Critical Consensus Is A Myth

Whoever named the Academy Awards “Oscar” (and that’s a disputed, not particularly interesting story) forever did the Academy a solid. The name creates for us the idea of some fictional person to yell at twice a year when the nominations and awards are announced, and I imagine that’s as much attention as most people pay to awards season — as a forum to fight and debate, with a fictionalized bad guy to rail against. Consciously most people understand that there is no “Oscar” and that the awards aren’t decided by “a person” at all. Awards-giving bodies are like corporations: we treat them like individual people even though their entire reason for being is that they are not.

Perhaps this is an idiotically obvious point, but it’s one worth repeating: the Oscars do not reflect any single human’s taste. We have a general idea that those choosing the Oscars are a cabal of mostly old, white, rich men, and that’s still mostly true, and it makes the Oscars even easier to hate. But even that overlooks the basic fact: critical consensus is a myth. It simply doesn’t exist.

Even if the voting body was perfectly demographically homogenous, it’s not as if the members go into a room and agree. Every awards show, every RottenTomatoes “score,” every “critics say…” blurb or listicle — they’re all bullshit. Or at least, for the vast majority of us, myself included most of the time, our reactions to them are based on the same common misconception: that a group can react to art as an individual can. I do the same dumb thing over and over again even when I know how dumb it is — I see a 98% on RottenTomatoes and think, “That movie?? 98%? Come on, it wasn’t that good.”

If the question is, “Who thought that movie was worth 98%??” The answer is, “no one.”

Again, this is head-slappingly obvious, but 98% doesn’t mean the movie scored 98 out of 100 on a test. It might just mean that 98% of the critics polled saw it, shrugged and thought, “that was fine.” A film that receives 98 of the mildest positives with two vehement pans still scores better than one that changed 90 critic’s lives and ruined 10. And I think most of us would agree that the latter would be better art. Metrics like RottenTomatoes scores and awards voting simply aren’t equipped to deal with that.

Okay, you might think, but maybe they’re a fair generalization. I suppose it depends what we consider “fair.” Consider: I have served on juries at festivals, I’ve voted in critics association honors, and I regularly contribute blurbs and opinions to crowd-sourced lists on this very website. Not even the lists and awards I’ve contributed to have been an especially good reflection of my own taste. Get even one other human involved with making a list of best movies or performances and you immediately end up with a series of compromises at best and a list of things that consists of one-third of movies that you actively hate at worst. Taste is extraordinarily resistant to generalization. And that’s probably what’s so great about it.

While I’d love to believe that I’m some perfectly unique and immortal combination of influences and not just a walking, talking rotting sack of turds the rest of you, I suspect that every critic or awards voter feels at least a little bit this way. The inherently flawed nature of group-sourced lists and group-voted awards immediately manifests in the difficulty writing blurbs for them. The natural way to critique is “[work of art] did [this] and it made me feel [this way].”

Once it’s a group list, the writer is forced, artificially, to remove that supposedly objectionable first-person pronoun and substitute “we.” It sounds off and presumptuous, because it is. It’s inherently untrue. “We” can’t feel anything, because “we” don’t feel collectively. That’s not how feelings work. The writer is forced to presume a false perspective.

If you think this all sounds Ayn Rand-y or that I’m building up to a plea for dictatorship here, I’m not. Lots of decisions can and should be decided collectively; judging art just maybe shouldn’t be one of them. At the very least, it doesn’t function as a simple up-or-down vote. “Polarizing” isn’t a great quality for a leader, but it can be a wonderful quality in art. Art is not an Amazon product review.

Even if you don’t believe “art can change the world” or any of the kinds of starry-eyed, hyperbolic hokum that A-list actors read off teleprompters during awards telecasts, good art should probably still provoke strong feelings, and that just isn’t the kind of art awards voting, as it now exists, rewards. Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, Green Book over The Favourite, The King’s Speech over whoever it beat out that year… the list of historic flubs and snubs goes on and on (to say nothing of the fact that the entire thing began as a union-busting scheme). These decisions are more understandable when you understand that they aren’t decisions at all; they’re simply the lowest-common-denominator with a smaller sample size. The Oscars, like all awards, rewards acceptability over fervency every time. The existence of science shows that humans are much smarter as a group than we are as individuals. The history of awards shows proves that we also have shittier taste.

So where should we leave it? That awards are “Fun to argue about, as long as you don’t take them too seriously?”

That’s certainly true, but I think maybe it’s bigger than that. The Oscars, and awards in general, are similar to the corporation in that they remove individual responsibility. It’s what they’re designed to do. No one person has to take accountability for awarding one movie rather than another; instead everyone in the Academy can share a negligible amount of glory or shame while we argue over how brilliant or stupid this fictional character “Oscar” is. It’s like when companies use focus groups. That way an executive doesn’t have to own a bad decision, he can simply say “It wasn’t me, I was just following the data.”

Likewise, when a corporation pays a fine for bad behavior, who actually pays? Certainly, movies are the most frivolous, least consequential iteration of this basic phenomenon, which is why it’s still relatively fun to argue about them every year. But if you’re using awards shows or scores or crowd-sourced lists to decide what to watch, understand that that’s just another way of say “trust the data.” And that data is mostly just a responsibility-avoidance device.

Find a critic you like, and read them. A critic has taste. “Critics” do not.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.