How to Objectively Measure the Value of Art

You can’t.

It’s all subjective.

See you in the next Meaningful Monday post!

Just kidding, but also not really because although this is how most conversations about art end up, I think it’s worth exploring the conversation killing statement that “art is subjective.” There is a cold hard truth to it that is way more objective than anybody’s subjective opinion could ever be on any piece of art.

Be it a painting, a film, a novel—hell, even video games—anything put out into the world for our consumption and entertainment is subject to being criticized by the masses, assuming it’s lucky enough to reach that wide of an audience. Otherwise, there will always be that dedicated minority who stumbles upon, and actively seeks out, the more obscure art out there to be subject to their criticism.

In today’s post we will explore what it means to criticize art, to converse about it, and to wrap it all up, what art means to all of us at the end of the day. With Your Write to Live being a proponent for fostering creative expression, I thought it would be a good idea to tackle the potentially darker side of creativity where you put your work out there for all to criticize.

Criticizing Creation

First off, I should note that when I say “art,” it is an all encompassing term that refers to not only paintings, but also films, novels, video games, music, and everything in between. Simply put, art is the creative expression of human skill and imagination.

The function of art is to draw attention to certain aspects of the world and the human condition to its audience. Artists do this by being attentive to nuanced details that we may or may not be aware of in our day to day lives. In turn, they highlight these details in their artwork, thus making us hyperaware of these aspects of life that we may not have otherwise noticed, at least not consciously.

A painting can capture how beautifully the sunlight reflects off the surface of a lake, music can capture the sonic expression of human emotion, and a well told story can demonstrate the complexities of human relationships, as well as our unending drive to strive for what we want to achieve in life.

So then to criticize a piece of art is to criticize the world, the artist, and potentially ourselves because of all the thoughts and feelings it may evoke in us. Some pieces of art speak to us while others may not, and there is an endless amount of factors that can affect our experience with every piece out there.

Maybe the piece doesn’t offer anything new or exciting. Maybe it reveals to us that which we do not want to see. Or better yet, a piece itself has been put together so haphazardly that it is hard to tell what it is trying to convey in the first place.

Whatever the reasons are, every piece of art isn’t for everybody. And how can it be? Even when you try to appeal to a mass audience, there will always be those who prefer the more obscure stuff. And on the flipside, there are some pieces of art that—for better or for worse—are so esoteric that only a minority of people will appreciate, let alone understand it.

Depending on what kind of art appreciator you are, you can be veering off to one extreme to another or finding some kind of healthy balance between the both, but at the end of the day, the popularity of a piece does not reflect as a measure for its quality. And even if a small minority of people love a more obscure piece of art with way more passion combined than the masses simple acceptance of what’s in the mainstream, even that becomes a hard thing to measure.

Because how can you measure the value of art?

Criticizing Criticisms

We’ve all had this happen before. We bring up a piece of art that we love and someone else agrees, and together you just go off stating all the reasons as to why that piece of art is “so good.” But then comes along some other person who disagrees and says that that piece of art is actually “bad.” Then maybe you all get a little heated and start arguing over the reasons as to why that piece is “good” or “bad.”

Depending on your debate style and skills, these kinds of conversations usually go in one or three possible ways:

  1. You and the other person endlessly defend your respective opinions and nobody learns anything from anybody.
  2. You and the other person defend your respective opinions and actually start to see the validity of each other’s opinions, while still maintaining your original stances.
  3. One of you actually changes the viewpoints of the other and the opposing party concedes to agree with some, if not all, counterarguments.

If you can achieve outcome number three, I definitely applaud you for your passion and logic because if it is so sound that someone else can finally open their eyes to the light, then hot damn is that a gratifying feeling to have.

And while that’s all well and good, you shouldn’t get too ahead of yourself because at the end of the day, these are nothing but subjective opinions that are barely, if at all, grounded in some kind of objective metric that can measure the value of art.

To beat the dead horse, art is still subjective and it I think I figured out the problem to how you can measure the value of art. It’s something you really can’t do, so the better question we should be asking ourselves is, “why does this person like or not like this piece of art?”

It took me a while to realize this, but basically when someone ever says anything is “good,” or “bad,” it’s just shorthand for “I like it,” and “I don’t like it.” Or to go even further if someone isn’t fully enamoured by a piece of art and they like some aspects, while not liking others, then that’s when you begin to develop a more nuanced understanding of art, and by extension life.

Because art and life are a beautiful cacophony of chaos and order, and a strange balancing act between the two. Not everything can be loved or hated to the most extreme level, or at least for not very long, because nothing is so perfect or so imperfect that there is absolutely no bad or good residing within it.

Art is Who We Are

We are perfectly imperfect beings with so many idiosyncrasies about ourselves that only we may ever truly understand within ourselves. Close friends, family members, or even extremely good therapists can definitely try to understand you as much as they can, but at the end of the day, only you know the true meaning of what any piece of art does for you because of your own unique lived experience.

Anyone who tells you that they know you more than you know yourself is really just getting too in love with their own genius in seeing some of your blind spots for you, but they don’t know the whole story or see the whole picture that is you. If anyone ever makes this claim about you, I would suggest you develop some skepticism and learn to know yourself better so you can learn how egregious that claim can be whenever anybody makes it.

You and only you can truly know yourself. It’s not up to anyone else, but you, and the way in which you relate to art is one of the best ways to get a better understanding of yourself. Begin to ask why you are drawn to certain genres, styles, and themes in art, and you’ll quickly learn what you truly value in life.

If you love horror, perhaps you enjoy confronting your fears head on.

If you love romance, perhaps you’re a romantic person in love with the concept of love itself.

If you love fantasy, perhaps you value the courage it takes to embark on an epic adventure.

Whatever your personal preferences are in art, they speak to you because in a way, they also speak for you, expressing all the inner workings of your being in visual, auditory, and conceptual fashion. You can tell a lot about somebody’s psychological make up based on what kind of art they consume, but again only they truly know themselves enough while you on the outside can only speculate so much about them.

And this is why a lot of conversations about art can devolve into petty debates about what’s good and bad, especially your taste in it. I was like this for a long time too where I mistook criticisms of my favourite art as a criticism of myself, just as much as it would be to have my own creative work criticized as well.

Art is Who We Are and it’s no wonder why we take our preferences seriously at times. I’m not in the business of telling you whether or not you should be offended if someone takes a jab at your favourite stuff, in fact there are some people out there who make it a point to make fun of their own favourite stuff, possibly because being full out positive about it might be seen as too fanboy-ish or fangirly.

But honestly, if you’re in love with a piece of art, paint the town with your love for it because art is what makes life more meaningful and definitely way more worth bearing with. It beautifies our lives with its attention to details we otherwise would not notice had artist not take the time to express themselves and embellish those details.

Our Write to Live

writing-group.jpg

Before I begin, I want to extend my massive thanks to everyone who has read my first two posts in this series; My Write to Live and Your Write to Live, which detail the importance of writing in my life, as well as the importance of storytelling in the world at large.

That first one was incredibly difficult for me to write because of how vulnerable I had to be about some painful parts of my life, all the while summing up decades worth of stories as to not get derailed from the main point I wanted to make, which was how important writing has been in my life.

Wrapping up this series, I want to take the time to write and send this love letter to past and future coaching clients alike. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for sharing your stories with me. Whether it was your autobiography or the workings of your imagination, thank you for opening up and revealing to me who you are and what you value solely through the ideas we explored/will explore together.

Being a writing coach has been a dream of mine the past couple of years ever since I became aware of how naturally curious I am about the story ideas invented by my friends and family. And if my Askaholic Mode moments weren’t about stories they were creating, they were about the stories they’ve enjoyed in books, shows, or movies, endlessly wanting to know why certain stories resonated with them, and why the ones they create are the ones they create.

I think a quick glance at anybody’s book or DVD shelf can reveal what kinds of things they value, whether it’s romance, sci-fi, or spirituality, our personal preferences say a lot about who we are. Love, truth, justice, and other human concepts that we make real through our belief and experience–all of these concepts and ideas are repeatedly validated through the various mediums of storytelling.

From the word of mouth to the major motion picture, once again stories connect us. And for those who want to hone in on a specific concept and craft an elaborate story that explores these ideas,  let me just say congratulations first of all, for having a mission and a message to share with the world.

Second of all, I want to be your ally in the fight for truth and justice. Whether you’re self-disciplined and can pump out 2000 words a day, or you struggle to write because you don’t know where to start or struggle with motivation, I am your ally. Whether we agree on the same values or not, I am your ally. Because as a fellow writer, even if we don’t agree on the same things, the number one thing stories have taught me is to consider alternate points of view.

Where there is disagreement, there is the opportunity for the deeper understanding of another. Stories have shown us time and time again what the consequences are to holding contrary opinions and refusing to understand the other.

All I’m saying here is that as a writing coach, I am in love with understanding others through their stories.

Now I may not be published and haven’t done any speaking events yet (they’re in the works), I will openly admit that those two facts make me feel like I may not have sufficient credibility to help anybody with their work. After escaping the conventional workforce and deciding to become a writing coach full time, I’ve become full of equal parts fear and excitement for the future.

But then I reflect on the past year I’ve spent finishing the 3rd draft of It Starts at Home. I may not have a fancy degree in teaching or writing, but what I do have is determination and openness to take in life and all it’s curve balls.

For months, I’ve struggled with my own sense of motivation and purpose, even doubted that I could ever finish this draft. Constantly thinking that maybe it’s too risky to take this whole writing business full time, I’ve come close to deciding to just go back to my day job where I’m safe and secure.

In the end, though, I was able to finish my 3rd draft and am now on the process of editing it as much as I can before sending it to a professional editor for an outsider’s opinion.  This whole time I’ve been fearing if I could ever be good a writing coach to anyone, and somehow I managed to coach the most stubborn and resistant person I know; myself.

What would make me a good coach to anyone is the fact that I’m just your everday average joe who has rose in the ranks of his own personal development. Where I once resisted the difficulty of writing, I’ve embraced the challenge whole heartedly and came out on top. Where I once saw it as a chore to finish what I started, I reminded myself of the higher purpose and reasoning as to why I write in the first place.

Fuck all that self doubt and self denial. This book is bigger than me and my petty feelings of inadequacy. If you’ve ever felt the same way I have, then I want to extend my hand and say you’re not alone.

As your writing coach, we can overcome writer’s block together and smash with the bulldozer of our convictions.

With no published book, no track record of speaking events, and especially no pieces of paper to certify me as some literary genius, all I have is my conviction. My conviction to understand my clients and inspire them to reach their full potential, to convince them how equally important their stories are to the ones that already exist in the world and the ones that are simultaneously being crafted on paper while theirs remind locked in their psyches.

It is, and would be, my honour and pleasure to join you on your journey to wholeness and self expression.

It’s Our Write to Live.

Delivering a Critique Burger

Isn’t that such a snobby name for a burger joint? You just picture all the customers criticizing every single bite of their burgers and saying, “meh. I’ve had better.” But it’s alright, that’s what the restaurant invites you to do in order to improve customer satisfaction!

Likewise with writing, receiving criticism can help improve one’s craft. Since writers usually expose the depths of their inner most desires and concerns within the world through the abstractions of fiction, receiving criticism may sometimes feel like it’s their entire personhood that is being criticized. Their work is an extention of themselves and so it may be hard for them to have emotional and objective distance from the glaring flaws that may be present in their work.

photocredit: www.clipartbest.com
photocredit: http://www.clipartbest.com

In order to keep a writer’s self-esteem in tact, and let them know you really are trying to help, use the Critique Burger style of delivery.

Imagine this burger represents your thoughts on a certain piece of work. The top and bottom buns are positive things you could say about a written piece, while everything in between represents the negative aspects that can be improved on. That is where the meat of criticism resides!

TOP BUN:

Since the top bun of the burger is bigger, this is where you should start off with huge compliments to help cushion the impending critique. It’s important to show that you understood what the piece was trying to convey in terms of emotional and philosophical themes.

For writers who like to write deep and meaningful stuff (such as myself), it is an absolute honour for readers to relay back to them what moral lessons they’re trying to instill their work with, or at least any subtle nuances that takes a clever mind to notice. So once you’ve begun your critique pointing out what the writer did right, you move on to the meat of the matter.

THE MEAT:

Pointing out the flaws in somebody’s work is the most juiciest and rewarding aspects of delivering criticism. When a writer opens themselves up for criticism, they must do it with the utmost humility and vulnerability–and the ones delivering the criticism must empathize with this–or the whole operation will stink. Sometimes the bearer of bad news lacks the tact to criticize effectively, the writer takes everything too personally, or a combination of both may occur, and that could lead to some sour interactions.

To increase your chances of keeping a critique session productive, keep in mind that constructive criticism comes in two forms: Conclusive Criticism and Inquisitive Criticism.

Conclusive Criticism

Conclusive Criticism comes in the form of bluntly telling the writer what may not be working out in their writing. This could be in the form of essays, poems, even memos, but since fiction is my forte, let’s focus on critiquing novels.

Every other form of writing will require criteria unique to each individual medium, but common criticisms for writing novels include:

  • Inconsistent plot points
  • Inconsistent characterization
  • Grammatical incoherence
  • Events or characters that don’t move the narrative forward
  • Verbal vomit that doesn’t serve the overall narrative
  • Scarce narrative that could use more detail
  • Pacing
  • Convoluted concepts
  • Lack of conflict
  • Lack of depth or direction
  • Lack of relatability/accessibility

…and much more. If you have some to add to this list–or a list for any other form of writing–feel free to leave a comment below!

At the meat of the matter, you’re basically given free reign to tell the writer where their story falls flat on its face so you can help them either trim the fat or fill in the gaps. Since most writing is rewriting, your criticisms (whether they’re rejected or accepted) are valuable in determining if there needs to be more or less–or a complete removal–of certain aspects in the piece.

Only by eliminating the fluff can you help a writer focus on where their story stands firmly on its feet, and gravitate towards strengthening the positive aspects you have pointed out in the top bun process.

Inquisitive Criticism

There have been times where I’ve opted for asking clarifying questions, instead of making any conclusive statements, in order to help fellow writers understand their own stories better. Inquisitive Criticism comes in the form of open ended questions that are designed to help a writer figure out the solutions to their work on their own terms.

This is my favourite method of giving and receiving criticism because who doesn’t love feeling like they’ve figured things out on their own? What gives me even greater joy is helping someone out without ever telling them what they need to do, because often times they already know somewhere deep inside, or just through Inquisitive Criticism do they figure it all out themselves.

The kinds of questions I’ve asked were in the lines of:

  • What kind of character is X supposed to be?
  • So then why did they do this instead of–?
  • Who is the character that contrasts their personality?
  • Why not put them in more scenes together?
  • What’s the importance of this scene?
  • What is your charater trying to achieve?
  • When was this particular scene foreshadowed?

BOTTOM BUN: 

Finally, at the end of your critique, you could restate the positive aspects you’ve already touched upon, or you can quickly mention a few more surface level positives. These could include word choice, notable dialogue, notable narrative points, or simply saying that you liked it as a whole. Coming full circle, this is where you can also state that if you did X, it could help embellish aspect Y of your story, and therefore Z can happen more logically.

Build Your Own Burger

Just like a real burger, people customize what they like to put in between the buns in conjunction with the meat. Likewise, you can choose between Conclusive and Inquisitive Criticism or combine them to your liking, and it will always ultimately be up to the writer whether to implement or discard your criticisms to the best of their judgement.

Understanding the the burger method of delivering criticism increases the guarantee of having your criticisms considered. Even if the writer doesn’t end up taking your advice, they will at least be given a lot to think about in the realm of possibilities.

“Constructive criticisms are merely suggestions, not commandments.”

How to apply this to your life:

Delivering a Critique Burger can immensely help you in having your opinions valued, either in a writing workshop or any other aspect in your life. This could range from personal to business relationships, and providing feedback this way will help others know that you recognize their merits, while also noting that there can be some improvements they can make so they become the best versions of themselves. Likewise, receiving criticism in this fashion will also give you an interesting and objective perspective on yourself where a variety of aspects can be considered and worked on.

Why this exercise is important:

Let’s face it, nobody’s perfect and nobody gets everything right the first time. With a little constructive criticism, we can help each other improve in many aspects in life. There is so much I could say as to why this exercise is important, but I think the ending quote of this post will be sufficient.

“We all have blind spots, but thankfully we don’t have the same ones.” – Stefan Molyneux

What are other methodologies of delivering criticism that you have found useful?

What did you think of the burger method? Do you believe that it could be helpful? If not, why not?

Whatever your thoughts are, I’m interested!

Feel free to criticize this very article if you’d like!