The Oscar Nominees, or What Makes Good Art?

I’ve seen a lot of Oscar-nominated movies lately — it’s that time of year — and something is bothering me.

I can’t seem to tell whether a work of art is good or not. I only know whether or not I liked it.

Does this mean I’m stupid and unsophisticated? Or does it just mean I like to think for myself instead of just accepting other people’s judgments about art? I honestly don’t know.

This year I’m really making an effort to see as many of the Best Picture nominees as I can. As of today I’ve seen eight of the nine (!) nominees: Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Miserables, Life of PiLincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty. The only one I haven’t seen yet is Django Unchained. (That last one will definitely be an effort, because I’m not a fan of Quentin Tarantino or Jamie Foxx and it’s 2 hours and 45 minutes long. But I’ve come this far; I can’t give up now!)

Of the eight I’ve seen, here’s what I thought of them, from most enjoyed to least enjoyed:

Lincoln: Enjoyed unabashedly. Entertaining, moving, politically relevant, and fun. Two and a half hours flew by for me.

Argo: A great popcorn movie. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it except that the climax was a little too 1980s Hollywood adventure-y. Did Affleck mean it as an homage to 1980s popcorn movies or did he just get carried away? Either way, it was well made and exciting.

Zero Dark Thirty: Long, but intense, and riveting.

Silver Linings Playbook: Great characters and acting and an enjoyable plot. Parts of it were too conventional and neatly tied up, but I forgave that because I felt affection for this movie. I just liked the people. I guess that’s a good thing. But I can’t tell if it’s Best-Picture-ish. (That sentence kind of sums up this whole blog post.)

Life of Pi: I liked this more than I thought I would. Technically brilliant, narratively exciting. I think Suraj Sharma (the teenage lead) should have gotten an Oscar nomination.

Les Miserables: Didn’t really care for it. Bombastic, and too long. (I’ve never seen the stage production but have never liked the music all that much.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild: This is one I have trouble with. I feel like I was supposed to like it more than I did. But it didn’t really move me. I feel like I was impressed with it rather than liked it.

Amour: I saw this one today and it’s the one I have the most trouble with. Jesus Christ, what a depressing, severe, constricting, claustrophobic film. It’s about an elderly husband and wife, one of whom is slowly dying, and the whole film takes place in their apartment, except for one scene near the beginning. Many of the scenes are long single takes, with the camera staying in one place. At one point I looked at my watch because I got bored, and there was more time remaining than I’d hoped. It picked up a bit at that point, but still. All the critics seem to say this movie is a masterpiece, but I can’t figure out why. This is the one that most makes me wonder if I’m stupid, or at least if I just don’t know enough about film. Why is this a good movie? What do I know after seeing this movie that I didn’t know before? I already knew that growing old and infirm is terrible and ugly; do other people not know that? Is that why the movie is supposed to be good?

My point is this, and it’s true about movies and paintings and books and plays: if I can’t appreciate a work of art unless a critic — and I mean that in the best sense of the term, someone who is knowledgable about the art form and writes well — tells me why it’s good, am I dumb?

As Sondheim wrote, art isn’t easy. But shouldn’t I at least be able to figure out if something is “good” without a critic telling me so?

The reason this bothers me is because art is one of the great joys of life, and if I can’t appreciate a piece of art that I’m supposed to appreciate, am I missing out on one of the joys of life? If you have to be an expert on a particular art form to enjoy something, then what’s the point?

I can’t figure out how to resolve this. It just really bothers me. I have lots of unanswered questions and I’d be curious to know other people’s thoughts about art and “good”-ness.