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
If they stop to think about criticism at all, most people—maybe even most critics—imagine it to be a leechlike enterprise, at best serving as a finger-wagging consumer guide for those of us who want to just go eat some popcorn and watch stuff blow up. The archetypal critic is Anton Ego from Pixar's Ratatouille, the skinny, sour-faced food critic whose review cost a beloved restaurant both a star rating and its chef, who died of a broken heart. Ego is always on the hunt for something—anything—that will give him an excuse to tear down someone's creative work. At the film's beginning, he's been at the job so long that he can no longer derive pleasure from food. Critics are joyless snipers fond of the obscure and highbrow, who look down on the sorts of simple pleasures normal people enjoy.
So perhaps the most important task A. O. Scott's book Better Living Through Criticism accomplishes is to take apart deftly the notion that criticism and art are fundamentally opposed, doomed to a fractious relationship. Scott, the co-chief film critic of the New York Times, goes about this task with his characteristic wit and generosity. (I should say at the outset that the type of criticism we are concerned with here—the type both Scott and I, and Anton Ego too, practice professionally—is not so much academic theory as something closer to journalism, the genre of writing you might read in a newspaper, magazine, or web publication. And while I'm on the subject, I'll also say that reviewing a book on criticism written by the critic from whom you've learned the most is a lot harder than you might think when you're blithely accepting the assignment from your editor. But let us proceed.)
Like a parent reconciling bickering siblings, Scott contends that criticism and art don't merely need one another. They exist only because of one another: "criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; … criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name—the proper name—for the defense of art itself." Later, he puts it more bluntly: "That the critic is a craftsman of sorts is obvious enough," he writes. "I want to insist that the critic is also creator." Criticism isn't just art's friend—it is an art in its own right.
You might be thinking that this sounds fusty and pedantic. Thankfully, Scott is incapable of fust or pedantry. His is a lean argument, deftly and wittily made, in which we are guided by a limpid, wry, trustworthy narrator. The book's six chapters—really self-contained essays that range with ease and humor across genres, eras, and cultural echelons—deal with major questions about criticism: Are critics really artists? How do we account for differing taste? Who decides what gets to be important? How exactly does watching movies and writing about them count as a job? What if a critic is wrong? Does criticism even matter, and is it even viable, in the age of clickbait, Amazon reviews, and Rotten Tomatoes? In the process of gesturing toward answers, Scott pulls in everyone imaginable: Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, Samuel L. Jackson, T. S. Eliot, the Mona Lisa, Gillian Welch, Teju Cole, George Steiner, Marina Abramovich, Monty Python, and even Anton Ego himself—just to scratch the surface.
Between chapters are four dialogues, in which Scott plays both interlocutor and respondent, interrogating his own assumptions and frequently poking fun at himself. (The book's audacious, half-tongue-in-cheek subtitle is "How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.") The effect is a push-and-pull, a confident argument that still contains, even insists on, its conflicted nature: "We are split at the root, self-polarized, our appetites in conflict with our reason, our emotions in revolt against our better judgment, our minds never fully made up. We seek out the guilty thrill of contempt, but we also like the warm glow of sanctimony," he writes. In the longest chapter, titled "How to Be Wrong," Scott asserts that "the job of critics [is]to be wrong. It is the one job we can actually, reliably, do," and concludes that "[i]t should go without saying that every good critic, every interesting critic, will have committed some of the crimes enumerated above, whether brazenly or unwittingly. A great critic will be guilty of all of them."
Throwing a provocative gauntlet at the outset is part of the method, then; indeed, it's necessary to the project. "Provoking people to question our competence, our intelligence, our very right to exist—that seems to be a big part of what it is to be a critic," he writes, from considerable experience. The critic's job is to respond to art as honestly and rigorously as possible, but critics are also just people, and sometimes they get cranky or tired or excited by things that don't have the same effect on others.