The Calculus of Enjoyment

Though I’m not sure I’m drunk enough to be writing something about the nature of arts criticism this has been rattling around my cavernous noggin since yesterday and I’m having trouble thinking about much else. I promise this will not become a manifesto.

Over the weekend Whedonesque Joss Whedon’s fan community/personal blog site-thingie linked to my Dollhouse post causing a veritable torrent of hits (thanks Whedonesque!). As is the wont of dedicated fans a few of Whedonesque’s posters were unhappy with the fact that Dollhouse—or indeed any of Whedon’s shows—didn’t appear on my meaningfully capitalized list of Great Shows. Now while I appreciate any discussion that I’m able to provoke this isn’t a response to those commenters. Not exactly. I’m not going to retroactively append Dollhouse Buffy Firefly or Angel to the Great Show list because now that I’ve had some time to think about it the Great Show list—at least as an arbitrary golden pedestal upon which we can place vaunted cultural achievements—doesn’t really exist.

In the interests of full disclosure I write most of these blog posts in short little jags over the course of a few days so I don’t necessarily develop every idea as completely as it might deserve. The fact that I’m able to do that—to just kind of dump out thoughts as they occur to me—is actually the appeal of blogging over writing a word-limited article for print. All of this is just a way of me saying that when I wrote of the Great Shows in the way that I did I wasn’t really considering the significance of that statement.

It’s an old truism that all arts criticism is inherently subjective. At best you can hope to find a couple critics who share your taste that might help you guide your media consumption decisions. You can get mad at the ones you disagree with and express yourself in ALL CAPS in their comment threads (just so they know you mean fucking business ) but even then I’d like to think there’s some kind of understanding that you’re both just sharing your opinions. This is why the Great Show designation is problematic.

Because the idea of a Great Show a Great Movie a Great Book or—yes—a Great Game carries some implication of objectivity the fact that the media in question is only Great in your estimation demonstrates why this is a difficult position to defend. Assuming that any objective measure of quality can exist is just another permutation on the endless (and endlessly dull endlessly useless) conversation on what constitutes “Art.”

Still I think that deflecting the question with the Ageis of subjectivity is too much of a cop out. Subjectivity is a part of the equation but the real issue goes deeper than that. I’m confident enough in my critical faculties that I could defend one television show as more or less worthy of your time than another—and Christ I better be able to or what the hell do I get paid for?

Context is king. This is what it comes down to. Every media can only be reasonably evaluated by criteria it establishes for itself. Roger Ebert once said he tries to review every movie by “a relative standard not an absolute one” or to paraphrase: “what the film is trying to be.” Of course I’d argue that Ebert has contradicted this viewpoint on more than a few occasions but that doesn’t obviate the good sense of the statement. A film like Crank obviously can’t be held to the same standard as a film like The Godfather because both are “trying to be” very different things. Crank in the words of my estimable colleague Jeff Kubik (who’s said he may writing a doubtlessly more coherent essay on this very topic sometime soon) only wants to “get Jason Statham’s shirt off and then have him punch people and electro-shock himself for an hour and a half.” On a more fundamental level Crank only “wants” to entertain and/or distract you for a little while. The Godfather on the other hand positions itself as a gangster-movie metaphor for capitalism in America. The Godfather also has an interest in keeping you entertained but that part of it is essentially a delivery vehicle for its bigger ideas.

While neither Crank nor The Godfather will necessarily appeal to everyone’s tastes anyone who’s able to account for their own biases is likely to say that both succeed . And yet if you were to ask someone which is the “better” film unless you’re talking to an undermedicated ADHD case you’re only going to get one answer. Why is that I wonder? Not to get too Philosophy 101 on you but can we reasonably say that consensus creates truth? Again I think it’s more complicated than that.

Now we’re about to get really dry. The way I’ve come to think of critical evaluation is as a kind of “Calculus of Enjoyment.” The Godfather has—because of that one extra level of meaning for an audience can engage with—quantitatively one additional “unit” of enjoyment. Though I don’t want to sound like the stuffy English critic whose book Robin Williams orders ripped asunder at the beginning of Dead Poets’ Society I think this is a reasonable enough way of weighing the relative merits of a particular media’s intentions. It allows us to draw some distinction between films like Crank and The Godfather while accounting for context and without importantly discounting the importance of subjectivity. This also goes some way towards explaining the frequent discrepancy between populist movie watching habits and critical consensus. For critics—or at least the ones that I know—the process of evaluation and analysis is as key to their enjoyment of media as is the excitement of escapism. This isn’t necessarily the case with a majority of moviegoers though I don’t think that valuing pure chemical-level entertainment over something that demands a more active engagement is somehow a less valuable tack. It’s the critic’s job to identify where these levels of intention exist and accounting for their own preferences make their judgments based on the success or failure of each level.

Of course the one part of this I’ve been writing around this whole time is that whether or not I can defend the position notwithstanding it doesn’t really matter that The Godfather is “better” or “more worthwhile” than Crank . Even though The Godfather gives me what can arguably be called a more sophisticated sort of pleasure than Crank sometimes I really do just want to watch Jason Statham take off his shirt and hit guys for a little while. They’re entertainments of a different sort but we can’t loose sight of the fact that’s what they—and all films television series novels and games—are. And there’s room enough for both in my collection.

So when I say something is or is not one of the Great Shows the Great Films or the Great Books I do it with this as my standard of measurement. Because I am who I am I will always say something that’s able to succeed on more levels of intention is more intrinsically “valuable” or—calling a spade a spade—“enjoyable” than something that succeeds on fewer even though both are successes. And though I tend to think that this opinion is often reflected by the cultural artifacts remembered by posterity this isn’t always the case. While in some of my wilder megalomaniacal fantasies the ebb and flow of cultural history obeys the irresistible sound of my voice I’m still sane enough to know that I am ultimately just a guy screaming in the face of a disinterested behemoth.

So to the question of “what art is” my reply is this:

“Who cares?”