Why do we rate art?

I look films up on Rotten Tomatoes before watching them. I look books up in Goodreads before reading them. I go through the reviews of stage productions before going to the theatre. Most of us do. Why? What do we expect to read?

“You-are-going-to-love-it!” That is what we expect to read. Or at least we’d like to. Because that would make sense. How awesome would it be if rating machines from the future could rummage through our brains and pick out the works of art that we are going to fall in love with next?

Instead, we are faced with a confusing blend of categorical comments about the quality of the piece and a set of thoroughly unhelpful golden stars. Surely it is against the nature of art to be labelled objectively? Worse, to be quantified. Is it not the height of arrogance, like appraising a painting, to slap a number onto every work? And yet we insist upon it. Why? Because it is the best we can do: guess what? – those rating machines from the future don’t exist. The closest we have is friends and family. They don’t have to rummage through our brains to know our tastes and make recommendations.

Ultimately, art is to be enjoyed. And it ought to be enough that you enjoy reading this book, or listening to that album, whatever people are saying about it. Sure, there is a consensus on the technical aspects of artistic creation. Indeed, most ratings are derived from said consensus. But no-one can tell you how much you will enjoy art. So be free to make your own mind up.

This might sound like a tired topic, but I feel like I’ve yet to make my point. Ratings are useful, yes. I do, on average, enjoy films with a >50 rating on Rotten Tomatoes more than I do films with a <50 rating. That is because bad ratings are likely to single out the poorly acted films, the ones with a weak narrative, or shoddily shot scenes. However, ratings also create self-reinforcing bias in the public opinion and ultimately lead to the subconscious invasion of people’s freedom. They create stigma.

So next time you are about to preach about how good or bad something is, instead consider if it might just have pushed your personal buttons. Don’t give in to peer-pressure and don’t take part in peer-pressure. Say “I really enjoyed Animal Farm” or “I’m not a great fan of The Fellowship of the Ring” (although Lord of the Rings is amazing, whatever you think). And don’t feel embarrassed about that k-pop on your iPod because it’s not Pink Floyd or Vivaldi. If you like it, that’s enough.

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Author: Bruno Martin

I moved from Spain to the UK to study Biology. Now training to become a professional science communicator. I run, I spend too much time on my computer and I edit a science magazine. Ask me questions!

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