What is good art? We are constantly declaring various books and movies and games to be good or bad – we get in arguments about these classifications, have entire professions dedicated to evangelizing them. We go to great lengths to highlight the good points of one thing or the bad points of another, and we rarely bother to define what we mean when we say that it’s good or that it’s bad. Does it just mean that we enjoyed it? No, because sometimes we say things that are harrowing or awkward or unpleasant are good. Does it just mean that we found value in the time we spent with it? No, because if that’s all it was then we wouldn’t get into arguments over it, since there’s no point in trying to convince someone they actually did or didn’t enjoy something (not that that stops anyone from trying).
I don’t think good/bad judgments mean much of anything in the absence of more specificity. Art isn’t good or bad, it’s good at or bad at – good at making you understand the internal conflict of a character, for instance, or bad at presenting a physically convincing reality. These artistic traits may or may not be something you personally are interested in , but they’re something you can make a convincing argument about when debating the nature of a work and what it accomplishes.
Yet it obviously means something when we say that a given work is good. There’s some nebulous but shared set of standards that, when a work excels at them, defines it as good. So we end up with weird splittings-of-hairs – “Oh, it’s not a good movie, but it’s a good action movie,” “I don’t think it’s a bad book but it’s deeply misogynist” – where these standards for what we expect and how we measure quality butt up against one another.
When we say “good” we are secretly saying “good at“, with the ‘at’ standing in for a whole host of assumed criteria for quality: It has to have convincing characters and effects, it has to have reasonably but not excessively attractive people, it has to have an epic or emotionally moving score, it has to be between 80 and 160 minutes, the motion of the plot and systems have to be completely transparent at all moments, to be sexy but not sexual, to deal with pain and violence and sadness and serious things, and it is judged bad if it fails to live up to these standards – regardless of whether these standards were even attempted, whether the artists cared at all in the first place.
Conflicts emerge between our personal style and standards and those metrics of quality that all art is measured against. We may deeply love a work, or merely enjoy it, while the standards of art proclaim that it is shlock, garbage, meritless. We call these “guilty pleasures”: That which lives up to our own personal standards of quality, that we find personally enjoyable, but which doesn’t adhere to the cultural standard, or possibly even attempt to. Yet sometimes, rather than declaim the guilt of our pleasures, we will call something “schlocky” good – not in support of these principles, but in defiance of them. Saying that art which does not adhere to these standards is still good is drawing a line in the sand and saying no, your criteria for quality are wrong and don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes if enough people recognize something the standards will shift: When the game Demon’s Souls came out a decade ago, many players immediately rejected it as confusing, clunky, and punishing. By most of the game design standards of the time, these traits were regarded by many as a sign of bad game design; any developer who put them into a game was assumed to be incompetent, whether or not it was done with intent or artistry. Yet enough people understood and appreciated the intent of the game that the loosely cohesive Souls-like series of followups has gained a massive and dedicated following. Demon’s Souls is still a fairly conventional game in most ways, though: For every Demon’s Souls, there’s hundreds of unconventional masterpieces that never find an audience.
However, as art becomes homogenized towards the Disney manual of style, audiences may come to see anything that deviates from the standards set by mega-corporations as artless, clumsy – not as an experiment in a different style, but as an amateurish bungling of what everyone knows is the correct way to make art. These fears may seem alarmist, but they’re already coming to pass: The scope of what’s considered a valid film, book, or game is vastly narrower now than it was even thirty years ago, and it’s hard not to see a correlation with the consolidation of most mass-media power, which unilaterally declares the standards of artistic merit, into a few wealthy white grasping hands.