to who is noble or wicked in the text. The way art affects us will always be reflective of how our own experience, art knowledge, and personal priorities interact with the piece, and those variables are largely outside of our control. And this lens of personal, historical, and cultural identity doesn’t just apply to how we parse art. It determines how we parse the world.
Our selves interact with the world in such radically different ways depending on our circumstances that the idea of a single “correct” view of the world is an understandable but distant fantasy. If you grow up as a discriminated-against race in a racist culture, that will deeply affect your experience of the world – not only will your past experiences give you insights that people who see their culture as “neutral” would not, but your actual daily experience will be profoundly affected by the daily hurdles that affect you and not others. Things that people in the favored classes consider normal, like perhaps dealing with government bureaucracy being a boring but mostly harmless experience, will be fundamentally different due to the way society classifies you, and alters its behavior in subtle and unsubtle ways accordingly.
Just like how looking back on the frame of a book written by an author in the 1920s can give any of us insights into what was considered culturally and aesthetically normal at the time, so too do each of us have our own frame for looking at modern society, where our relative positions give us insights into some elements of “normal” while blinding us to other things we ourselves take for granted. There’s always a new 1920s, always a new set of assumptions, and the baggage and insight each of us brings to our perspective based on our race, class, gender, childhood, temperament, and everything else will all define the world we naturally see. We are all removed from society in some ways and mired in it in others, and our relative positions deeply inform the world as we see it and as it interacts with us.
This is actually a fairly simple way to explain the concept of “privilege,” incidentally. Even if you’re not rich and successful personally, you still have a specific circumstance-based lens that attunes you to some things while blinding you to others. You don’t need to be successful or happy to possess certain kinds of privilege – it’s not about winners or losers, it’s about what your perspective and circumstances cast as “normal.” Any given person will be privileged on some axis (able-bodied, living in a developed country) and not on some others (racially stigmatized, few education opportunities). We all possess some “privilege” – it’s not a switch you turn on or off, it’s just the ways our natural positions in life make us unaware of certain assumptions of living we take for granted.
Which, bringing it back to media, means that when someone says “get politics out of your reviews/criticism,” what they really mean is “stop talking about things that I don’t see through my lens.” No one artificially “brings politics” to their perception of media – the things we take note of are reflective of the lifetime’s worth of living-as-yourself expertise we always bring to bear. If a particular piece of media reflects a worldview that consistently marginalizes some given group, your non-membership in that group does not make that element of the work not exist. Just like how you can’t really “unsee” mediocre writing or choppy animation, you can’t really unsee the attitudes and assumptions inherent in a work once you’re aware of them. And people don’t highlight those issues because they want to “attack” media – they highlight them because they want to engage with media more fully, and because the truth of the multiplicity of our lenses means that in the absence of critical discussion, things that are blindingly obvious to people with the right experience might not even enter the dialogue.
And of course, the people talking about “getting politics out of reviews” are just as wedded to their own lenses, as well. Meaning that what people complaining really want is just criticism that’s reflective of their own lens, their own worldview. There is no “apolitical” position – every perspective is different, every position is a political one based on a specific accepted culture/frame, and thinking your position lacks a political dimension simply means you’re blind to your own biases. “Get politics out of my criticism” really means “match your own perspective to mine so closely that I can continue to be unaware of my own political position,” and “this work is apolitical” really just means “I agree with this work’s politics so closely that they are invisible to me.” Every person has a specific worldview – thinking your perspective is “objective” means thinking you’re the first person in all of human history whose perspective is not a product of their environment. What was quaint and racist in the 1920s relative to our current position seems clear now, but tomorrow’s critics will be equally probing in defining what arbitrary assumptions mark today’s worldviews.
But all of this doesn’t mean we just have to listen to people with experiences different from ours, and try to incorporate their insights into our understanding of media. That’s important, and it will lead to a richer understanding of how people and media interact (along with, you know, making you a better and more empathetic person), but it doesn’t just end there. Because that multiplicity of perspectives doesn’t stop at seeing what specific elements exist within media – media itself has a worldview, too. Just as the study of media can make you more attuned to storytelling and the implementation of theme, so too can you begin to see how any given work makes a thousand assumptions about what is “neutral” that together add up to an entire living philosophy. Shows are windows into creator worldviews, and those can also be engaged with or critiqued. In fact, this is often more all-encompassing than an intended thematic message, because while an author can care or not care about imparting some message, they can’t help but bring the way they see the world to their work.
Engaging with works as reflective of underlying worldviews isn’t just a more all-encompassing approach to criticism, it also offers its own array of new insights that wouldn’t make sense on a pure “purpose of the text” level. Once you begin to see the underlying assumptions that inform what a creator sees as “normal,” you can even start to make sense of themes in a grander sense. Things that were just individual quirks of narrative can start to assume a human color, as you see the perspective that lies behind them (something that is sometimes wincingly obvious, and other times a little more complex). The human hopes and fears of the author become a deeply rewarding element of your media appreciation, glimpsed in a million tiny details of assumptions that provide a fractured window into another person’s lens of the world. The more you become aware of the limitations of your own lens, the more you engage with others and develop a broader social consciousness, the more you will be able to see the quirks of human nature in all the media you love.