The Trouble With "Good"

For most artists, there’s a nagging question that’s damn near impossible to avoid.

It shows up when you’re trying to work. Sometimes it’s blaring loudly in your conscious mind, and other times it’s murmuring softly in the background, like an annoying sound that makes your jaw clench up without your realizing it. Even the most productive work session can grind to a painful halt when this question arrives.

“Is this any good?”

It seems like a reasonable thing to ask; after all, we want to make good work, so why not check in from time to time and see if that’s actually what we’re doing? But the truth is that this question is a productivity killer, and is useful only if our intent is to drive ourselves insane.

The first problem is that there is no meaningful answer to this question because we don’t really know what “good” is.

Despite what anyone may say, we don’t have a practical, universally-accepted definition of “good” art. Lots of people have lots of opinions about what the criteria ought to be, but there’s nothing definitive that the working artist can hold on to with any degree of certainty.

This helps explain why many of the works we now consider masterpieces were once completely ignored or even reviled (and vice versa). The works didn’t change, but the standards by which they were judged did, and continue to do so.

Professional sports teams don’t have this problem. Ask ten different sports writers who the best team in the NBA is and you will get the same answer. Ask ten different literary critics who the greatest living poet is and you will probably get ten different answers. Ask again in a couple of months, and you might get another set of answers.

Basketball teams are governed by the ranking system set by the NBA. “Good” in this context means something very specific — the ratio of games won to games lost — and that meaning is well-understood.

Art doesn’t work like this. There are as many standards for what makes great art as there are individuals to come up with them, so a clear and meaningful answer to “is this any good?” is, practically speaking, almost impossible.

“Ah yes, but”, you say to me, “I have my own criteria for what makes great work. I know what I’m trying to achieve and I can tell if I’ve achieved it or not. Can’t I just use my own standards to evaluate my work?”

Perhaps, but has this ever happened to you?

You’re working on something new and you’re feeling great. You’re in “the zone”, the work is flowing like never before, and you’re sure that this piece is going to be “the one”: your breakthrough masterpiece, the work that gets you fame, fortune, and the adulation of your peers. This is it — you have arrived. You walk away from your workspace and start rehearsing what you’ll say on all the talk shows.

The next day you return, review what you’ve done, and wonder how you could have deluded yourself so egregiously. The work is terrible, the worst thing ever made (not just by you, but by anyone). You’re a complete failure, and you should probably just give it up once and for all.

Does this sound familiar? The work didn’t change at all, but your opinion of it just turned 180 degrees.

Maybe own our criteria is not as iron-clad as we think it is.

This brings us to the second problem: we are the least-qualified individuals to judge our own work. We’re just too close to it to look at it objectively. Over time, as we gain some distance, we can evaluate it more meaningfully, but while we’re in the middle of it, our judgment is suspect at best.

This leaves us in a bit of a predicament: we desperately want to make good art, and live in mortal fear of making bad art, but we have no reliable way of determining if we’ve achieved either. If there’s any truth to the old saw about all artists being crazy, this may very well be the reason.

So what do we do?

I think we need to try to change the question. “Is this any good?” fails the usefulness test, but there may be other, more effective, questions we can ask that will actually help us get our work done. Try these on for size:

  1. “Is this clear?” Nietzche once said that great writers would rather be understood than admired. Is the piece understandable? Is it very clearly saying what you want to it say, or is the message being muddled by elements that don’t belong? In the TV show “Studio 60”, a junior writer, after watching her sketch bomb horribly at a dress rehearsal, sits down at her computer, restates the premise of the sketch and says “OK: let’s throw out everything that isn’t THAT”. I think that’s a good way to approach it.

    Of course it’s possible that you may not know exactly what the piece is saying. That’s actually pretty normal, especially in the early stages (and you may never know for sure), but you should at least have the feeling that it holds together, that everything that’s in there belongs. Any part doesn’t feel right or seems out of place needs your attention. You want to feel like all of the pieces are working together to make some sort of coherent whole, even if you can’t clearly articulate what that whole is.

  2. “Is this authentic?” Does the voice behind the work belong to you, or are you borrowing someone else’s? Are you using cleverness as a substitute for true feeling? Are you trying to make your work seem “smart” to take the piss out of your critics? Are you trying to be someone else?

    This is a much tougher question, and a solid “yes” is hard to come by – Miles Davis once said “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself”. If you can answer this question with “no…but I think I’m getting there”, that’s always going to be good enough. You’re on the right track.

If I’m making this sound easy, I apologize. It’s not. You may be staring at your work in frustration knowing that it’s neither clear nor authentic but without knowing what to do to fix it. That’s where craft comes in, and that takes practice, a lifetime of practice, in fact. But these questions can actually help move you forward, whereas “is this any good?” is likely to leave you spinning around in circles.

At least until someone comes up with the art equivalent of the NBA.

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5 comments

  1. “…we are the least-qualified individuals to judge our own work. We’re just too close to it to look at it objectively…our judgment is suspect at best….”

    Amen, brother. That’s why I like writing comedy. If they laugh, it’s funny (and if they don’t, it ain’t). Pretty simple.

    1. That’s true – you have a better barometer than most.

      But do you sometimes find variations between what audiences find funny? And if so, does it end up being a “majority rules” type of thing?

  2. We measure it by the medium: a stage laugh needs to be big and loud, a laugh the audience SHARES. Smaller laughs, or indeed even smiles, we say, “Well, that’s a radio laugh. That’s a book laugh” – something that can be enjoyed immensely by yourself, but in a full theatre feels like a let-down.

    1. Do you find that the laughs vary to any large degree from audience to audience, e.g., some line gets a huge laugh in L.A., then falls like a stone someplace else?

  3. It’s not geographical so much. We find that it usually depends on the size and the age of the audience.

    A small audience lacks that critical mass to give it confidence to respond loudly. An old audience tends to be quiet as well, and a mixed-ages audience sometimes lacks common cultural references so they can’t react as one.

    That being said, the audiences in Miami were tough. But they were small houses too, so maybe I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt….

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