Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty & Truth by AO Scott, book review

Professional critics must grapple with quandaries about taste and subjectivity

Everyone’s a critic: Marina Abramović's 'Holding the Lamb' at London's Royal Academy
Everyone’s a critic: Marina Abramović's 'Holding the Lamb' at London's Royal Academy

Anyone who has ever worked as a critic has heard the rhetoric: that no one knows better than anyone else how good or bad a piece of art is; that only the failed and envious would make a career out of finding fault; and that the public will like what it likes whatever snobby know-it-alls might say about it. Criticism may be in shabby shape as an industry, but criticising criticism still gets people going. Meanwhile, many critics supplement their dwindling incomes by doing talks or teaching on courses about the value of criticism, creating a peculiar economy where people teach skill sets that few can survive by selling.

This fluent, learned volume might not restore the value of their labour, but it will supply them with a good course text – and a bunch of useful arguments for the next time someone says "anyone could do that".

AO Scott, chief film critic for The New York Times, is conscious of the irony that a culture in which everyone passionately wants their opinions heard is systematically devaluing critical thinking and analysis; and although his is probably one of the safer positions in the critical firmament, he is sensitive to it.

One of the prompts for him to write this book was a public showdown with actor Samuel L Jackson, when Scott published a less-than-rave review of a film in which he appeared, The Avengers. Armies of keyboard warriors verbally assaulted not only Scott, but the integrity of the very thing he does: deploying his knowledge and erudition to assess the meaning, positioning and content of cultural objects.

Amid the noise, Scott identified some of the contradictions that this book teases out: that Jackson's furious demand that The Avengers not be "intellectualised" was indicative of a demand that pop culture be placed "simultaneously beneath criticism… and beyond it"; that internet culture combines "take-downs, humiliations and snark attacks" with "group hugs and treacly affirmations of consensus"; that an era preoccupied with fast information exchange seems ever more violently suspicious of expertise.

Scott doesn't, however, confine his arguments to the current arid climate for professional critics. (Indeed, although he does cover the job losses and reduced earnings the vast majority of critics have experienced in recent years, he does so in an arm's length kind of way, vaguely predicting that the internet might find its way to paying writers properly one of these days.) This is not so much a defence of criticism as a learned meditation on its history; its origins and functions; what human impulses and responses it caters to and how it interacts with the artefacts and systems to which it responds.

He reminds us of the value of knowledge simply by the array of examples he enlists – how lightly he skips from The Avengers to Marina Abramović to Rainer Maria Rilke to Teju Cole. You don't have to have a personal investment in the future of criticism to find this a stimulating read. What could have been a dry whinge proves to be as fun and enlightening as a robust conversation with a very clever friend. That said, I could have done without the showy device of Scott interviewing himself (what could be more self-serving than writing one's own interview questions? Maybe he should have got Samuel L Jackson to quiz him).

But if the book's combination of the personal and the general is occasionally unwieldy, that just reflects the age-old critic's dilemma of how subjective to be – one of many fascinating quandaries that are put through the intellectual wringer here by a calm and clever champion of an unfashionable art.

Jonathan Cape, £12.99. Order at £10 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in