Art vs. Craft

Despite the best efforts of the internet at large to proclaim otherwise, most creative works (movies, books, tv shows, video games, etc., though I’ll probably use films as examples for most of this post) are neither the second coming, nor the harbinger of the apocalypse. Where exactly they do fit on that (admittedly broader than generally necessary) continuum is often a matter of judgement.

Yet there is usually plentiful variation in that judgement. Critics rave about a film but audiences hate it (or vice versa). Different critics give wildly different ratings to something. And, at least at some level, we wonder “Why?”. After all, aren’t some things undeniably better than others? (Compare “The Incredibles” to “Catwoman”, for example.) Likewise, it bugs some people that obviously flawed works can become incredibly successful (whether financially or just in popularity) when more polished works can be quickly forgotten.

I think the issue stems from the conflation of the artistic and the technical. You see, in most works, there are a number of elements that are able to be (relatively) objectively assessed: “natural” dialogue; lack of boom mics in shot; clarity of editing. There are also a number of elements that are inherently subjective: mood; interest; coolness*.

The confusion arises because we assess a work on both an intellectual (technical) level and an emotional (artistic) one. Film Crit Hulk explains it very aptly in an essay on “tangible details” (in brief: when we lack the vocabulary/understanding to express why something affects us on an emotional level we instead pick on technical issues which may or may not have any relevance).

If everyone was relating to a work on the same level, there would be less confusion (but this is unlikely to ever happen). Instead we have critics praising the artistic elements of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and audiences complaining that it’s slow and boring (and I’m inclined to agree with both sides, in this case at least).

Conversely, we have Dan Brown, or the “Twilight” series, being hugely popular/notorious, with possibly as many websites pointing out their flaws as raving over them. Why so popular? Well, erring on the side of generosity, I think they must be doing something right. Sure, they have flaws, some mighty big/obvious ones, but they still manage to be engaging stories (to some readers, at least). Perhaps the complaint shouldn’t be directed at the authors, but at their editors, who lacked the verve to have at the manuscript with a red pen?**

I think this also relates back to my earlier confusion over chapters, in that they straddle the art/craft divide. Where to end a sentence or a paragraph is largely a “craft” decision. Where to end a scene is more an “art” decision. Where to end a chapter could be either (and is used differently by different authors).

* What I’ve found to be a good rule of thumb for quickly distinguishing the two is: technical elements are those that only stand out if done badly. Done well, they should be invisible (i.e. not distracting the audience).

** See also the later works of any author that became widely popular (e.g. the Dune series, Harry Potter), and suddenly the editors/publishers are afraid to be too critical lest their cash-cow jump ship.