Some further additions to the ideas in the post below, Against Aestheticism.
More and more, my evaluation of art and literature is based on what I'll call an "abstract utilitarianianism." When I read a book or see a movie, I have to ask myself a central question. This question can be worded many different ways, but it comes down to this: "What is new in this work that I can take with me?" How that question is answered goes a long way toward how I feel about the work (but it isn't the total answer).
Let me look at recent things I've read and seen that can illustrate and articulate my abstract utilitarianism. I finally got around to reading Beckett's Waiting for Godot. I did not pull much new out of this; HOWEVER, I also recognize why. This play is brilliant, and there are two reasons I didn't pull much new out of it. First, this play is representative of a worldview I am already familiar with--indeed, a worldview I have imbibed and felt and studied for years. Secondly, this play is so influential on the theater and literature that followed it, I feel like I've read several works that were similar in nature. So while on the one hand I don't pull much new from it (though there is a lot of comedy that is sharp and fun), I am at least able to recognize why not.
I recently read Gregory Maguire's Wicked, and besides being the most fun book I've read in quite some time, there were some themes that I can take with, to continue mulling over. No, this novel didn't give me a lot to think about in regard to the nature of evil. However, several things stand out to me. The tension and ambiguity regarding the nature of control and choice in our lives. The tension and cohesion of opposites. There's something for me to claw onto and keep thinking about. Many things, actually.
Earlier this summer I read two books by African-American writers examining the legacy of slavery in the U.S., Toni Morrison's Beloved and Earnest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men. These are important books for me to read. Why? Because I'm white. I do not know what it is like to experience racism against myself. I don't know the details, the emotions, the anxiety. I can only learn about this experience second-hand. Reading Toni Morrison teaches me about the internalizing nature of racism, about the deep impact of racism. That gives me something to take away. Books which show us another way of experiencing the world, that show us how somebody else might view human existence, are the most necessary books of all. There are two approaches to teaching literature. One approach is to find literature students can relate to. This is appealing for students and to the teacher, because it can spark student reactions. But another didactic purpose of literature exists: to show students perspectives other than their own. That, I think, is the more important. What do students get out of RELATING to a work of literature? Something, I'm sure, though perhaps not enough. What do students get by EXPOSING themselves to a work of literature, by having another perspective exposed to them? Immeasurable value, I hope.
Finally, a film I was disappointed with, The Lady in the Water. There were several things I didn't like about the movie, but what comes to mind right now is that there was nothing new for me. I didn't learn anything from seeing it, I didn't relate to it, I wasn't able to learn any new perspective. Certainly that wouldn't hold as a very strong criticism of a film (and I wouldn't use it as an objective analysis), but that it my personal reaction.
This abstract utilitarian view might seem useless for evaluating material that has little artistic value, but still entertains. I say: not so. Not so at all. This is particularly useful in evaluating comedy. The best comedy is that which brings something new to us. Some new way of examining a part of life, some new way of bringing the mundane to comic effect, some new way simply to be funny and make one laugh. The old jokes work--but the best comedies bring something new to the table, they MUST bring something new because they must make us laugh. Above all else, they, must make us laugh. Two anecdotes come to mind: on The Simpsons, when Bart became the "I Didn't Do it" kid, but that got old, and on Alf, when Alf became a famous comedian, but was only telling the same joke, and eventually nobody laughed. Standup comedians will tell you how hard they work, and they do it because they have to. They have to bring you something new if they expect you to laugh. So even for art not meant to inspire, but meant only to entertain us, I can ask myself, "What is new from this that I can take with me?"