Declaring Allegiance

AO Scott, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth

Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781910702550

reviewed by Daniel Green

In Better Living Through Criticism, AO Scott first of all demonstrates that he is eminently qualified to be the chief film critic of The New York Times. On the basis of what the book reveals about Scott’s breadth of knowledge, interpretive skill, and belief in the importance of criticism, we would be justified in concluding that this own reviews, whether we ultimately agree with them or not, are written from a comprehensive understanding of the history and purpose of criticism and with a seriousness of intent that goes beyond the simplistic thumbs up/thumbs down approach to which reviews of popular art in mainstream media are especially prone, as well as the widespread conception of a review as primarily a form of consumer advice. To the extent that we can take Better Living Through Criticism as a brief on behalf of the kind of criticism AO Scott practices, the kind able to provide ‘better living,’ both for critics and for readers, it is accurate enough to call the book a success.

However, if it does succeed in clarifying and, to a degree, justifying the work of a critic such as himself, that very success highlights of the book’s most severe limitations as a guide to criticism at the moment. The case for the sort of job AO Scott does increasingly applies only to AO Scott and a handful of other critics who have the opportunity to practice a general interest criticism that can be expected both to be taken seriously as an attempt to reckon with works of art (popular or ‘high’) and to do so while reaching a relatively wide audience. As review space in newspapers continues to dwindle, coverage of the arts in general consigned to anodyne puff pieces acting as ersatz advertisements, and print magazines increasingly continue to become ‘niche’ publications, with fewer and fewer niches available to arts criticism, the widespread assumption might be that online publications have taken up much, it not all, of the critical slack. But while it is true that numerous web-based journals (not to mention blogs) have now established themselves as dependable sources of intelligent criticism (in some cases exceeding in its scope and substance what was previously available in print publications), these journals generally have small audiences and their focus is inevitably more narrow, more oriented toward readers with a pre-established, in some cases even selective, interest in the form or subject under consideration. The criticism on these sites is more likely to take for granted that such readers understand and appreciate the importance of criticism than does Scott, who assumes readers skeptical not just of his judgment of a particular film or book but of the very enterprise of passing judgment as a profession.

It would not really be quite accurate to say that in Better Living Through Criticism Scott attempts to convince this skeptical reader of the value of criticism, since he doesn’t really make an argument at all in the book, its second and even more crippling flaw. Scott ostensibly addresses six different topics in the book’s six chapters, but not only do these topics not exactly cohere in a discernible line of argument, but each of the chapters is very discursive, ultimately allowing him to cover a lot of ground, from the history of criticism to the philosophy of beauty to the perennial debate over the role of form vs. content, but this also exacerbates the problem that originates in Scott’s extreme reluctance not just to advance a unifying argument but ultimately to take a firm position on any of the issues he raises. Scott sees the wisdom of both sides of most critical debates and typically advises that we accept both, or neither, which for him essentially amounts to the same thing. Sometimes his caution seems nearly metaphysical:

It doesn’t matter. Actually, it matters a great deal. It matters more than anything. You are guaranteed to be wrong—to insult good taste, to antagonize public opinion, the judgment of history, or your own uneasy conscience. And there is no beautiful synthesis, no mode or method of criticism that can resolve these contradictions. They cannot be logically reconciled, any more than a safe, sensible middle path can be charted between them. Still less is it possible to declare a decisive allegiance, to cast one’s lot with the party of form or the party of content, the armies of tradition or the rebel forces of modernity, the clique of skeptics or the church of enthusiasts.

In seeming to assure us that it does indeed matter that critics are so habitually wrong, Scott appears to posit error as an unavoidable condition of the critic’s situation. Yet surely it also matters exactly how a critic is wrong. Precisely by asserting a ‘decisive allegiance’ to a particular philosophy of criticism, a particular method, a specific conception of art, the critic commits to the necessity of demonstrating that philosophy or method can reveal why the work of art itself matters, why the reader/viewer/audience should pay attention in a particular way. If the critic succeeds in either or both of these goals, he/she has gotten in right, but only in that, provisionally, the effort has paid off for some readers. If the critic doesn’t succeed, the approach could be wrong (especially if no one finds it convincing), or it could be that the critic hasn’t done justice to it. (It also remains possible, it must be said, that the reader has gotten it wrong.) A good critic isn’t offering a judgment or interpretation to be tallied as right or wrong, correct or incorrect in the first place, merely a perspective acute enough to be considered fully and fairly, along with all others. Readers are free to take the critic’s offering more or less seriously, but if hardly seems an affront to art, or an abrogation of the critic’s duty to an ethereal ideal of ‘objectivity,’ that a critic would cast lots with one set of critical principles rather than others.

It is as if Scott can’t abandon the conventional journalistic imperative to ‘cover’ a subject by reporting on both sides of disputes about it, without interceding to provide some normative appraisal. But Scott seems to experience this obligation as a struggle, not between the points of view surveyed but within himself, represented most obviously in the inter-chapters included in the book, presented in the form of a dialogue between the two sides of critic AO Scott. These dialogues ultimately leave the book even more rhetorically fragmented, as even the disconnected points Scott does make in the other chapters prove debatable to his skeptical questioner, the ultimate effect of whose questions is essentially to chastise Scott for his presumptions and pretensions in making those points to begin with. These inter-chapters succeed mostly in diverting attention away from criticism as an intellectual vocation and focusing it instead on AO Scott, a paradoxical move for a book that otherwise hesitates to assert a strong thesis or declare a distinctive critical position.

One proposition that Scott is willing to affirm relatively early in the book is the notion that criticism is not just a skill or a craft but itself art, although he is predictably diffident in stating it: ‘Will it sound defensive or pretentious if I say that criticism is an art in its own right?’ he asks in the middle of a paragraph. But he continues:

Not in the narrow, quotidian sense in which art is more or less synonymous with skill, but in the grand, fully exalted, romantic meaning of the word. That the critic is a craftsman of sorts is obvious enough; I want to insist that the critic is also a creator.

It is a surprisingly bold claim, but unfortunately Scott’s digressive expository strategy doesn’t really allow him to support it. Instead he relies on testimony form the like-minded HL Mencken, but since Mencken’s assertions are themselves not very persuasive, Scott’s own case remains unproven. Mencken contends that only by going beyond the ‘material’ provided by art works and ‘adorn[ing] their theme with variations of his own’ can the mere ‘reviewer’ become an actual critic. Putting aside the fact that this is an entirely incoherent conception of criticism (in maintain that a critic can’t become a critic until he stops being a reviewer, it empties ‘criticism’ of its meaning in relation to works of art), nowhere in Better Living Through Criticism does AO Scott lay claim to such a conception, confining himself throughout to the assumption that reviews fully qualify as criticism.

Scott seems to me on much firmer ground, however, when he stops grasping after ‘art’ as an honorific boost to his craft and defines criticism in more restrained terms: ‘[C]riticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood . . . 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.’ The direct defence of art – at least in the cumulative sense, through criticism taken as a whole – can only occur through forms of argument and analysis, that is, by using language instrumentally to accomplish a purpose beyond its own fashioning. A work of art has no obligation other than to be itself. A work of criticism that expects to be admired for its own ingenuity or aesthetically fine style (which is not to say that criticism can’t ever be admired for such qualities) in my view has in so doing abandoned the primary obligation of criticism to indeed defend the integrity and value of art, often by defending it in the particular instance of a particular work or artist.

If criticism ‘contends against [the other arts] for their own benefit,’ it does so to challenge art to fulfil its potential, not to set itself up as competition. If it can be ‘in fact larger’ than the other arts considered separately, that is because criticism at its best attempts a synthesis of artistic history and principles to enable its critique of individual forms and specific works. If ‘there is more of it’ than of actual works of art, this is due to the interest so many of us take in art, and our need to account for that interest, not a free-floating compulsion to ‘adorn’ art with critical accessories and flourishes.

Surely the rise of, first, the blogosphere and, subsequently, a relative abundance of online arts reviews and critical web journals attests to this interest. If the sort of critical voice represented by AO Scott is likely to be less commanding as the centrality of such cultural touchstones as the New York Times continues to erode, we might still look to these new cultural voices – more muted perhaps, but in general much more interested in books or movies or music than in assuming the role of critic-artist – to successfully demonstrate the ongoing value of criticism.
Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of online and print publications. His book on contemporary literary critics and criticism will appear in December, published by Cow Eye Press.