The critical reaction to Only God Forgives proves it once and for all - star ratings are useless

Star rating is a crude shorthand for evaluating art and now it's ruining our cultural life

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The Independent Online

When did this happen? When did our arts experience get divided and decided by five stars? How did this tyranny of the half-baked thought take over?

From print to online to broadcast, just about everything we might see now gets reviewed and assigned these ugly, spurious factoids. They are a painful growth on the backside of the arts world that needs removal. Sometimes they are hidden behind some alternative image, but the crude division still applies.

You can't move without this nonsense system and it's shaping our behaviour and the arts world unreasonably. A rash of one-star reviews is likely to be instant death to a production, while five stars sends the herd stampeding to snap up the last tickets.

But what happens when, as last week, a production gets five stars in some places and low-rating in others? Well, what happens is you end up arguing over the rating rather than discussing the work. In my case, I refer to the controversial and divisive Only God Forgives - the violent/vacuous/splendid/brilliant film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling. It had a full range of ratings, telling us it was anything from a flop to fantastic. Instead of thinking about the issues raised in the film, we are invited to think about it like judges think about boxers: did it land enough blows to be a winner or a loser?

Five stars stars may have started as a convenient way of grading hotels – but even there we quickly grew to know that there were some lovely modest two-star establishments and some horrible four-star dives who had a fridge and nasty slippers in every room. And while it has grown to be a handy tool with which to aggregate the wisdom of crowdsourced opinions and prejudices, it is a dirty shovel for carrying intelligent argument.

The ambiguities and nuances of a work of art require a whole lot more explanation, and yet any artistic work now has to jump this filter designed for those who can't read and have difficulty with joined-up thought.

Of course, many a critic plays into it. The late, great American critic Roger Ebert, one of the creators of film review culture, can be blamed in part for pioneering the approach. He 'productised' himself when he and his reviewing partner Gene Siskel trademarked their 'Two Thumbs Up' approval. But at least that simply aggregated the fact that both of them had arrived at a positive review – you were still expected to take in what they had to say. The value was still supposed to lie in their wit and insight, not a thumb symbol.. but they were feeding the monster of dumbing-down and it soon got more out of control.

Now the star-ratings shape the media and the subjects they review. Our listings and advertisements and online search throw back just those stars as the key reference for making a decision. Even the most intelligent newspapers reduce their reviews at the weekend down to a pick of the five-stars. No need to read – just recognise the symbols and respond. And, of course, if something doesn't register with top reviews it quickly drops from sight. It doesn't exist without measuring up on this daft scale. It is brutal, insensitive, stupid.

You might think this is unfortunate but fair enough in a world where we are time-poor and needing information on the double. However, it is not as simple as that. We most likely waste more time and money, not less, by blundering into choices based on overly reductive stars rather than reading a little deeper into reviews. We ignore the real guide and look at its distorted icon.

What's happening with this imposition of a simple symbolic scale is the rejection of sophisticated language. Instead of all the complexity with which letters become words, and these become sentences capable of communicating sophisticated thought, we have reverted to pre-language symbolism, the ox-head that preceded the letter A. This simple pictogram tells us to see only one thing and fails to address anything else. It is unfit for purpose.

Life, especially our cultural life, is not that simple, not that dull, not that repetitive. However, we seem to be tolerating this dumbing-down, not reacting. It is time to rise up!

What do we replace it with? Nothing fancy. We just need something akin to the slow-food movement, applied to culture. We need to be prepared to read and engage with our decision-making processes. We need to remind ourselves that assessing a play, or an exhibition, a book or a film, or whatever, requires thought rather than blind reaction to a sign.

The cultural world could start by rejecting the five-stars – just say no to promoting them - while the media could avoid undermining their critics. We can all avoid the arbitrary star and instead put one word after another and seek to articulate carefully crafted opinions. It's a celebration of our being sentient beings, even if we just do it in a 140-character tweet.