May 19, 2016
“Mamma-clutching, aspirin-splitting six foot tower of Jello.” This put-down of a milquetoast boyfriend from the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie closely resembles A.O. Scott’s book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. It’s too lofty but also too timid, slightly tasty, and ultimately insubstantial.
Scott, who is the chief movie critic for the New York Times, has really written two books, one of which is not a waste of time. The first carries out the subtitle’s threat by presenting an essay on truth, beauty, and art, while the second explores the relationship between art and criticism.
If his Treatise on Truth had been cut out, the material on professional criticism wouldn’t be so bad. Scott is a deft writer capable of raising interesting questions about our cultural discourse, but he shrinks away from real engagement with the philosophical issues he poses. There’s no reason to take advice on how to think about a subject from a writer who fails to convince us he has thought about it all that deeply.
An attempt to encapsulate all of art history and some of the most fundamental questions of human existence in a 268-page volume is likely to be doomed, even when the attempt is serious. But Scott quickly reveals that he’s not a very careful thinker:
In Plato’s Symposium, the supposed transcript of a philosophical Athenian drinking party that prophetically parodies the panel discussions and think tank round-tables of latter times…
Oh no. This a silly mistake someone presuming to explain Platonic philosophy should never make. Plato was not Socrates’ stenographer—and if think tank events were more like Athenian drinking parties (that is to say, regularly interrupted by beautiful naked men in distress), my attendance would improve.
Despite this, Platonic eros (love or desire) might be a good place to start thinking about the strange relationship between the observer and the art. Scott uses the Symposium to open the question of why humans make art at all. Some awareness of our own incompleteness pushes us to create things, he says, and it’s good to be aware of that incompleteness. What’s foggier is our impulse to categorize and rank, to start pronouncing that others’ artistic expressions have or lack merit.
Scott isn’t convinced that a critic has the right to say whether a work is good or bad, which puts someone in his line of work in an awkward position. Since he doesn’t want to claim better knowledge, he suggests that critics rely on taste rather than judgment to do their work. But he’s also uncomfortable with the idea there’s anything serious or meaningful in the great variety of human tastes and preferences.
This reluctance gives Scott grave doubts about his career’s value. Some passages reveal so much anxiety that the book can read like a diary of a very polite midlife crisis. (“What kind of grown man sits through Kung Fu Panda scowling at the screen and taking notes?”)
Better Living is, in essence, an answer to that question. It is Scott’s attempt to justify his life’s work, to himself and to Samuel L. Jackson, who once Twitter-railed against him for his dismissive review of an Avengers movie.
So, what are we looking for when we look at art? Scott suggests that the critic can point us in the right direction, helping us understand our reactions and assessments.
Scott’s example of what he thinks we’re looking for in art comes from a scene in Teju Cole’s novel Open City (2011), where the jaded, cosmopolitan protagonist has a moment with a photograph he sees in the American Folk Art Museum:
I lost all track of time before these images, fell deep into their world…so that when the guard came up to me to say the museum was closing, I forgot how to speak and simply looked at him. When I eventually walked…out of the museum, it was with the feeling of someone who returned to the earth from a great distance.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” Scott says. Really? That’s all we’re looking for? Despite his many lofty pronouncements, the most Scott is willing to say is that art offers us a kind of high distraction from our daily lives. But that’s as far as he’ll go. Scott read this passage and felt something true, but does not probe at it.
The point is not just to be moved, but to ask why and towards what. What happens in the soul when it is so captivated and transported by an object or idea? What if art could change our minds, alter our sensibilities, and make us in some measure kinder, braver, or more self-aware? If art has the power to improve, does it also have the power to debase? What if some art changed our lives for the worse, and made us insipid, hedonistic, or depraved?
Scott leaves these questions unexplored. Perhaps realizations of that kind would make demands on us, altering our conduct and assumptions. We might find or lose religion. We might change our lives.
Scott seems aware that art does have the power to affect people so profoundly, and concedes that it has done much to shape human life and history. But on an individual level, he suspects that people who claim that a work has “changed their lives” are phonies. “Honestly,” he asks, “who has the time?”
For criticism to be a serious endeavor humans must have something at stake in art besides distraction from boredom. Scott appears to think so, but is unable to articulate what that thing is. He namedrops weighty thinkers and points at serious concepts, but won’t concede that a work of art could change anything more than your afternoon.
His book’s title promised much more. If there is indeed better living to be had through criticism (thoughtful engagement with art) it requires a radical openness to the work on the part of the reader (or watcher). Ultimately, this means being open to being guided—even criticized—by the art you consume. That can be an uncomfortable sensation, but it’s one worth seizing on, rather than shuffling off.
Receptivity of this can be dangerous and painful, but it can also lead to the sublime. But Scott can’t or won’t see the possibilities beyond the initial frisson. He gives us instead a frightened little book that never fails to feint where it should attack.