Monday 21 September 2020

Is it really possible to judge the best?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

As we look forward to the Oscars which will be held on 9 February, I learned something new this week: that not all the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures actually watch all the films which have been nominated in the various categories. (The Academy is mostly comprised of those in the industry who have obtained an Oscar nomination). 

Apparently I am late to the party as this was pointed out way back in 2015 when it was revealed that according to a poll carried out by The Hollywood Reporter, nearly 6% did not watch the nominated films. The thing is that no one checks up on whether those voting have actually watched the films because it is based on an honour system, involving trust and honesty.  This was a surprise to me, as it probably is for many movie buffs. How can you judge which film is the best (as well as the various other categories) without even having watched it? Does this mean they are simply voting according to popular tastes rather than artistic merit?

If so, this might go a long way to explain why there are often so many surprises when it comes to the winners, and why so many worthy contenders are left out of the nominations.  It is also truly unfair to learn that such a lazy, unprofessional attitude exists when one considers the tremendous impact which winning such a prestigious award can have on the career of a director, producer or scriptwriter, whose next projects will most likely take less time to be ‘green lit’ since financial backing will tend to be more forthcoming.   Meanwhile, actors can go overnight from being just another name in a sea of names, to bankable stars who are automatic box office draws whom everyone wants in their next film. 

Of course, when it comes to judging what is ‘the best’ in any art form, whether it is film, music or books, there is obviously always an element of subjectivity.  It is for this reason that there are those who adamantly reject these type of award shows when it comes to the Arts and refuse to participate, let alone watch them.  True artistry, they claim, cannot be subjected to this type of arbitrary, sometimes populist, judgement, and to a certain extent I can understand how this can be a valid stance.  Not everything which is immensely popular is necessarily of high quality (just think of all the trash reality TV shows and the widely-read salacious tabloids which are pure rubbish).  Indeed, many of what are known as ‘art house’ films are true works of art in terms of cinema, but could never hope to be commercial successes because they do not have a mass appeal. 

‘Mass appeal’ – that phrase which can cause a pure shudder of revulsion – is anathema to those who consider themselves to be highly cultured. In fact,  they are so determined to shun what is popular that they deliberately and actively seek out niche, alternative viewing, music and literature.  Which is fine, of course…to each his own.  Where it can become annoying is when some of those who consider themselves highbrow try to impose their own tastes on others.  When it comes to tastes in music, films or books, most people know what they like and what don’t like and, in some cases, the choices can span a very eclectic mixture.  But who is to say which is better, or that one genre or style supersedes another?  The sheer availability of choice, of numerous film and TV viewing platforms, of so many different ways to listen to music or access books has certainly widened the spread of all these art forms.  The question remains though as to who is in the best position to judge the intrinsic worth and value of a particular artistic work – is it the critics who may be using their own set of criteria or should the decision be left in the hands of the ultimate consumer, the public?

This question arose again recently with the National Book Awards, where the prize for the category for Best Novel was not given, despite three books having been shortlisted. Those in the industry were genuinely perplexed by this decision, and I was also surprised, especially since the excellent book by Clare Azzopardi, Castillo, was one of those shortlisted (I have not read the other two novels, Kulħadd barra Fajża and The Reluctant Healer so I cannot speak about them).  The point is that the criteria for what constitutes a standard which is good enough to deserve an award is, here again, being decided by a select circle of people.  Should their judgement carry more weight than that of the reading public, for example? Meanwhile, a proper explanation by the judges for why neither of these three novels was deemed worthy of the award would go a long way towards dispelling any of the inevitable conspiracy theories.

Popularity in the form of box office in the case of film, record sales for music and being on the best seller list for books is one thing, but if a certain work is panned by the critics does that mean the taste of the general public should be discounted?  If an obscure rock group has a limited appeal which does not transcend into wider popularity does it mean that it is misunderstood by a gauche public which has no real understanding of music, or should the group simply be happy with its specific market and be satisfied with that? 

Having said this, sometimes critical acclaim and popular tastes do align. This year, an 18-year-old singer/songwriter with her own unique style of music as well as dress sense won four Grammys. Despite what might be deemed as eccentricity, Billie Eilish obviously hit a nerve with music lovers as can be seen by her record sales, as well as with the voting members of the Recording Academy made up of people In the industry.

Of course, not all artistic works or art forms can be to everyone’s taste, but that is OK too; we all tend to gravitate towards those circles where we find others who also enjoy what we like.  Where it becomes prickly is the age old argument which often rears its head when pop culture clashes with highbrow culture, as if they need to be mutually exclusive or that enjoying the former means you are incapable of appreciating the latter.  But in my experience I have known University professors who unabashedly watch soap operas, because we all need some form of harmless escapism, or what I like to call chewing gum for the mind.  

And really, there is absolutely no reason why one cannot appreciate a deep, thought-provoking film and yet still have fun watching a guilty pleasure such as X-Factor which uses televoting to judge the best singer.  In fact, I would argue that the more one exposes oneself to both forms of culture, that which attracts the masses, and that which is more niche and ‘elite’, the more your mind will be open to new experiences and new trains of thought.  I always find it preferable to be open-minded rather than to box one’s self in a small world which does not allow space for those who do not agree with you on the elusive matter of artistic taste.

Powered by