Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
A. O. Scott
Penguin Press, 2016
288 pp., $28.00
The Critic's Job and Why It Matters
What is the critic's goal? It's a high one, almost pretentious in its seriousness. But having shown himself willing to be wrong, Scott dives in here, too, reminding us that along with thumbs up and down, the critic's job is to "redirect enthusiasm, to call attention to what might otherwise be ignored or undervalued. In each instance, though, whether we're cheerleading or calling bullshit, our assessment has to proceed from a sincere and serious commitment. Otherwise it's empty and reflexive."
Scott isn't writing from or toward a religious framework, though it's a deeply humanist one. But it's worth noting that what he's saying is essentially—to use terms borrowed from Andy Crouch's Culture Making—that criticism is at once an act of creation and cultivation. That is, the critic creates some new work that has as its goal to cultivate what already exists: to make orderly rows of the wildly overgrown garden of cultural production. It may clear the weeds around an overlooked flower that's being crowded out of the sun; it may point out how several varieties of tomatoes are related to one another and how they differ from one another; it may pluck out the thistles and prune the bushes in order to give vitality to the better fruits. Criticism is hard work, but important to the health of a culture; "it is only a slight exaggeration to say that criticism, broadly and properly understood, can be the engine not only of aesthetic reassessment, but also of social change," Scott writes.
Let us switch gears for a moment. To say that evangelicals have had a fraught relationship over the past century with entertainment and the arts is so widely observable as to be axiomatic. But change is afoot. Christian publishers now actively seek books on the arts; CCCU colleges are starting to build programs in the fine arts and media production under the leadership of trained, practicing, believing artists; organizations and conferences have sprung up at churches, on campuses, and in communities that focus on encouraging the pursuit of beauty and shaping Christians' imaginations; there is even an active (if at times artistically dubious) community of Christians seeking to make movies that reflect their faith. Making art as a Christian is not as lonely as it once was.
Along with this shift toward creation, many evangelicals have sensed a need to "engage culture" by writing about it. In hot pursuit of cultural engagement, we have turned out reams of articles, reviews, commentaries, and essays on entertainment and the arts. A careful observer might divide the lion's share of this writing among three categories.
One type—which frequently influences its readers in positive ways—is philosophical or theological reflection for the layman, intended to inspire readers to pursue and value beauty and creativity as a gift from God, a reflection of the Imago Dei. Often this focuses on encouraging the Christian reader to recover an appreciation of the arts and the Christian artist to make work that reflects God's glory. You can find this sort of writing in books like Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, Philip Ryken's Art for God's Sake, and Makoto Fujimura's Refractions. They often focus on bringing beauty back to its transcendental companions: truth and goodness.
Another form this takes involves using a work of art primarily as an object lesson designed to teach us something about our own spiritual lives. This often gets called "criticism," but it's much closer to proof-texting. For instance, a writer might say, This television show is about the search for truth. Christians search for truth, too. So from the show we can learn something about how we ought to seek truth. Here the television show is merely a conduit toward something that applies to us directly. At its best, this can serve as a devotional aid or a sermon illustration. But it has a darker side as well; writing about this tendency in Mockingbird in September 2014, Will McDavid observed that it trains us to "crave a Christian take on everything, a personal angle, and we want it fast, easy. And a prefabbed complex of ideas provides that for us." Observations of this kind can stay shallow, and our understanding of the work of art can as well, while we tell ourselves we're "engaging."
One final form—frequently considered criticism, probably because it defaults to a stance of criticizing—consists of extracting "content" from works of art (usually films) and making lists of them, largely divorced from context. You could call this the "counting swear words" tactic, which is employed by both the MPAA and a number of Christian outlets. Some of the content may be deemed offensive, and warning signs are duly posted (nudity, violence, profanity). On other occasions the content fits the political or religious ideology of the reviewer, and therefore the item in question is given the thumbs up. There may be plot summaries or brief historical overviews, and usually a statement of evaluation, based largely or solely on those content issues.