Assessing Quality in Writing and the Arts — Part II

One of the greatest difficulties in assessing quality in the arts, particularly in fields such as writing, singing, and painting, lies in two related problems. First, a truly “objective” way of assessing excellence doesn’t exist. Second, because anyone with a basic ability in grammar can write, because anyone with a voice can sing, because anyone can pick up pencils or oils and paint, all too many otherwise intelligent individuals feel that they can accurately judge excellence in these areas and that their opinion has equal value in assessing excellence with the view of someone with great experience and expertise in the field.

My wife is a professional singer and a professor of opera, but she has gotten out of the habit of discussing her true evaluations of musical performances, except with other professional colleagues… or me. Instead, she makes generic comments. Why? Because most people think they can evaluate singing and will rave about a singer because he or she is attractive, charismatic, and has great stage presence, even while a good fraction of the notes sung are off-key, off-tempo, or even the wrong words. It may be good “entertainment,” but it’s not good singing. In the past, she’s tried to explain why performances weren’t good, or why a given work isn’t as good as another, but her evaluation is almost invariably dismissed as “a matter of opinion,” especially by those who have the least knowledge of music.

As I noted in Part I, the good professor was absolutely convinced that his views were superior to those of four different review sources and those of several hundred thousand readers. He may not like the books, and that’s his privilege. He even admitted he was not an expert in the field, but still asserted that his likes and dislikes were more accurate, as a measure of the overall quality of the books, than a considerable weight of well-informed and educated evaluation from editors to reviewers.

By comparison, very few people, or at least not without advanced degrees in physics, would even consider telling top physicists that their theories on wave states or quantum mechanics were wrong, but an amazing number of individuals without any real grounding beyond basic courses in literature, music, or arts have no problem in pronouncing their opinions, which isn’t a problem, and giving them equal value with experts in a given field, which is. This could be described as the “if I like it, it’s good, and if I don’t, it’s not” approach.

In fiction, in particular, this can be a significant problem. Authors always run the risk of alienating readers because of the subject matter they choose or the way in which they present it, and the emotional reaction overrides any sense of judgment on the part of readers who are offended, usually because the author’s presentation jolts the reader’s preconceived view of propriety or reality. This can also be true in music. There were actually riots after the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and more than a few books, later acclaimed as excellent, have been banned in one locale or another.

Now, obviously, in a field where only subjective evaluation of excellence is possible, there are times where even a consensus of experts on what is excellent may not be totally accurate. There will also be questions, at times, about the degree of excellence, and I’ve certainly raised such questions myself, but, almost always, the judgment of long-time knowledgeable scholars and practitioners in a field in assessing excellence, not popularity, is superior to the opinions of those who do not possess such experience.

But… in the end, the fact is: Not all opinions are of equal value in assessing excellence.