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
Most interestingly, nearly a half-century after Hans Rookmaaker and his friend and popularizer Francis Schaeffer wrote pleadingly to Christians about the need to embrace and create art, the vast army of skillful Christian artists they envisioned who would "work in the idiom of the day" hasn't materialized. That's not to say there aren't devout Christians making important art—not at all. But it's true that most evangelicals couldn't name more than a couple, and tend still to cast their gaze backward to some mythical Golden Age, whether it's the Renaissance or the heyday of the Inklings.
While some of the fault lies with elements of Rookmaaker and Schaeffer's rhetoric (another topic for another day), I'd argue, passionately, that our rejection of criticism as a legitimate mode of culture-making—our failure to understand what it is and why it's important—has a great deal to do with this. To follow Scott, criticism is the art that gives art its lifeblood. Through its form, criticism teaches readers how to look at, read, watch, and listen to art. It takes art seriously. It embraces and champions the undervalued, and it mourns the missed opportunity of the badly made work. Done well, it does not denigrate readers' taste or shame them or dictate their response; rather, it gives them permission to have their own experience with a work of art. Criticism makes order from an unruly world, and it does so through creating something new: "Art criticism is a creative practice, parallel to, not derivative of, the art it addresses," Siedell writes.
Criticism is the articulation of one person's response to a work or works of art—a song, a movie, a comic book, a painting. It is colored by that person's particularity: upbringing, ethnicity, ideologies, gender, personality, life experience, preferences, tastes, and, yes, religious commitments. Criticism starts from a fundamentally non-rational place (not irrational, but non-rational)—from the gut, the emotions, the intuitions experienced by every person. What turns feelings into criticism is what makes up the critic's work: to screw emotion to the sticking place, then ask it why, and so what, and then write down the honest answer. This involves a considerable degree of self-reflection and honesty about one's own prejudices and perspectives, as well as a lot of hard work to develop a critical vocabulary, learn to write and revise skillfully, and expand one's horizons far beyond the obvious. Critics must be readers, watchers, and observers before they are anything else.
All these activities, pursued in community, would serve the church well. But until we take criticism seriously as an art form—the art that defends art in its particularities; until we support those who are already doing it, teaching it, and publishing it; until we are willing to invest the resources to develop budding critics; until we want to listen to what critics have to say, both in the church and outside of it—I fear that we Christians, and particularly evangelicals, will continue to be largely ineffective at making, understanding, and experiencing art.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. Her criticism appears in Vulture, The Washington Post, Paste, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, coming this spring from Eerdmans.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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