There’s no such thing as ‘objective criticism’

By Nate Taskin

Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has died Thursday, April 4, 2013, according to a family friend. He was 70 years old. Here, Ebert attends the IFP Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, California, on March 22, 2003. (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)
(Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)

Here’s the thing about criticism.

Be it of film, literature, music, games or any other medium, a review is a collection of the writer’s opinions and viewpoints, with the intent of persuasion or analysis. Reviews are inherently subjective because they act as the beliefs and feelings of the author manifested in text or speech. Meanwhile, the concept of “objectivity,” an inherently nebulous notion, refers to the state of something being truly independent of individual perspective or personal bias.

In short, “chicken soup tastes better than sauerkraut” is a subjective statement, whereas “a human hand has five fingers” is an objective statement. Doesn’t seem like a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, right?

For many readers, if not the vast majority, this information should seem obvious. After all, it’s not as if the declaration “Mariah Carey possesses a voice blessed by Jehovah” is one of absolute truth that all must adhere to (though if you don’t agree, you have my deepest sympathies). The idea that reviews reflect the opinions of the author is a fairly elementary one. Agree or disagree with the assertions expressed, they should not be taken as a universal statement.

Yet, for many people, this innocuous idea that reviews are, in fact, opinion pieces meant to reflect the critic’s personal tastes provokes nothing except hyperbolic outrage. Accusations of “low journalistic standards” and “bias” will be thrown with wild abandon. So in case it’s not immediately apparent, allow me to be emphatic.

Objective criticism does not exist. To elaborate, not only does it not exist, but it is also incapable of existing. It’s a contradiction. Anyone who demands a critic suppress “subjectivity” in favor of “objectivity” demonstrates that they understand neither subjectivity nor objectivity.

What would a review free of “bias” even look like? Could I say that the special effects were poor? Nope, because that’s an opinion, not a statement of truth. Could I say all the actors were top-notch? Nope. Could I say a film’s themes were muddled? Nope. What if, God forbid, I said its moral implications troubled me?

If the “anti-critical bias” crowd had their way, then reviews would simply look like a laundry list of credits. The film was directed by this guy, the visual effects were done in this workshop, it was produced by this studio and here’s the year the studio released it. Real scintillating analysis right there. But hey, it’s objectively true.

Art – all art – can only be experienced through a subjective lens. There exists no mathematical formula that quantifies quality – positive or negative.

Whenever someone wails that a piece “lacked objectivity,” what they really mean is “it failed to conform to my personal opinion.” So yes, I suppose I’ve been caught red-handed. Of course I am biased, I’d be a pretty dull critic if I were not. What I look for in great critics is not how much their opinions sync up with mine. (Anyone who knows me can confirm that 100 percent alignment with my beliefs is never going to happen anyway.)

All of my favorite critics made names for themselves based on the persuasiveness of their writing, the depth of their analysis, the skill in their craft and the uniqueness of their perspective. To insist upon objective reviews implies distaste toward critical variation.

Of course the individual biases of superb critics like Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, Anthony Lane or Wesley Morris impacted the way they judged films. That is what made them unique and valuable contributors to the discussion.

Bias is not a detriment to criticism. It’s a virtue. It allows us to bring our own special interpretations to the works of art and lets them bounce off each other, which ultimately strengthens our appreciation for the work as a whole. All of our subjective experiences provoke discussion and education. To assert objectivity stifles this discussion.

Take me, for example. My pop cultural perspective is informed by a deep-rooted love of punk rock and comic books, which means that I will look at the latest Fugazi reissue or newest Marvel release differently than someone weaned on contra dancing or kung fu flicks.

Much in the same way, my Jewish background informs the way I watch “Son of Saul,” my queerness influences the way I assess “Carol,” and my leftist politics color the way I play “Tom Clancy’s The Division.”

The central impetus of criticism is not to assert conclusively whether an art piece is “good” or “bad.” There’s no right or wrong opinion.

What I find wonderful about criticism is that it grants the ability to share a person’s headspace and grant oneself a greater understanding to the various ways we perceive media. If you think reviews should define themselves by absolute truth alone, then you live in a truly boring world and to inhabit it is something I have zero interest in.

Yes, you bet I’m biased and proud of it. And whether you’ve read this piece and nodded in agreement, or cracked your knuckles and plan to descend on the comment section in wild fury, you’ve only proven that you’re biased too.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]