Friday, March 18, 2016

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism: How To Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott

In Better Living Through Criticism A.O. Scott, film critic for the NY Times, makes a case for the validity of criticism.  Scott examines lofty questions of beauty, interpretation, and aesthetics - sometimes to the point of ad nauseam.

Scott relates a twitter exchange he had with actor Samuel L. Jackson over his review of The Avengers.  Jackson tweeted "A.O. Scott needs to get a real job" in response to Scott's sarcastic review. A flurry of twitter hate came down upon Scott, poster child for the elitist and out of touch critic.

Mutual disgust between artist and critic goes way back. Artists often label critics as failed artists, ever resentful of those who make a living off their art. Artists believe they go to a place critics could never understand.

Scott sees it differently; in their own way critics are also artists of a sort:

It is my contention here that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name - its proper name - for the defense of art itself.

He goes on: 

Criticism is art's late born twin.  They draw strength and identity from a single source, even if, like most siblings, their mutual dependency is frequently cloaked in rivalry and suspicion.


Many figures have blurred the line between art and criticism.  T.S. Eliot's contribution to modern literature extended to poetry and critical essays.  French New Wave filmmakers Godard and Truffaut began their careers as critics and progressed into making their own movies. Quentin Tarantino famously gorged himself on movies as a video store clerk, film school on the cheap.

I wish Scott had focused more on his own vocation of film criticism.  Instead, we get a dissonant history of art.  Some of the chapters are self-indulgent with strained analyses of culture wars, tensions between art and commerce, and post-modernism. Neither is Scott averse to placing himself among the critical masterminds of history (at one point he points out - see, I'm writing like David Foster Wallace here!)

Scott also ignores how the internet changed everything.  There's little on the bloggers who write extensively about movies.  No mention of a number of the innovative podcasts that are reinventing film scholarship and criticism. Most of these folks do the work for free, inspired by their own passion. Scott's musings wreak of the Ivory Tower, he seems to have no use for the amateurs. 

However,I do agree Scott's premise: criticism should matter.  Critical thinking about art, politics, culture are desperately needed - especially now.

Critics don't matter.  They matter more than ever.