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I’m your own worst critic

10 mins read

I am of the opinion that personal expression as well as the public appreciation and consumption of art in all of its various forms is important to a society. Expressing ideas, feelings and concepts through art is a good thing, and simply appreciating art made by others isn’t an inferior action. We live in a culture permeated with different forms of art — visual art, books, music, television, film, video games and more. When it is so prevalent, critiques become popular. Analyzing art becomes popular.

Analyzing stories is a perfectly fine thing to do. It’s something I personally enjoy doing. But through analyzing art, our tendency toward pretension is made evident. Our biases show through like a sore thumb and color our entire perception of a piece of art to often ridiculous degrees. I’m totally guilty of being a pompous critic who understands so much more about “X” than everyone else. It’s a habit everyone falls into, and a habit that I try to rein in because it annoys the hell out of me when other people do it.

Having a specific perspective when analyzing art is inevitable. You can look at it from the perspective of a youth, or a girl, or a boy, or a parent, or a teacher, or a person of color, or a feminist, or a conservative, or a liberal. It’s impossible to not have a perspective. The problem arises when people decide that their perception based on their own perspective is not only the best one but the definitively right one that should be listened to above all others.

Objectivity is impossible, but it should at least be kept in mind when analyzing art. Having blatant preconceived biases toward a certain belief, ideology or agenda doesn’t make you seem legitimate. You wouldn’t want someone who hates classical paintings telling you whether or not to visit a museum of classical art — you know what they’re going to say.

Such strictly biased perceptions often lead to people disliking something for what it is not as opposed to appreciating something for what it is. It leads to them discrediting the good in favor of focusing on an uncompromising notion of what makes something bad. Just from my biased perspective as a writer, I hate stereotypical bullies. If something has a stereotypical bully character in it, my brain will ignore everything else and classify the story as a bad one. You can see where that would be debilitating. What if the rest of the story is awesome? I wouldn’t know because I’m too preoccupied with how one aspect of it didn’t meet my personal standards.

As a less personal case, there’s “Girls.” It’s generally regarded as a smartly written show with complex characters and relationships, and one of the few shows created and written by a women about other women. But from my perspective as a woman of color, there aren’t enough black people in “Girls,” so the show is at worst racist and at best problematic. Another example: All of Nirvana’s songs use the same four chords, and since four-chord songs are the hallmark of a laziness in music writing, Nirvana is a bad band.

Having rigid lines to determine what generalized concepts are and are not acceptable doesn’t allow for much nuance. Stereotypes and clichés are not automatically negative, especially when regarded in context. A lack of diversity in casting is not an immediate indicator of a film’s internal merit. Art doesn’t have to dovetail perfectly with an ideology to be good or enjoyable. Something can have all the markings of mediocre garbage and still turn out to be worth experiencing.

This type of analysis isn’t always negative. Tropes and clichés aren’t always harmful, but noticing them doesn’t hurt. Having a perspective that allows you to recognize the prevalence of certain clichés leads to becoming a better critic with a higher awareness of underpinning ideas. Anything that helps to build critical thinking skills is great. Being able to articulate why you feel a certain way about a game or book is a way to not only explore your own perceptions but explain them to others.

Different perceptions create a marketplace of ideas. Sharing your own admittedly biased perception on a certain piece of art is a good way to get a conversation going. Conversation does eventually lead to (usually) positive renovation. The more ideas in the air — the more backlash against overused and underdeveloped concepts — the more diverse art created in the future will be, with more diverse stories to be told.

Entertainment media is all about individual perception, so something that confuses me is the used term “damaging society’s perception.” “Girls” damages society’s perception of diversity. Victoria’s Secret damages society’s perception of women. “Glee” damages society’s perceptions of LGBTQ people. “A Clockwork Orange” damages society’s perceptions of violence. It’s confusing to me because there doesn’t tend to be a single way that art is perceived by an entire vague “society.”

Some people of color couldn’t care less that “Girls” isn’t as diverse as it could be. Some care a great deal. I know plenty of women who dislike Victoria’s Secret because it promotes one kind of beauty. I also know plenty of women who love Victoria’s Secret because they admire the confidence that a woman has to have to pose for pictures and walk a runway for everyone to see. I know people who dislike “Glee” because its gay characters aren’t complex, and people who dislike that it has the gall to show gay characters on network television in the first place. Some people think Alex DeLarge glorifies violence, and some think his character demonizes the very concept of violence. People invariably perceive things differently. I doubt there is a societal consensus on anything art-related.

I’m not implying that you should ignore the flaws of a work just because other people don’t see them exactly the same way. Every piece of art has flaws — some more blatant than others — and recognizing where something fails is just as important to forming an opinion as recognizing where it succeeds. It becomes a problem when you refuse to acknowledge the flaws that do exist, or you judge something based on some egregious flaw that might not be as serious as you think it is.

Acknowledging that entertainment media has flaws doesn’t mean it’s objectively harmful, and it doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t like it. More importantly, you are not a worse person just for enjoying something that doesn’t correlate 100 percent with how you think things should be. Unless you like the show “Girls” because it doesn’t have black people in it, you are not a bad person or a dumb person. Why do we feel compelled to demean people for finding happiness in something as unobtrusive as a TV show or a video game just because it’s not what we deem acceptable?

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