Better Living Through Criticism:
How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
(Penguin Press, 2016)
A big-name celebrity can be as good for a film review as it is for the film under scrutiny.
In May of 2012, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott penned an unfavorable critique of the Marvel blockbuster-to-be, The Avengers, citing its “bloated cynicism” and “hectic emptiness.” The pan was quickly avenged on Twitter by one of the film’s stars, Samuel L. Jackson, who suggested that Mr. Scott find a job “he can ACTUALLY do.”
The ensuing exchange predictably brought the Times piece into the purview of online content-fillers who can’t resist a good spat. And this spat in particular carried an intrinsic volatility: Jackson’s appeal was not to the average moviegoer, who may not care enough about film reviews to be swayed by them, but to the legion of fans whose devotion to the Marvel universe is ironclad. They are the ones who will not only share Jackson’s outrage, but can be counted on to raise a chorus of support for a film that might otherwise languish in the doldrums of a paltry hundred-millions in revenue, instead of a much more respectable billions.
And so the Avengers fans did, their solidarity both proved and vindicated by legendary box-office returns and glowingly approbatory aggregations of user reviews online. Clearly, The Avengers is a great movie; A.O. Scott’s review is not only off-base—in fact, it doesn’t even matter.
Scott, of course, was not alone in his sentiments; he was just the most outspoken. Roger Ebert and Andrew O’Hehir both lamented a tide of formulaic sameness in comic-book movies that reached its pinnacle in The Avengers, the latter anticipating that, within a month of seeing it, he would forget the bulk of its plot. Homing in on the rub a few weeks later, Jim Emerson wondered whether a movie like The Avengers is “critic-proof,” which is to say, people are going to see it regardless of reviews. And the Times’s own David Carr filmed an interview with Scott, teasing him wryly for “spoiling the fun” before raising the ominous question inspired by the whole kerfuffle: Do we, as a culture, really
Scott squirms a little in the interview, maybe because he is a man of the pen, or maybe because an apologia for criticism is a muddy endeavor. Perhaps both. And now, six years later, we have Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.
Going by the title, the book sounds like a guide of sorts, and even makes a few direct intimations to that effect. We learn that “the first habit of highly ineffective critics is the promiscuous hurling of adjectives,” and to avoid “muffling the subjective dimension.” But Scott isn’t here to instruct the would-be critic any more than he is to stage an elaborate rebuttal to an aggrieved movie star. Rather, he is inviting the regular moviegoer (or reader, or museum patron) into the head space of a professional critic who chose his vocation not for the love of tearing art down, but for the love of art, period. “Criticism, properly understood,” Scott writes, “ is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name—the proper name—for the defense of art itself.” His book addresses an apparent growing absence of critical sensibility in the American public at large, and the blowback from his Avengers review serves as an example. “We trivialize art,” he protests. “We venerate nonsense. We can’t see past our own bullshit.”
The average art consumer, neither rube nor master, makes an elusive target for Scott, occupying the space between fanboy, whose decisions tend to be made before the opening credits, and the fellow critics across the hall, who can be expected to solemnly applaud his erudition. Acknowledging criticism as a “pit of opposing impulses, existing in a state of perpetual confusion and self-doubt,” Scott asks for neither elitism nor populism, but his method for locating the balance means contriving a style for each pole. Ensuring we’re on a secure scholarly footing, he leads his readers on a historical tour from Aristotle to Shelley to Sontag, parsing such broad examinations as the nature of beauty and the metaphysics of culture. He courts confusion in his musings, his route often wending into a heady wilderness, but inevitably a turn in the path reveals that criticism is and always has been part of human nature.
When the going gets too academic, Scott grounds his donnish flights by way of faux dialogues (aping Plato, or Wilde, or Wilson, or Wallace). These casual convos serve to open the discussion to lay readers who may tire of the –ists and –isms that have shaped the schools of critical theory along Scott’s survey of the ages. It’s a troublesome trope, at first glance. Anyone truly engaged by the main exploration in these interviews—What’s the point of criticism?—likely has some skin in the game and will delight in a high-minded proof of the critic’s critical place in the history of art and culture. But Scott holds that critics aren’t the only ones nursing a “persistent modern longing for a cultural situation that is more austere, more manageable, more selective.” We all inhabit a “culture of surplus” in which “bigger and bolder” is joined by “familiar” as prerequisites in the mainstream artistic landscape. Such a wide and uniform tide risks undermining our ability to appreciate the art of our moment by making dissension seem either petulant, or futile. To cultivate a critic’s viewpoint means to stage reasoned resistance against the media onslaught of hype, which in turn will lead to the producers of art being held to a higher standard.
In the Times video, Carr tells Scott that criticism has become democratized, that people no longer want to leave the job to professionals. Scott doesn’t quite believe it—a surfeit of choice “calls out for criticism [. . .] to act as gatekeeper to our besieged sensoria”—but he isn’t only justifying his post at the paper. The role of the critic is everyone’s for the taking, and in assuming it we “put our remarkable minds to use and [. . .] pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.”