Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about
Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
By A. O. Scott
To the naysayers who complain that critics are nothing more than parasites of art and culture, A. O. Scott has dismaying news: You too are a critic, that very opinion constitutes criticism, welcome to the club, pull up a chair. The premise of his new book Better Living Through Criticism is that the act of criticism is synonymous with the act of thinking, in the manifold ways this can done—wondering, questioning, investigating, examining, shaping ideas, forming judgments. You might imagine criticism to be a more professional pursuit—in Scott’s case, for instance, in his capacity as a film critic for the New York Times, it sometimes involves writing in-depth excurses on the latest superhero blockbuster. But Scott contends that in writing such a review,
a critic will be no different from anyone else who stops to think about the experience of watching The Avengers (or reading a novel or beholding a painting or listening to a piece of music). Because that thinking is where criticism begins. We’re all guilty of it. Or at least we should be.
That “should” is the keyword of this fluent and appealing if strangely slippery book. In its simplest sense it amounts to an exhortation: You already think about things all the time, so embrace that fact and try to do it as well as possible. “This is no simple task,” Scott writes. “It is easier to seek out the comforts of groupthink, prejudice, and ignorance. Resisting those temptations requires vigilance, discipline, and curiosity.” If this is stirringly motivational, it’s also rhetorically shrewd, since it sets the terms in such a way as to make disagreement impossible. Either you’re a critic or you’re a narrow-minded, bigoted rube. Your choice, friendo.
Scott, who is both learned and open-minded, has a talent for this kind of argumentative knight fork, in which he both anticipates and disables any resistance readers might conceivably raise to his gospel of critical thinking. Better Living Through Criticism consists of a series of … essays is not the right word, since that implies something organic and exploratory … homilies comes closer, about criticism as it’s been practiced through history, about the debates that surround it and the contradictions that complicate it, and about its relevance amid the noise and flashing lights of modern life. Interspersed with these chapters are winsome “dialogues” that Scott conducts with himself, a fun and clever means of drawing out his own ongoing education as a critic, and also a running exemplification of his method of taking both sides in every debate.
One such debate centers on the old, somewhat belligerent question of whether criticism can be properly called art, or whether it’s merely art’s endnotes and appendices. The answer, Scott rightly explains, is that it’s both. Here his generously broad definition of criticism is put to good use. Of course criticism comes into being as the reaction to a primary work, a poem or a painting or a film. But that hardly makes it unique, because the poet, the painter, and the filmmaker are also reacting to work that came before them. Artists aren’t just channeling their creations from the Sublime—they’re transfiguring their own interactions with art into something new. Critics are artists, Scott writes, because artists are critics:
The discipline that turns a fan into an adept—the breaking down of the sound into its constituent notes, the film into its shots, the prose into its defining tonalities—can be acquired at school or in solitude, by direct tutelage or dreamy osmosis. In every case, it involves the transformation of awe into understanding, and the claiming of a share of imaginative power. Each of our make-believe fledglings (the rocker, the director, the poet) is also therefore a critic.
But of course criticism as we commonly encounter it looks very different from a sonnet or a symphony. Scott is excellent in his discussion of the form that criticism takes, and how this speaks to its content. Because it is by nature analytic and explanatory, on the hierarchy that descends from nonrepresentational art like music or abstract painting, “Criticism would land at the very bottom of the ladder, qualifying by the barest courtesy (or its own unruly insistence) as an art at all. If music is pure form, then criticism is surely its antithesis: pure argument, absolute matter. Who has ever paused to admire the shape or inflection of a review or a critical essay?”
To his own question, Scott rejoins, “Readers of Walter Pater, that’s who,” and if excerpting Pater is a risky strategy in a book that wants to make criticism enticing to the average reader, the point is a clear and welcome one: criticism is dynamic enough to be guided by aesthetics as well as intellectual argument. Elements of style are just as important to it as soundness of logic. It can be as rigorous as a law brief, but also as beautiful as a song.
Even the workaday deadline review—the often sneered-at (often justly sneered-at) capsule summaries of this or that buzzed-about trifle strung together with adjectives like “compelling” or “disappointing”—even that, Scott writes, is a far more versatile genre than people give it credit for. Scott explores the work of Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick and Edmund Wilson for rich examples of critics who were able to produce writing that was deeper and more durable than the subjects they were ostensibly about. “The trick is to sneak in the good, serious, substantial stuff under the guise of trend-following trivia.”
Similarly, the writing that emerges from the groves of academe is attacked (often justly attacked) for being hieratic and irrelevant, in thrall to a tangled argot that no one but the initiated can understand. Here Scott draws from literary scholars like Yvor Winters and Lionel Trilling to demonstrate that expertise does not preclude emotion, and that all criticism, whether emerging from universities or periodicals, is formed by some compound of personal response and acquired knowledge. This is where Scott’s universality is most effective. As a defense and celebration of a genre that people reflexively associate with the coarsely commercial (“A stunning masterpiece!”) or the boringly parochial (“Liminality in the Juvenilia of Jane Austen”), Better Living Through Criticism serves a vital function. It shows criticism to be more even match than most imagine—rich with possibility, elastic and adaptable, and, indeed, open to all voices and perspectives.
The cost of inclusiveness, though, can be discrimination, a word that tends to go arm in arm with the act of criticism but which gets noticeably short shrift here. Indeed, the confusing thing about this book is how little criticism it actually contains. Take the age-old question of judgment. How does a critic decide what’s good and bad? Are there universal standards of quality or is everything just a matter of personal taste? Both, Scott says, and glosses Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment to call attention to a “crucial paradox”: “The judgment of taste must involve a claim to … subjective universality.” The truth of the object’s worth doesn’t lie solely in the object itself, but neither is it found in the caprices of the observer’s opinion; it instead comes about in the interplay between the two.
The same paradox returns when Scott confronts the question of whether critics should be experts who set themselves apart from the public, or whether they should speak as common readers and average moviegoers. Again the answer is that they must do both, or perhaps neither: “There is no requirement, or even possibility, of choosing between the authoritative or the populist critic: what I have been arguing is that the tension between them is intrinsic to criticism itself.”
What about when critics butt heads over preserving sacred tradition or heralding a paradigm-smashing avant garde? “In every instance, both sides are right: the old ways are exhausted and routine, the wild fevers of the new destructive and ephemeral.”
There’s no arguing with any of this because no argument has been made in the first place. Scott positions himself on both poles of each proposition so that he’s everywhere and nowhere at once, the Schrödinger’s cat of critics: “Criticism…, rather than occupying a middle ground between art and knowledge, proves that the two are identical.” Criticism is “an impossible undertaking that is at the same time impossible to prevent from happening.” “We dwell, much as the previous generation did and yet more than ever, in a culture of surplus, a condition of perpetual overstimulation that is at once exciting and disconcerting.” Much as the previous generation did and yet more. At once exciting and disconcerting. Asked in an interview about the self-help echoes in the title, Scott replied, “It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously. But not entirely.”
Not at all, I think. Better Living Through Criticism has the specific and altogether laudable aim of persuading readers to take their minds more seriously, to develop ideas in response to the arts that go beyond received opinion or settled prejudice. Its approach is a kind of big-tent evangelism that erases all divisions and distinctions. Scott is affable company but he’s a bit of a 92nd Street Y showman, and stretches of this book sound a lot like TED talks. Upbeat and aspirational, polished to the point of insincerity, prone to employing the smarmy democratic “we,” and unhealthily attracted to blandly counterintuitive premises (“it is the sacred duty of the critic to be wrong”), the writing lays a heavy emphasis on self-improvement, as though it were for that purpose that art comes into being. You can very nearly reduce Scott’s message to a slogan: Truth, beauty, and “expanded consciousness” are just around the corner.
The tendency to glibness becomes more apparent when the discussion leaves generalizations for concrete debate. The issue of the canon’s place in education, for instance, is contentious because it has a significant real-world outcome. Passionate, intelligent arguments have been put forth both in favor of preserving established classics in school syllabi and in rejecting tradition for works that more closely represent the current age. The dialectic of these arguments is absolutely essential to arriving at a legitimate compromise, but Scott breezily sails right over it. “The solution, in democratic, consumer societies,” he writes,
is always the same: more. More discourse, more classes, more access, more opinions. Instead of hierarchy, we will have pluralism; instead of picking our way along the narrow path of “or,” we will frolic in the broad meadows of “and.” Why should anyone have to choose between classics and moderns, between high and low, between Dead White Males and hyphenated rainbow people? We can have it all.
It’s not clear whether Scott is endorsing this attitude or merely describing it (as noted, Scott is cagey about what he really believes), but it’s wildly inaccurate in any case. The world of art isn’t a happy meadow you can traipse through picking wildflowers. It’s a swampy, weedy, brambly forest, thorny and poison-filled and incredibly difficult to navigate without a map. The vast majority of art is bad—morally suspect, deceitful, manipulative, or hackneyed; or else, and this is most common, it’s a waste of time. Whatever leveling effect consumer culture has had on hierarchies of taste, nobody today actually believes that they can have it all. The debates over the canon exist not because the debaters are purblind ideologues, but because time is finite, classes are limited, and access (and interest) is always constrained. One of the critic’s jobs is to offer guidance through the good and the bad, to trailblaze a path in the forest worth following. Scott’s ideal in which everyone is a critic looks a lot like a place where criticism has ceased to exist.
And oddly enough, that too seems to be part of Scott’s ideal. The final chapter of Better Living Through Criticism, and the only one to display extended critical thinking, is devoted to a highly entertaining analysis of the Pixar movie Ratatouille, in which Scott finds what he thinks is a perfect encounter between critic and artist. The artist is Remy the rat, who hides under the hat of a pimply dishwasher in order to prepare gourmet meals in a swank Paris bistro. The critic is the cadaverous Anton Ego, whose harsh reviews have made him the scourge of French restaurateurs. At the movie’s finale, Ego comes to the restaurant prepared to deliver another killing blow. But when he tastes Remy’s ratatouille he is reminded of the comfort food his mother made for him in childhood. He is “transported back to that primal scene.” The health board shuts the restaurant down despite Ego’s rave review, Ego is fired for championing the cooking of a rat, and the ending finds the two in a kind of arcadia, Remy preparing food in a rural restaurant Ego has sponsored, Ego blissfully enjoying Remy’s meals.
That, writes Scott, is the utopian dream to which art and criticism aspire, in which the labor of thinking and judging and assessing has disappeared and only the pure pleasure of consumption remains. There is no longer any separation between the creator and the critic. Ego has attained “an ideal state where there is not only no more criticism, but no more art.”
It’s an ingenious interpretation, and it’s out of respect for Scott’s abilities as a critic that I say that it’s completely wrong. The happy ending of Ratatouille means something altogether different. For Remy, it represents an escape from murderous totalitarian overseers. He is no doubt grateful for Ego’s enthusiastic patronage, but the real source of his happiness is that he is allowed to practice his art in the open, free from the threat of being hacked to death with a meat cleaver.
For Ego the movie’s climax is his unmasking. For decades he had terrorized hardworking chefs by savaging their creations for no reason except that they didn’t remind him of his mother. His standards were personal and arbitrary, his negative judgments exclusively vindictive, his tastes arrested in preadolescence. His flaw was right there in his name: He thought that art existed to serve him and his private wishes. He was, in other words, a false critic, and at the movie’s conclusion he has been freed from the burden of his imposture and allowed to eat nothing but the kind of food that he knows in advance he will like.
To say that there are false critics means, of course, that there are true critics, a dichotomy that has no place in Scott’s come-one-come-all ethos. What I missed in Better Living Through Criticism, with all its talk of how art and criticism can improve our lives, was a candid consideration of the responsibilities being a critic requires.
Foremost among these, I believe, is the duty of putting yourself second to the art form you’re devoted to illuminating. To be a lifelong movie critic such as Scott, it’s essential to devoutly love movies and want to work in service to them. Sometimes a movie will speak to you in intimate, life-changing ways, but these fugitive moments should be cherished, never demanded. The true critic will apply the same scrutiny and care to movies that don’t provoke this response as to movies that do.
Scott is right that critical thinking makes engagement with the arts deeper and more interesting. But the self-appointed few who make that complicated engagement the centerpiece of their lives are motivated by a calling rather than a wish for self-improvement. Perhaps the difference is this: they feel that they owe more to art than art owes to them.
Sam Sacks was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Commentary, and the New Yorker. He writes the weekly Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal.