In 1996 Guitar Player magazine ran a feature on the future of heavy metal which included a short section on the pros and cons of the guitar solo. A number of prominent metal guitarists expressed views such as that solos are “atrocious”, “for some wanker to show off”, or “just wiggly, masturbatory shit”. Similar opinions about the art of aesthetic evaluation – that it is a self-indulgent expression of personal preference with little value of its own except as a form of intellectual exhibitionism and self-gratification – have thrived for many years in certain areas of film studies, as well as in literary studies before it, although they are usually expressed in rather more measured language. The literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye, for example, was of the opinion that “when a critic interprets, he is talking about his poet; when he evaluates, he is talking about himself.”1 If interpretation, or at least a certain understanding of interpretation, has, in different ways, been given a bad name by the likes of Susan Sontag and David Bordwell, then evaluation has often seemed even more of a conceptual persona non grata.

It is therefore extremely refreshing to see Andrew Klevan’s latest book take up the cause of evaluation with both clarity and passion. Although the book does have a polemical aspect, existing in opposition to the various objections to, and criticisms of, evaluation that have been raised over the years, it largely follows the advice that it cites from Joseph Addison, that “criticism should emphasise ‘Excellencies’ rather than ‘Imperfections’.” (p. 61) Klevan writes that evaluative criticism tends to aim at providing” a beneficent, qualitative profile of the work” (idem.), and he tends to follow a similar aim in his account of evaluative criticism. One main reason for this positive stance is that “favourable appreciation is often a prerequisite for getting the most out of a work because it encourages involvement and deeper understanding” (p. 39); in a similar vein, Klevan focusses on articulating and demonstrating the positive qualities of aesthetic evaluation rather than on direct combat with its opponents. To this end, the book is divided into three clear sections of increasing specificity. First, “What is evaluative aesthetics?”; second, “What is aesthetic criticism?”; and finally, “The aesthetic evaluation of film”. This structure, while by no means rendering it unrewarding to go through the book from cover to cover, assists the reader in accessing the particular topic that they are interested in (frequent cross-referencing is also very helpful in this regard), as well as helping to extend its applicability beyond film studies. While the book’s focus is on film, and the vast majority of its examples come from the cinema, it nevertheless has relevance for anybody concerned with aesthetic evaluation, of any object (even, perhaps, guitar solos in nineties heavy metal), and the structure helps to bring out this relevance.

“A self-indulgent expression of personal preference?” (Spinal Tap [Rob Reiner, 1984])

The exploration, in the first part of the book, of what exactly evaluative aesthetics is manages to explore a range of viewpoints while retaining a clarity of vision. It explores topics such as “the aesthetic attitude”, “seeking agreement”, and “aesthetic qualities”, and draws on a wide range of thinkers (from Immanuel Kant to Roger Scruton), albeit almost exclusively those associated with what is, for better or worse, known as the analytic tradition in philosophy. I do somewhat regret that, by relegating mention of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière to a footnote, Klevan avoids any discussion of the evaluative claims – often, it is true, implicit ones – in their work, which might have valuably contributed to the effort to save them from those of their admirers who seem more interested in displaying mastery of their idiosyncratic vocabularies than in grappling with their substantive claims. But it is to his credit that Klevan is not seduced by trendy thinkers, nor by exclusivist demands that film studies should tear itself away from its heritage in literary studies, instead cogently arguing for the continuing relevance of F.R. Leavis.2

Having clarified how we might understand evaluative aesthetics, the book’s second section tightens the focus by asking what aesthetic criticism, specifically, is. Although the book is something much more original than a textbook, it is constructed so as to be useful and accessible to undergraduates encountering criticism for, perhaps, the first time, and so it is very helpful that the subsections of this chapter focus on the qualities and skills that critics need to develop, from ‘perception’, via ‘particularity and responsiveness’, to ‘reasons, argument, and objectivity’. Klevan responds in this section to the charge that evaluation is self-indulgently myopic. He claims that the critic’s subjective personal response is merely one aspect of the fact that ‘aesthetic criticism is relational at every level: it evaluates how different parts of a work relate, and how the work relates to the creative personnel that made it, to other works, to the previous criticism upon it, and to the critic who engages with it’ (p. 114); ultimately, he argues, ‘[t]he fact that evaluations are context dependent and contingent is disciplining and exacting, and need not be destabilising’ (p. 116).

Although examples taken from film are deployed throughout, it is only in its final section (comprising, admittedly, almost half the book) that Klevan turns explicitly to the aesthetic evaluation of film. Here, the sections refer to concepts by means of which evaluation may be undertaken: “medium”, “constraint”, “prominence”, and so on. Some of the strongest and most vivid material in the book is to be found here. Klevan engages with other critics writing on specific films but does not merely summarize their findings. Instead, he engages with them in detail, bringing their work into confrontation with the films themselves in ways that neither serve merely to illustrate particular theoretical points, nor as excuses for Klevan’s own critical excursions, but adroitly tread the line between the demands of critical fidelity to the film and the need for the book to retain argumentative clarity. Particularly impressive is the book’s final discussion, which engages in detail with the negative evaluations found in the journal Movie about Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), but does so by following many of the same assumptions that led most of the Movie critics to attack the film. Klevan thus demonstrates how criticism can be a continuing debate rather than a shouting match. For example, responding to the charge that Godard “is preoccupied with the device at the expense of the meaning”, he points out that the device “must attract attention because it is itself under scrutiny.” (p. 216)

It is a failing of a book review to criticise a book for not being a different book, but I do have one significant reservation about Aesthetic Evaluation and Film. This can be illustrated by the book’s treatment of the literary critic and theorist Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Herrnstein Smith receives a great deal of praise from Klevan, who even uses a quotation from her work as the epigram for his book: “Evaluation […] an entire domain that is properly the object of theoretical, historical, and empirical exploration has been lost to serious enquiry” (p. v). In its original context, however, this passage runs as follows: “the fact that literary evaluation is not merely an aspect of formal academic criticism but a complex set of social and cultural activities central to the very nature of literature has been obscured, and an entire domain that is properly the object of theoretical, historical, and empirical exploration has been lost to serious inquiry.”3 Klevan rightly argues that Herrnstein Smith “thinks evaluative claims can be testable, plausible, useful, and valuable, without them being ‘fixed’, ‘given’, ‘inherent’, universal, or absolutely true; and that these immutable ways of conceiving evaluative claims are a distraction and a false impediment to worthwhile evaluative practice” (p. 116), but he is misleading when he characterises her as someone “who laments [evaluation’s] marginalisation in the academy” (p. 8). Herrnstein Smith’s concern is really with the evaluation of evaluation. She argues that, far from marginalising evaluation, “the literary and aesthetic academy… develops pedagogic and other acculturative mechanisms directed at maintaining at least (and, commonly, at most) a subpopulation of the community whose members ‘appreciate the value’ of works of art and literature ‘as such’.”4 Herrnstein Smith certainly does not think that evaluation should be banished from the academy, but the scare quotes alone indicate her substantial reservations about the form it often takes there. Another thinker to whom Klevan has devoted considerable attention, namely Stanley Cavell, has made a related point, referring to “the university’s tendency to enshrine its subjects, to submit, or resubmit, the objects of its study to a kind of cult – ruled from what Nietzsche dismally describes as ‘The Chairs of Virtue’”.5 Not only is this kind of self-reflexive interrogation of the function of evaluation (and its relation to those groups – cults? – which practise it) omitted from Aesthetic Evaluation and Film, but a whole tradition – from Nietzsche onwards – of texts that critique and deconstruct declarations of value is almost entirely absent from this book.

In its place Klevan offers more gentle, measured suggestions: “Aesthetic criticism should be respectful towards canons, but also productively antagonistic.” (p. 96) In part this may be because Klevan has all too often seen critiques of evaluation slide into downright dismissals. It may also be connected to his admirable goal, mentioned above, to construct a positive case rather than tussle over objections. Or, perhaps, it may be a consequence of the desire to maintain contact with the activity of close criticism of specific films in the classroom, or the seminar room. There is, however, no reason for these issues not to be discussed in such environments, in close connection with specific texts; recognising the critical discourse on evaluation need not lead to the dismissal of evaluation but should, in fact, lead to more evaluation – to the attempt both to evaluate the process of evaluation itself, and to conduct our evaluations of films in the light of such reflexive activities. The critical examination of evaluation could, perhaps, have been connected to the critique that Klevan makes of claims by certain critics and scholars that they have nothing to do with evaluation. In fact, evaluation is not nearly so easy to avoid as these critics would like to think: “implicit evaluations unwittingly abound in ostensibly non-evaluative work.” (p. 13) Had he somehow incorporated the critical tradition Klevan might, perhaps, not only have enriched an already very rich book but also made it more difficult, for those who are most certain that evaluation is a bad habit which we should have weaned ourselves off by now, to dismiss Aesthetic Evaluation and Film. For this book should not be dismissed; I would go so far as to say that it is strongly recommended reading for anyone involved with the evaluation of film – which might be the same thing as saying anyone involved with film.

Andrew Klevan, Aesthetic Evaluation and Film (Manchester University Press, 2018)

Endnotes:

  1. Northrop Frye, “Value Judgements”, in L.S. Dembo (ed.), Criticism: Speculative and Analytic Essays (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968).
  2. A number of the New Critics make an appearance in the book. Leavis does, however, get more attention than I.A. Richards; it would be interesting to see somebody explore the heritage of the scientific – or scientistic – aspects of Richards’ work in cognitivist film studies, but this would not have been the place for such an investigation.
  3. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 23.
  4. Ibid., pp. 43-44. Klevan refers throughout to the earlier article “Contingencies of Value” (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 10, No. 1, September 1983, pp. 1-35) rather than the later book into which the article is incorporated; this passage appears in the article on p. 23.
  5. Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 269.