Review: Criticism -- what is it good for?

Author A.O. Scott.
(Carmen Henning / Penguin Press)

Behold the ouroboros! A book about criticism written by a movie critic and criticized here by an art critic. It’s a setup so potentially repellent that this review could almost be subtitled “The Human Centipede.” After all, we critics are reputedly the bottom-feeders of the arts. Scavengers picking over the earnest toils of goodly creative people.

Who but the most poisonous and artistically bankrupt would want to devote their life to the job of criticism, gushing in deep purple prose about how much you loved an author’s book, or scorching the earth around some poor soul’s movie. To put it bluntly: “How exactly is that a job?”

Cover of the book "Better Living Through Criticism" by A.O. Scott. Published by Penguin Press.
(Penguin Press / Penguin Press)

This is the million-dollar question that a 13-year-old named Max asks of A.O. Scott in the New York Times film critic’s witty and thoughtful book, “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.” The short answer Scott gives to Max is: "[I] go and see a lot of movies and then write down what I think of them.” But the long answer he provides readers throughout his book is that criticism is a job for providing oxygen to the arts. The critic’s job is an often thankless profession that can inflict on its practitioners a crippling self-doubt, but one that is closer to an artistic act than many people acknowledge.


Scott observes that we are all critics; in every conversation we have about a film we’ve enjoyed or exhibition we’ve disliked, we are engaging in acts of criticism. It is through our conversations that artworks live.

The book opens with a dialogue between the author and an imaginary interviewer skeptical of criticism’s value. Scott brings up the example of a mixed review he wrote in May 2012 about the action movie “The Avengers,” which was swiftly attacked by one of its stars, Samuel L. Jackson, who tweeted: “AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” A tediously bilious Twitter storm blew up, which six months later Jackson returned to in an interview, arguing that “The Avengers” was “not an intellectual exposition that you have to intellectualize in any way.”

Here, in the first few pages of the book, Scott lays out one of his most valuable arguments: that to subject a work of culture to intellectual scrutiny, be it appreciating the best and worst in anything from “The Avengers” to “Finnegan’s Wake,” is to take a stand against the tides of anti-intellectualism. “It’s the job of art to free our minds,” writes Scott, “and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness … and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us.”

A common assumption about criticism is that because it is dependent on the efforts of others, it cannot be regarded as an art form. It’s a profession for failed artists jealous of the success of others. But Scott makes a compelling case for the critic as artist. He enlists examples such as celebrated poets John Ashbery, Charles Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot and Frank O’Hara, who wrote about painting and literature, and Philip Larkin, another accomplished poet, who also wrote on jazz. There’s composer Hector Berlioz, also a music critic, and the directors of the French New Wave who began their careers as writers for film journal Cahiers du Cinéma: Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut. “Criticism,” Scott writes, “is an art produced in reference to, and therefore in conflict with, other arts.” Yet he also points out that this does not make all artworks in conflict with the act of criticism. Many are created in dialogue with art both old and new.

Hip-hop, for instance, pioneered the use of the sample — a form of musical conversation or homage. The movies of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers often refer to cinema history. Shakespeare borrowed like crazy, “cobbling scraps of Ovid, Holinshead, Latin comedy, comedy dell’arte sketches, and medieval fairy tales into an imposing, profligate edifice that nearly every subsequent writer of English — American, Irish, African, Caribbean, Indian — would feel free to pillage.” And what is John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” if not a work of criticism about the experience of art?

Scott’s knowledge of American and European art and literature is deep, but if the above examples suggest that Scott is of the Dead White Males school of art appreciation, then you’d be half-right. (The rather grand-sounding subtitle to the book — “How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, Truth” — sounds like the title of a Victorian treatise on aesthetics.) Yet Scott acknowledges the debates over who gets to play cultural gatekeeper, not shying away from addressing canonical blindspots and the prejudices of critics. (“Each of us harbours an inner kindergarten teacher, dispensing smiles and gold stars and gentle reminders, and also an inner radio talk-show host, spewing mockery and venom.”) Further, he handles his historical sources and evident erudition with lightness and humor, never condescending to the reader.

Scott is ready with self-doubt (the chapter titles say it all: “Self-Criticism,” “The Trouble with Critics,” “How to Be Wrong”), and he writes well on the sometimes damaging effect that critics can have on artists, yet he remains steadfast in his defense of criticism. If “Better Living Through Criticism” occasionally comes off as defensive, a little trigger happy in anticipating the counter-arguments to his ideas, for the most part reading Scott’s book is like watching the stiff-upper-lipped hero of a British 1940s thriller facing down his or her adversaries — modest, brave and utterly unflappable. I’d say that’s a pretty good model for a critic.

Fox is co-editor of frieze magazine and lives in New York. His book, “Pretentiousness: Why It Matters,” will be published by Coffee House Press in April.


Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

A.O. Scott
Penguin Press: 288 pp., $28