On { } by Simon Camp

On { grading art }

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hy are people so keen to categorise and order art so precisely? I’ve always found this desire strange. Of all the data in the world, art is the one thing that really doesn’t recommend itself to numbering. And yet, otherwise sane review publications like Pitchfork and The A.V. Club insist on grading the pieces they assess on firmly granular scales; Rolling Stone lists all the great albums ever (presumably regardless of genre) and assigns them each a number on a Top 500 list. As I see it, this is flat-out nonsensical. (This article will be mostly about music, but the assumption is that this applies to all other types of art for the same reasons.)

There is, of course, music generally considered to be great, and music generally considered to be shit. That’s fine, just as long as no-one tries to figure that out objectively. We can even decide to review music on the basis of relevance, technical prowess, vitality and emotion - whatever you like. By all means, make an arbitrary cutoff point and make an unordered collection of the favourites - like the BBC did with The Big Read in 2003.

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But unless you’re talking about a seriously narrow genre of music (and even then!), I fail to see how you can compare great albums and decide which one is ‘better’ (whatever that means), much less be mathematically precise about it. The Marshall Mathers LP vs Rubber Soul, for example. Both considered towering achievements of expression in their respective circles. But where do we even start to compare them directly? The themes don’t exactly overlap - Kim and Drive My Car don’t seem like comfortable bedfellows to me.

So much of our appreciation of music is context: cultural, personal - hell, even meteorological. A perfect piece of summer bubblegum pop and a ten-minute death metal drama belong to diametrically opposed worlds. Some of my favourite music in the world would sound terrible in the wrong environment. Are we so fixated on homogenising our most rich and varied experience that we will lump these into a single box for blind comparison?

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I know in today’s fast world people love review scores - and I’m not opposed to them entirely. The late movie critic Roger Ebert had a pretty good way of scoring: he called his four stars ‘relative, not absolute’ and emphasised that they were basically meaningless when separated from the textual review. He was very clear about only comparing like for like, and even then his stars meant ‘should you see it?’ and not ‘is it good?’. Such nuance is, unfortunately, largely missing from the culture of scores-above-all that companies like Metacritic have so brazenly endorsed.

It seems to me we do art a grave, grave injustice by not appreciating the subtle ways it works with us. So much in our daily lives has the soul torn from it as it is cut, dried and sorted into neat little boxes so we can access the information at our leisure, with the least possible struggle. Let’s do ourselves a favour and shy away from that instinct where art is concerned. 

This week I am listening to ‘Pure Heroine’ by Lorde. Remarkably clear-thinking and musically mature for someone so young, Lorde sounds like a mash-up of The xx and Lana Del Rey with a little minimalist Kanye West on the side.