My Approach to Art Criticism
Here I summarize my methods of criticizing the product of arts and entertainment media ("art", "art work"). My explanations and examples lie in music and motion pictures because I know almost nothing about other arts and rarely attempt to critique them.
One way I judge art is to critique its true value. I believe there is value in things independent of their being observed. However, our ability to know true value is limited by our knowledge and skill. So, true value is discovered by critics with varying degrees of accuracy. True value depends on the measure of three qualities: innovation, execution and purpose. Innovation refers to how new a method, structure, or mode of an art work is. Innovation is measurable against history, and we may determine what specific innovations a work brought, how important those innovations are to subsequent art, how different those innovations were from previous innovations, and to what degree those innovations assist music in achieving its aesthetic goals. Execution refers to how effective an art work is in achieving its aesthetic goals. Flawless execution can be called formal perfection. Purpose refers to how valuable those aesthetic goals are. For example, a target aesthetic of creating awful, derivative art is not very valuable.
Think of it this way. Psychologists use True Score Theory to measure unobservable constructs like love or self-esteem. Basically, True Score Theory states that any observable score we gather is the sum of a construct's true score and some measuring error, because we are not measuring the construct but some operationalized behavior we think is related to the construct. We're not measuring love, but displays of affection. We're not measuring self-esteem, but a self-reported scale of desire to harm oneself. We can never know a construct's true score or the amount of our error, but we theorize that constructs do have a true score we could observe with magical powers. Similarly, I believe art has a true value based on the criteria in the previous paragraph, but because we cannot know the amount of our error (due to incomplete history, incomplete understanding of relevant subjects, critic bias, etc.), we cannot know the true value of an art work. But I theorize a true, or "absolute", value of an art work exists. When I rate something with a number, or apply labels like "greatest" or "bad", I am usually referring to my best guess of its true value.
I also critique art's personal value: how does it affect me? A work of art's personal value may be good if it informs me, improves my mood, inspires me, etc. Its personal value may be bad if it deceives me, hurts my mood, etc. I can usually ascertain a work of art's personal value when I try, but a trained psychologist or God may occasionally be less wrong about a work's personal value to me than I am. Personal value is certainly more important than true value.
I also critique art's social value: how does it affect society? A work of art's social value may be good if the sum of its effects on society are positive and bad if the sum if its effects on society are negative. I am least interested about social value because causation is so difficult to determine, and because the aesthetics of the work rarely bear upon its social value.
True value is positive: high value makes it very good, no value simply makes it valueless (though I often use "bad" to describe a valueless thing). Personal value and social value may be positive or negative in varying degrees, or of no value (neutral). Also, true value is static after creation and modification has ceased, but personal and social value may change. Any of these critiques may be applied specifically to a segment of an art work, generally to an art work, or generally to a body of many art works, with decreasing accuracy and increasing efficiency & consumability.
Note that the value of an art work can be considered separate from the value of its artist(s). Personal value obviously says nothing about the artist(s), and social value (effects) may be unintended by the artist(s), or out of their control. An artist may create something that is a great innovation to him, but was actually innovated years earlier by someone whose work the artist never observed, and therefore the work is derivative even though the artist is a creative genius. Even execution may be an accident; it's possible that MC5 did not intend to record a masterpiece with Kick Out the Jams.
I'll illuminate my approach with three examples. First, "Clocks" by Coldplay. Even the most naive music fan understands there is nothing innovative about the music. Its target aesthetic is one that will sell records: safe, familiar prettiness. This aesthetic is of marginal value. So the song is of little true value. However, the song's beat energizes me. Its music - I don't usually listen to lyrics, which hinders my analysis, but even the best lyricists are mediocre poets at best - tells me that though there is sorrow and melancholy, life is beautiful. It reinforces positive emotions with the few lyrics I can't miss: "Home, home: where I wanted to go." I mentally finish "Nothing else compares..." with "to you, God", and thusly use it as worship. So the song has some positive personal value to me. The song's social value is probably negligible or neutral: though popular, its "message" approaches neither extreme of positive or negative effectiveness, and it has not been adopted by any powerful group for wide influence, positive or negative.
Second, The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith. It brought many technical innovations and elaborated many previous innovations by Griffith. Its execution is often impressive with regard to scale and camera technique, and often weak or muddy with regard to story, character, and structure. It is probably of moderate true value. Released in 1915 and set in the 1860s, its racism had little relevance or influence for me. I was happy to see it once for its historical significance, but don't care to see it again. It is of no personal value. Wildly popular and effective in showing prejudice as heroic, Birth of a Nation is credited with helping to revive the murderous Klu Klux Klan and racism in general across the United States. It has immense negative social value.
Third, Harmonielehre by John C. Adams. Its particular use of unmelodic, atonal minimalism to achieve Beethovenian Romanticism is slightly innovative. I think it is quite effective in achieving this target aesthetic, with few major weaknesses. I'd guess that it is of good or very good true value. Perhaps no other piece of music has such power to awaken my soul and draw tears of emotional rapture, so it is of great positive personal value. It is only popular among fans of contemporary classical music, and communicates little "message", so apart from generally contributing to "the arts" (which many believe make life worth living), it has no social value.
I have never organized or stated this approach before, so none of my previous criticism may be held to this standard. Most apparent inconsistencies in my future criticism will likely spawn from language confusion or incompleteness on my part, which are inevitable.