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So, the rather controversial concepts of objective criticism and objectively bad art are a fairly hot topic, even more so nowadays.

Leaping past the massive flame wars around certain movies, this is the first time I felt like I had no clue to go on and reach a conclusion.

On one hand, there's the whole "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" thing, but it's also true that the large majority of people hated X movie. It's also true that many of the reasons people hated X movie were also present in the previous well-received movies as well. So, most people are dumb and can't be relied on for thoughtful criticism.

Now, judging art by an objective metric is possible. However, I'm unsure if said objective metric itself is good or bad. For instance, let's assume a group of theoretical and spherical stereotype romance readers and theoretical stereotype objective critics in a perfect vacuum. The romance readers' objective metrics reward a lot of bonus points for empty female protagonists that they can identify with. The most vocal advocates of objective criticism would consider that group's opinion to be bad, and the group itself to be a bunch of degenerates or at least tasteless plebians. However, there's no real reason why that couldn't go the other way. Similarly, saying that more people adhere to X objective metric doesn't make that metric inherently good for the same reason nazis weren't good.

Another example, Jaws sits at a solid 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas The Last Jedi is 48%. However, The Last Jedi only hurt the image of fictional characters, whereas Jaws more-or-less singlehandedly started a damaging stereotype about sharks that had consequences in real life. By my objective metrics that's not just bad but an outright war crime that Steven Spielberg should answer for.

So, it's a tie for me, but that can't be the case, can it? Could objective criticism exist, and if yes, is it something that you as a writer should take into consideration?

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  • Maybe this should be migrated to Movies & TV. I don't see what it has to do with writing.
    – wetcircuit
    Apr 18 '20 at 13:49
  • @wetcircuit The overarching question of what is better or worse in writing, what is correct or incorrect, and whether there can be any objective answer, is implicit in every question asked on this stack. This is far more on-topic here.
    – Jedediah
    Apr 18 '20 at 15:23
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A Story Is Not Only One Thing

But, to ratchet down tension slightly, let's start by talking about painting. Imagine you saw a painting of a field of flowers, with a happy young couple having a picnic. Now suppose the flowers are pretty, but anatomically wrong. Still, the color palette is pleasant. The couple are drawn with incorrect proportions, and the food choices seem off. A picnic where they're opening cans of soup? Is this a joke, or does the painter really have no idea what would be practical for a picnic?

And here we would have plenty of room for criticism. Nit-pickers might jump on the flowers being wrong, while others may be indifferent. Someone may retort that you can't sincerely be bothered by the incorrect proportions of the people if unrealistic flowers don't bother you. Some people may be fans of the apparently intentional absurdity of canned soup for a picnic, while others may be turned off by the choice, even if it was intentional.

However, there are certainly objective measures that can be applied, particularly when the painting is presented, not as a joke, but as a serious attempt to present a happy and realistic scene. Anatomy and perspective, plausibility, maybe even mood, are in varying degrees measurable.

On top of that, while individual preferences vary, you can identify different segments of the "painting-viewing" public who prefer different kinds of paintings, or even who tend to be more or less concerned about different potential issues.

Still, everyone can agree that the colors look nice, even while they disagree about the canned soup.

Different People Get Different Things From Art, And That's Okay

You brought up romance readers who prefer "empty" protagonists, which many critics would consider to be objectively bad writing. And sometimes you may find romance readers who bemoan the emptiness of the lead, but otherwise enjoy a good romance.

Because a story is a multi-dimensional thing, serving one person's appetite for action and another's preference for reflection on consequences, and a third person's desire for both, people will often react differently to the same thing. The person who only wanted car chases and explosions may not see the difference between a good rationale and a bad rationale for a fight. The person focused on character development might not notice how badly choreographed a fight scene is.

Sometimes, one person wants exactly what the other does not, like canned soup on a picnic, or an empty "self-insert" protagonist. But often, differences in opinion and criticism comes down to differences in what different audience segments are even paying attention to.

"Was this consistent with prior canon and established character motivations and story arcs?" versus "Cool! More laser swords!"

As you create a story (or a sequel), you can never serve everyone - but you can certainly serve only some people and not others

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I would think that it is obvious that one could define a set of criteria for written work and objectively check off each individual criterion. One could score such things as vocabulary usage, gender roles, historical and scientific accuracy, and political correctness. I have deliberately not looked up "Objective Criticism" and I may well be missing key concepts.

The problem that I have is with the selection of the criteria. Sort of a "Who judges the judges" kind of a problem. In my limited circle of friends, there are many different views on what constitutes an "excellent novel" or a "great TV series." Depending upon my own mood, I assign greatness on a shifting scale. Today, I favor the classics; tomorrow, something light and fluffy; a few days from now, something to stretch my understanding. I cannot say with any confidence that one set of criteria is better than any other. I am not even sure that I should care all that much. I read what satisfies me. I do not think that I am that much different from all of the other readers.

It may well be that there is a difference of meta-viewpoint. I, as a reader and as a writer, view writing as a form of conversation. Writer Alice writes a book on a topic. Readers respond to that book by buying and discussing the book and the topic. Writer Bob writes a second book that, in effect, adds to that conversation. And so it goes. Within this meta-viewpoint, a book is good if it contributes to the conversation. And ultimately, it is readers who make that judgement.

On the other hand, there is the meta-viewpoint that readers are dumb and need to be taught to understand what excellence truly is. The "great" novel is not so much a part of a two-way conversation as it is a part of a one-way tutorial. Probably some truth in that approach, but only if it is offered as something to consider rather than revealed eternal truth. Here, readers and to some extent writers take a backseat to elites with opinions.

But, of course, we should talk this over.

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What is objective for some, is subjective for others. So no, there is no purely objective concepts or entities in art. In science, it is a different matter, but in art, everything is subjective, because demands, requirements, aspirations, and grievances of all kinds of groups and individuals are equally valid from their own perspective.

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  • So wat u say is sentence this corekt conisdred can be? Apr 27 '20 at 13:47

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