Magazine | March 28, 2016, Issue

The Critic’s Art

Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, by A. O. Scott (Penguin, 288 pp., $28)

Film critics are an opinionated lot, and many have written books on individual filmmakers. A. O. Scott, however, a New York Times film critic since 2000, takes on the subject of opinion itself, i.e., “criticism.” Some people think art doesn’t need interpreting or analyzing; it is what it is. For them, criticism is not a handmaiden, but rather a kind of stepsister to art, an intrusion on their individual, unmediated response. They can do without criticism, thank you, because it entails judging — distinguishing the bad from the good, the beautiful from the less so. And who, especially in our postmodern age, has the right to judge? Scott is of a different mind.

The terms “beauty” and “truth” in the subtitle are reminders that criticism goes back in the West at least to Plato and Aristotle, who did not have a daily or weekly reviewing gig. Plato was a theorist of art, and his remit was, indeed, pleasure, beauty, and truth, while Aristotle was more interested in the nuts and bolts of the various arts (e.g., music and tragedy). After ancient times, the practice of criticism fell into abeyance, but from the Renaissance to the mid 18th century, with the growth of arts patronage and the revival of classical models in art, it returned with a vengeance. Artists and critics came to see themselves as participating in a centuries-long dialogue with predecessors. Imitation was the rule, but not in the stultifying sense in which that is now understood: Artists participated in a generational transmission that passed on the characteristics of forebears in the creation of new progeny. (Since this process mimicked the natural one of reproduction and the creation of new life, it is strange that it is now called “patriarchal.”) Critics were the gatekeepers, keeping the conversation on track.

The 19th century produced a new self-understanding among artists. Gone was the obeisance to tradition, and each generation (or even decade) endeavored to create works that strove to be radical, thereby declaring its emancipation from indebtedness to the past. The art trade became a free-for-all, as can be seen in the multiplication of artistic movements. Pitched battles for status among practitioners of the arts were accompanied by intense critical debates and the rise of great critics, including Walter Pater and Matthew Arnold. Once upon a time, those debates meant something — recall the booing on the opening night of Afternoon of a Faun — but lately a cloud of doubt has stood over the critical enterprise, as the current plethora of artistic phenomena and of digital outlets for opinion has eroded the authority of critics. It is through such thickets of dialogue and monologue that Better Living through Criticism seeks to steer readers.

Scott begins in Socratic mode, with a Q and A. Such dialogues, interspersed throughout, represent a kind of critical self-examination of Scott by Scott. The opening one begins defensively, describing the blowback against his review of a movie that went on to gross over $1 billion. The intemperate reaction by the star against “intellectualizing” about the movie, a personal instance of the skepticism and suspicion facing critics today, has led Scott to what is in effect an apology (in the Socratic sense of a defense of his beliefs). Besides revealing his formative influences, in these dialogues Scott defends what critics do and discusses how they make judgments. And he makes some big claims for the critical enterprise: that it is a necessary activity “vital to human self-understanding”; “that it is an art form in its own right”; and “that it exists to enhance the glory of the other arts.”

For the most part, this is a good book for our time, especially in its consideration of the role of a “discerning sensibility” amid the present “concatenation of consumer choices,” not to forget conflicting critical voices. It is the work of a thoughtful person, and it is wide ranging — directed at people who have at least a passing acquaintance with H. L. Mencken, George Steiner, Terry Eagleton, and T. S. Eliot, not to mention French New Wave directors, The Avengers, and The Searchers. There is a lovely analysis of Rilke’s poem “The Torso of Apollo,” to portray the way that a work of art is part of the tradition of responding to earlier works of art, in effect itself representing “criticism.” Because of the poem, our perception of the qualities of the original work is altered; otherwise, writes Scott, we might be looking at “nothing but cold, broken stone.” Such thoughtful consideration is among this book’s pleasures.

That said — and this review is also an act of criticism, right? — Better Living through Criticism reveals what happens to too many people’s appreciation for the arts when they majored in literature in college in the 1980s. The conversation that criticism supposedly represents has been reduced to a one-size-fits-all judgment, and not by the ignoramuses, but by the smart people. Thus, in the chapter “Lost in the Museum,” we are reminded of the “social and economic considerations” that brought masterpieces to the Louvre (where we might encounter the headless statue of Apollo, of Rilke’s poem). “Excellence” is an evaluation that is henceforth to be weighed against the knowledge that the “treasures of civilization housed in this gargantuan pile of masonry were purchased, stolen, commissioned, or coerced so that we . . . might have a look and pick up a cheap souvenir manufactured by sweated labor half a world away. Beneath the steady tread of tourist feet you can hear a faint echo of primordial violence — exploitation, appropriation, objectification.” If you haven’t got the point, Walter Benjamin hammers it home: “No document of civilization . . . is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Such scruples sit uneasily with the job of helping the public come to terms with what is frequently on exhibit in museums these days. Especially for folks who have never heard of Jacques Derrida, contemporary art produces puzzlement and discomfort, as well as the feeling that they are missing something. While Scott proposes, for instance, that “art is whatever an artist says it is” (I assume he is not speaking for himself here, but conveying current wisdom), he concedes that “this fluid, boundaryless identity can make it feel more rather than less exclusive.” In other words, you have to be among the cognoscenti to appreciate it.

This “boundaryless” situation was set out by Kant: It is not in the object itself that beauty inheres but in our experience of it. But there is something imperious about aesthetic appreciation, about what we call “taste.” It is fine and good to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but when something pleases (or displeases) us, we feel that everyone else should also be pleased (or displeased), as if they were seeing the object with our eyes. This demand for universal agreement is the essence of “subjective universality.” Scott’s discussion of Kant does not explore the irony that it is often the so-called open-minded who are the most intolerably insistent that everyone agree with their judgment of what is “true” or “good.” The public is correct in its suspicion that both contemporary art and current critical opinion are produced to express the critics’ superiority and their condescension toward what Scott calls “the middling masses.”

An example he discusses is a 2010 performance piece, The Artist Is Present, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The artist was the Serbian Marina Abramović, who sat unmoving in a chair in the museum’s atrium while visitors, on the other side of a small table, had the chance to sit opposite her. With all the media and publicity that the museum was able to harness, it was an enormous success, with 750,000 visitors (at $25 a pop), including Lady Gaga. “Like much contemporary art,” Scott writes, “[The Artist Is Present] was (and is) an intensely cerebral undertaking, arising from a set of theoretical concerns about gender, the body, and . . . the institutional and ontological nature of art itself.” Got that?

Scott, to his credit, goes beyond such artspeak. He mentions a strange crowd phenomenon: Some members of the paying audience found the event moving, as recorded by the tear-stained faces captured in photos posted on Tumblr. And a few patrons, according to the curator, succumbed to the illusion that Abramović was falling in love with them. Scott traces these reactions to the power of the human presence. My cynical take is that some people forced themselves into a reaction; after all, they had waited for hours and paid $25 to be admitted to her presence. Their tears became a comment on the performance; call it part of the conversation.

Scott does not pay much attention to formal elements in judging a work of art, relegating them to the category of “Formalism,” a resolutely pre-postmodern approach to criticism. Formalism, however, is simply a type of literary analysis that focuses on technical devices, e.g., metrics, figurative language, and so on, attempting thereby to distinguish ordinary language from the literary. In other words, art is not life. And knowledge of formal elements is an indication that a critic has thoroughly studied his subject and understands how it “works.” Otherwise, how is his opinion different from that of ordinary folks? Call it “intellectualizing,” if you like, but it’s important, even as it is, in the best cases, balanced by the critic’s personal reaction. Recall, for instance, how people once relished Pauline Kael’s New Yorker reviews. Kael rhapsodized, but she also knew her stuff.

Scott is a good guide to the vexed nature of the contemporary critical terrain, but there is throughout the book an irritatingly indecisive “yes and no,” “either/or” quality to what he says. Clearly, he can’t decide whether the critic should be a “tribune of the common mind” or a “principled antagonist, sidestepping the whims of the crowd in favor of eternal standards or her own idiosyncrasies.”

It is only in the final dialogue, “The End of Criticism,” that Scott offers any insight into his own enthusiasms. His discussion of Ratatouille is a fine example of what a good critic brings to the job, returning to his original claim that art and criticism are in conversation. Most important, he conveys what he calls the “precritical capacity for simple delight,” i.e., the simple thrill that a well-crafted work can elicit. Unfortunately, before reaching that point, readers have to wade through the latter part of the book, which mixes in a lot of ugliness — including repetitious statements about market forces, academic battles, the loss of distinction between professional and amateur, careerism vs. idealism, and so on. This “apology” for criticism could have used a little more enthusiasm and some strongly held opinions (imagine a Times critic having the nerve to take on the vacuousness of current academic discourse), especially if he is serious in asserting that criticism makes life better.

– Elizabeth Powers is writing a memoir about the ascendance of contemporary liberalism.

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