Johannes Brahms, born in Hamburg, Germany on May 1833 and died April 1897, is a mammoth in music history. Brahms contributed to almost every genre of art music; among his contributions were symphonies, concertos, sonatas, songs, and choral works. There is no doubt in his place among the all-time great composers–his works were masterpieces, advancing the use of instrumentation, harmony, counterpoint, form, and part writing. Brahms continued the great Germanic symphonic tradition, which stretched a period of almost 200 years from Bach and Handel to Mozart and Haydn to Beethoven to Brahms to Mahler.
I don’t like Brahms. In a single sentence of explanation, his music is Beethoven’s but with more angst. His music is thick, but not intriguingly so like Wagner; it is energetic, but not rivetingly so like Beethoven; it is melodic, but not captivating like Mozart. I would rather listen to Beethoven or Mahler, but I find Brahms boring. There are so many other good things going on in that time period–Liszt, Chopin, RUSSIA, Dvořák–and Brahms is just the status quo, only bigger and more romantic. Obviously, I recognize Brahms’ contributions and brilliance; I just don’t enjoy listening to it or playing it. Nobody in the music world would blame me for unjustly criticizing him or bashing him. They recognize my opinion. There are, actually, plenty of people who don’t enjoy these ‘important composers.’ I know of a surprising amount of people who don’t like Mozart, for example, and while this makes me question their sanity, they are entitled to their opinion.
Fast forward to the present day. Critic Chris gives a movie a low score. Average Joe sees the film and looks up reviews afterwards out of curiosity. “Guffaw!” Joe utters, “Chris gave ‘A Kiss in the Sand’ a D- because he thought it was shoddy and unbelievable! That was the best romantic comedy I’ve ever seen! Chris is wrong.”
What is wrong here? What is different between Joe’s view and mine? Simply, Joe does not understand that there are two aspects to perceiving any work of art. One aspect is a critical review, the other is a measure of enjoyment.
They are not the same.
When we’re talking about composers like Brahms or Mozart, their greatness has been solidified in many years of critical evaluation and performance. This means that if I say, ‘I don’t like playing Mozart,’ people take it at face value (for the record, I love Mozart; he is, one might say, the bomb-diggity). The same is not true for more recent works of art, especially considering the more recent genres like film, television, or games. If I say, ‘Gee, I don’t like Star Wars,’ everybody freaks out in unison, chanting “Star Wars is awesome” repeatedly until Star Trek fans come and start arguing with them.
Critical evaluations of a work are important. Many people discount them as just opinions of cranky people, but that’s not true at all. Critics approach a work with a different mindset. My creative writing professor spoke of this difference, too. He said that there are objective qualifications that a story must meet to be a good story, and that evaluating a story is not merely a subjective exercise. There are objective marks for what makes good characterization, language choices, dialogue, plot, pacing. The same goes for videogames, movies, television, manga, anime, whatever. Critics approach a work with these things in mind. Of course there are disagreements about the combination of these elements and the effectiveness of the parts or whole, which is why critical response to a work can be varied. This is why I prefer to use sources like Metacritic or Gamerankings to see the whole review pie and view individual slices at will.
Enjoyment of a work is often related to critical response; if there’s genuinely good writing, for example, people will probably like the writing and therefore have a higher opinion of the work. But also, just as often, enjoyment is irrational. I love the Transformers movies. They are not good films. However, the amount of glee that I experience watching gigantic alien robots smash, explode, and destroy other gigantic alien robots and cities is not undercut by poor pacing, thin characters, and other miscues.
What can we learn from this? Next time you experience or discuss any work, keep in mind that critical opinions and personal enjoyment are different, and that a work is not ‘good’ just because you enjoyed it. Otherwise, according to the opinions of the world, Justin Bieber is better than Mozart. That is not something that I am comfortable enduring.