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.
Better Living Through Criticism is not a how-to manual for aspiring critics, but something much better: an intelligent, lively defense of criticism itself and, thereby, a backdoor argument for bringing both one's intellect and gut to bear on one's experience of art. Which is simply to say that Scott wants us to act like humans—not merely brains on sticks, not only bundles of emotions—when we encounter the things that other people create.
That idea, that our brains are as important a part of the art-experience equation as our less rational feelings, reactions, preferences, and tastes, flies in the face of an oft-leveled criticism against, well, criticism: that it "intellectualizes" art and so takes the fun out of it. Doesn't interpreting art ruin the experience? Can't we just appreciate it for what it is? "This is an old and powerful—in some ways an unanswerable—argument against criticism, rooted in the idea that creative work should be taken on its own terms and that thought is the enemy of experience," Scott writes. "And it is indeed precisely the job of the critic to disagree, to refuse to look at anything simply as what it is, to insist on subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny."
That is because—to come back to the first point—criticism itself is an art form, the form that contends against and makes space for other forms. It's "for their own benefit," he writes, "and also to further its own aesthetic ends, to make its articulate noise in the world." Not one to understate the case, he continues: "[T]his means that criticism, far from being a minor, petty, secondary art, is in fact larger than the others. There is more of it, its scope is wider, its methods more protean than any of its rivals." In a sense, criticism is the ur-art. But criticism is also about art.
Ah, the old chicken-and-egg dilemma. So does art come first, or does criticism? Well, Scott points out, every work of art since the day after creation has been in some degree a response to what's come before—in fact, "[a] work of art is itself a piece of criticism," a struggle against and answer to its predecessors, to the "aesthetic norms and cultural purposes" around it. So all works of art exist, in some capacity, as works of criticism.
Or to put it another way: An artist's job is to pay extraordinarily close attention to the world around her—to nature, to beauty, to love, to politics, to the zeitgeist—and then articulate her experience to others through painting, dance, song, story, or visual narrative. Art starts when someone attends and then responds to life, as he experiences it. Some write pastoral poetry; others dance about love; still others make movies about power and oppression. An individual artist responds to whatever attracts and holds his attention; a great artist does so with an honesty that can come at great cost.
What attracts the critic's interest is art itself. We might say that criticism is always ekphrastic—it is art about art, and also art about the critic, just as art always has something to say about its creator. "The contradictory heart of the matter is that criticism is an art produced in reference to, and therefore in conflict with, other arts," Scott writes. He hypothesizes that "[f]rom the moment the primal human activities of making pictures, telling stories, dancing, and producing organized patterns of sound separated themselves from magic or religious ritual, it became necessary to judge, to compare, and to interpret the results." Who were the critics? The ones who "appeared to have paid close enough attention to have something to say about how such things had been done and should be done."
And so, the critic's job is to closely attend to works of art and then articulate their experience in the form of a carefully-constructed, skillfully-written argument. "Argument is as essential to criticism as volume is to sculpture and pigment to painting, or gesture and stance to stage performance," he writes. "But just as sculpture and painting are arts of the hand and acting is an art of the body, criticism is, above all, an art of the voice [… .] Criticism is not a matter of technique or form so much as it is a matter of personality, of whom you imagine is doing the talking."
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.
We've produced all these in spades; I've probably written all three varieties myself. But what evangelicals have lacked on a broad scale is a vibrant culture of criticism. We know how to criticize, even critique, but true critical engagement with entertainment and the arts has been restricted to small pockets that take hits on all sides. We don't know what criticism is, or what it's supposed to do. We don't read it, support it, or produce it, and in many cases, we actively disparage it as harmful to our mandate to be creators.
Of course, I'm overstating the case. Books & Culture itself has raised a vibrant standard for criticism that stems from an evangelical perspective. Publications like Image and Christianity Today have published and encouraged the development of critics for decades as part of their mission, and in the past few years, upstarts like Christ and Pop Culture, Mockingbird, and The Curator have worked hard to foster new, young voices.
But it's still difficult, outside these sterling exceptions, to find (for example) robust, informed writing on the visual arts. In his 2008 book God in the Gallery, Daniel Siedell noted this paucity: "[M]ost Christian commentators rarely address modern art on its own terms, within its own framework of critical evaluation," he wrote. "Rather, those commentators produce theology, philosophy, apologetics, or politics that rely on—or even require—a superficial understanding of modern and contemporary art. They do not produce art criticism." Similarly, apart from the outliers it's difficult to find a forum for Christians writing incisively from a theologically robust perspective about the best mainstream contemporary literature—about sentences and paragraphs as well as general plots and themes—and nearly impossible to locate writing on dance or theater informed by historic Christianity. Those that do exist are woefully underfunded, especially compared to their peers that deal in political engagement. For evangelicals, this signals a deep-seated apathy (if not outright antipathy) toward culture, despite the strides we've made.
Though those three common forms of writing about cultural engagement are miles apart from one another, what's lacking in all three is the same: none of them require writers to engage in the actual work of criticism. None of them require writers to both pay close attention to particular works and then articulate their particular experience with those works. In the first, at its best, we get a general framework for engagement; in the second, we might understand ourselves better but gain little to no understanding of how the film, show, painting, or dance works as art (that is, as more than just plot); in the third we lose perspective on the work altogether, fixating on elements without taking in the whole, and suggesting that there is only one correct way to respond.
That last one can be poison. All the Christian film critics I know (myself included) who have written for a Christian audience for any length of time have had their legitimacy, intellect, humanity, and indeed their eternal salvation openly questioned on dozens of occasions—whether for praising a work with "problematic" content, or refusing to praise shoddy work made by Christians largely for Christian audiences. We need to support those works by buying tickets or DVDs, the argument goes, and besides, it's hard to make a movie or write a book, so why can't we just kick back and enjoy it? (Of course, this is just another version of the "intellectualization" accusation that Scott points to.)
It's even more rare to find openly evangelical voices writing criticism in the mainstream—a curious fact usually rationalized under the faulty idea that there's no room for writers with religious commitments in "the mainstream media." In fact, popular culture today is teeming with religious themes, characters, plots, and creators, and there's a yawning vacuum for informed, winsome commentary aimed at a non-sectarian audience who's very interested in what this resurgence means.
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.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.