Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Emotional Reactions to the Art We Consume

A couple of weeks ago, one of the TV journalists I follow on Twitter mentioned how they find it strange that people equate their emotional reaction to a film with the film's objective quality. I wish I had screen capped the tweet as I cannot remember who said it, but it forced me to start thinking about how we determine the worth of art.

I would say the reason we have professional critics is so that we have people who are supposed to evaluate a film, book, TV show, album, etc. based on what are considered to be the more objective qualities of a piece of work, to evaluate if they accomplish what they set forth to do, and if they take new risks. To do this, though, a professional critic must deny their emotional reaction to a piece of work and I wonder if that's entirely possible. The way we take in and perceive art will always be colored by our own understandings and limitations so while I do think professional critics strive to do this in a way the casual consumer of art does not, it is still just that...very limited.

I read a book by one of my favorite authors recently. This author's work has made me weep in the past, with her insight into the human condition, her ability to capture very complex emotions in just a few sentences. Her newest work, however, failed to move me in any way emotionally. It's not that it wasn't just as expertly crafted as everything else she has written or that the heavy weight of sorrow wasn't present in the book, because it was all there. She created a whole world in her usual succinct way. The structure of the story was perfect and the characters obstacles were exactly the ones they needed to have. I just didn't connect despite the fact that I feel the book was very good. I have to admit I felt disappointed even though it's not like she let me down in any way. She wrote a book and it was good, artsy, poetic, and it should have been touching I think, but I felt nothing. I am likely to forget it in time and when I'm asked for recommendations it probably won't be the first one I mention.

For me as a reader, I can look at books and acknowledge they are well written or what they have meant to society, but the books that will have the most worth to me are the ones that I connect with emotionally. Even the books that challenge me intellectually will pale in significance to the books that connect with my inner emotions, that engage my heart. I think, of course, it's entirely possible and maybe even best if a book does both!

There are TV shows as well that I can acknowledge as good without loving them. I tried to watch The Wire and while it wasn't my cup of tea, I know it was well written. On the flip side of that, a show I loved a lot, such as Lost, I can admit to having many flaws (but they just don't bother me that much because I loved it!) Or even a book like Mockingjay, I love flaws and all, and I fully accepted the story as I received it. Which isn't to say that everyone should. Part of what makes us distinct human beings is the fact that we react in different ways both emotionally and intellectually to the art we consume. And sometimes...sometimes I react in a strong emotional way to something that is very, poorly written or executed, and some are designed to manipulate your emotions in such a way. They are often tools to release our emotions in ways we find limiting in day to day life.

I'm not really making any broader point here, except that while I can surely recognize the more objective qualities of a piece of art, it will forever be hard for me to call something really good unless it moves me. At the same time, I don't want to depend entirely on my emotions for such determinations.

How about you? What makes something good for you?

Ana, by the way, wrote a fantastic post about objectivity and reviews and book blogging etc. You should read it.


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