What is "Art" and how do I weigh it?

Written Feb 26, 2017

A couple of weeks ago, I made a post about a new feature of the site in which I plan to talk about things (movies, shows, games, etc) I like or dislike.  Why am I even doing this on a site mainly about privacy and online rights?

I recently had a thought about critics.  Like a lot of review outlets who provide their “opinions” in the realm of privacy-based web services (like the VPNs and Email Services you like comparing here), there are a lot of shills and less-than-useful critics in the realm of art and media.  Often, they have an obvious conflict of interest (for example, a talk show owned by the parent media company of the film they’re plugging, outlets reviewing games with prominent advertising of the same game all over their site on launch day, numberless YouTube channels mindlessly gushing about a movie from which they were hand picked by the studio to see a sneak preview of, etc).

A lot of those companies and reviewers actually do know the medium and their market – but they lack the thing that is required the most from a critic – transparency.  It would seem that in many cases, the difference between them and me is that I don’t have a dog in the fight, I’m not trying to sell you anything, and I am willing to be open about my methods and how I come to conclusions.  Possibly, other than those things, I wouldn’t even consider myself all that special or unique in the arena of “telling people what I really think”.  In this case, I simply wish to give people I respect the chance to hear about some works of art that maybe people haven’t experienced.

In essence, I like to think that where it comes to some other things, I’ve earned your trust and have shown an eye for quality and the ability to spot BS where it lurks – so maybe we’ll share taste in something of a different category.  I’m making this post to set the stage regarding my methods and setting some guidelines for how I’ll appraise and rate “works of art”.

Defining Art

Just now, I mentioned the term “works of art”.  “Art” is oddly, both subjective and objective.  It means different things to different people.  When I critique a piece of art (whether it be a show, movie, game, or what have you) I’ll be using a pretty broad definition – “something that evokes an emotional response from someone”.  Sometimes people use the term, “work of art” and it has an inherently positive connotation, but that isn’t the way I think of it necessarily.  I’ll use something familiar to all of you to do this: paintings.  Whether or not you like paintings or not, I think you’ll appreciate this example.

When I was growing up, I took an art class in high school.  In this class, we had several art books, which we were able to look through as the class progressed.  One of the paintings I looked at was “Guernica”, a famous mural by Picasso.  This painting portrays the horrors of war in a very abstract, unsettling way.  Being a teenager, this was one of my first experiences really thinking about how awful war was and having the chance to see it from a unique perspective.  In a way, it evoked an emotion and way of thinking and did something to me that seemed beyond the ability of a physical medium like oil on canvas.

Another painting in the book was a context-less, monochromatic, yellow rectangle.

I remember feeling insulted by the artist of that rectangle, and a little bit by the teacher of the class.  There was a pretense of what was good, and it seemed to be based an awful lot on what other people thought.  Because this work of “art” made it into a book, all of a sudden, it garnered the respect of a supposed expert – but to me, the emperor had no clothes.

However – even though it seemed to me to be a lazy, talentless, plain yellow slab – it evoked an emotion and it’s still what I would consider “art”, in that I had a reaction to it and learned a little something that I don’t know if I could have another way.

The point is – something can be lazy and cynical and be art still the same.

Rating Art

So how will I be rating a piece of art?  A lot of reviewers use a series of traditional methods (marks out of 10, stars, thumbs up, etc).  A friend of mine came up with a ranking system for games and films that we’ve used for some time and it seems to fit a good niche that other systems have gotten wrong (in our opinion).  It uses a scale of 1-5, however, the given number describes more a classification than a “score”.  From here on, I’ll refer to it as “The Darren Scale” (all credit goes to him), and the following is his informal description:

The problem with other rating systems
Too much scale. In your standard 10 point rating system – especially in the gaming industry – if a game has less than a 7 it’s considered pretty much worthless – which for a lot of games is completely unfair.

Furthermore, as soon as you start adding in fractions of points, you’ve suddenly got a 100 point scale, and the only rational purpose of that is to try and set these works on some kind of tier list. For example, if I gave Game One a 9.2 and Game Two a 9.1, suddenly in all instances Game One is straight up better than Game 2. But because these games might be completely different genres focusing on totally different goals, it’s not really fair to place them on such a scale together.

Categories > Tiers
Because of these issues, I think it’s more useful to stick a piece of art into a category rather than some tier by which it should be compared to all others. I still use numbers for these categories for simplicity, and because the number does represent the media’s overall value (in my opinion of course), but at the same time you shouldn’t think that just because only a few pieces of art get 4s that others with a score of 3 aren’t worth experiencing at all, for the genre differences I described above.

And of course, like any rating system any score is subject to the biases and experiences of the reviewer. I’m not even saying that this is the best category system ever, it’s just the one that’s useful to me.

The Darren Scale

5 – The Standard Setter.

Media in this category are the standard by which other artworks of the medium are judged. It does not represent a “perfect” piece of work – there can be plenty of nitpicks to be had – but it does represent the current best of what the work does uniquely. Note though that simply being unique does not automatically score this category – the work has to have a high level of value (at least a 4 on this scale) to achieve this rating. Because of the nature of this score, a work can be bumped off this pedestal if something more masterful comes along, at which point it becomes a 4.

4 – Great.

This artwork has high amounts of tangible value.  In a personal sense, this means that it provides a powerful lesson through its story, a satisfying challenge, or a similarly life enriching aspect. In other words, a 4 represents something praiseworthy for its effect on the audience.  It is not something that is merely entertaining or enjoyable. I don’t want to use the word “life-changing”, but the work should affect some kind of change in the audience member themselves rather than just using their time.  I will always recommend an artwork in this category to anyone that asks for a recommendation within the genre it belongs to.

3 – Good.

This is the “enjoyable” or “fun” category, but it does not offer anything beyond that. It doesn’t mean that the artwork is just competent, it does have to be something that’s gripping from beginning to end.  I can recommend this category from time to time, but for the most part I consider a “3” as a skippable work – not something that NEEDS to be experienced. Generally when I bring it up I say “It’s good, but…” and usually follow it with “it’s an enjoyable waste of time.”

2 – Flawed.

This category is a piece of media that is enjoyable, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with it. It can be a guilty pleasure, or it can be a title that’s good (a 3) for a portion of the experience but you have to wade through a lot of garbage to experience the good parts.  If it’s a guilty pleasure, I’ll recommend it with the qualifier that I know it’s terrible (I just happen to like it.) Generally speaking though, artworks that get a 2 from me are ones I couldn’t finish because they started out great but got stupid by the end.

1 – Bad.

This represents media that’s completely broken, or that is so chaotic in its execution it completely misses the point of what makes a work in its genre good. If it’s broken, then there nothing to be enjoyed about this category, and it’s simply bereft of any value. Otherwise this category represents the standard setter of “Bad” for a genre similar to how a 5 out of 5 represents the best.

I don’t mean to bombard you with a long “meta” post when you may have been looking for more specific content, but I thought it important to set the stage with regard to my methods and thought processes before I launch into a post of this type.  Thanks for sticking around this far, hopefully you’re a little curious to see what shows, films, and games I’ll be sharing.

And just maybe you’ll discover a new thought or emotion along the way.

About the Author

About the Author

I started researching data about VPN services for my own knowledge, then posted the information online in the hopes the Internet might find my work useful for themselves. Through the positive feedback and assistance those in the community offered, I’ve been able to take this step into compiling all of my related work in one location and moving away from the Google Spreadsheet that it was originally created on.