I have ranted about this in myriad forms over the years, and again, indirectly perhaps, quite recently.
There is, today, an almost complete lack of even the idea of meaningful criteria by which one might judge a photograph. What is fascinating about this is that, despite the lack of criteria, there is still plenty of judgement going on. Everyone, it seems, from the rankest newbie to the stodgy critic, seems willing to rule on whether a picture or a collection of them is good or bad. For, it turns out, no reasons whatsoever.
Newbies point to a failure to apply a rule of thirds. The slightly more sophisticated will natter about something "pulling their eye" or "my eye jumps all over the place" as if these were somehow criteria by which one might measure goodness. Who cares if your eye is all twitchy, idiot? Paradoxically, these sort of technical/prescriptive criteria are usually denigrated in the same breath, because even a tyro knows that they're not really very good criteria.
As you rise through the ranks, as it were, even these reasons fall away. Work becomes good because it is good, without explanation, and likewise bad because it is bad.
An unholy convergence of the camera-lover's desire for technical measures of excellence and postmodernism has conspired to eliminate anything meaningful from the evaluation of a photograph.
This is not to suggest that there ought to be a single universal standard of artistic excellence that we should standardize on. That would be absurd.
The history of photography, from the moment that someone realized that there might be something of Art in this process, until a few decades ago, is a history of well-known photographers thundering at one another in the pages of this publication or that. While they certain ranted on about technique and materials, also throughout the roiling argument was always threaded the needling question of what a photograph ought to do.
To what artistic goal should the artist aspire? Do we reveal the truth about the thing in front of the camera, or the ever-so vitally different truth about our emotional response to the thing in front of the camera? Ought the camera to moralize, or stand back from moralizing? Ought the camera reveal character, or conceal flaws and exalt the subject?
This sort of thing is simply gone from the debate, at all levels. From the lowliest forum, to the Review sections of the major newspapers, nobody seems to be interested in these details any more. We judge photographs, now, either on their apparent sharpness, or on the degree to which the artist agrees with out politics, and that seems to be about it.
This is not only depressing, but it leaves the aspiring artist somewhat in the lurch.
We are left to find our own way, without even the hint (unless we read a lot of history) that there might even be a territory for which the map has been lost. Obviously, success at the highest levels seems to require a pretty specific political position, but that is obviously not enough.
Of course, many aspiring photographers, upon hearing about this particular territory, reject it out of hand. They prefer the other territory, the one of technical excellence, and would like to learn a little more about color management, and perhaps to acquire another Sigma ART Lens or something. All this business about emotional impact, and how a photograph might interact with a viewer is a little alarming and probably just a bunch of bullshit anyways. Just go try to start a conversation about artistic merit, and the ways one might assess is in an internet forum on photography. Go ahead. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.
Out in the real world, despite the more or less nihilistic approach to criticism currently in vogue, it is clear that actual criteria are still being applied, albeit silently, and not reliably. There is quite a lot of emotionally powerful work being pushed out there at the "highest levels," whatever that might mean. There is rather more emotionally powerful work in play than I would expect if the system were truly just nepotism and politics.
In contrast to all the other critics, I (of course) do much better. I do judge. I will tell you if it is good or bad but by god I will do my damndest to tell you why I think it's good or it's bad. I will attempt to lay out my criteria for judgement.
I make no particular claim to being consistent. I suppose I use these criteria here, and quite a different set of them over there. So, perhaps I am merely rationalizing what is after all a purely irrational like/dislike. That does not matter, it turns out, at least not much.
The point is that by explaining myself, on my better days I reveal the very idea that there might be criteria by which one might judge these things. I don't, in the end, care if you agree with my judgement, or my criteria. That's a fine and beautiful thing, because now, in this moment, you believe for a moment in criteria of your own -- namely, the opposite of mine, or anyways ideas that oppose mine. You have, in this moment, some notion of a judgement that is based on something rather than simply pulled out of the ether.
If we have no way to tell what course we are on, and no notion of what our destination might be, it is rather hard to get there. I hope that, from time to time, I can help someone to settle their compass, to give someone a vague shape of a destination.