Amid populist upheaval, A.O. Scott reviews criticism

(Photo Credit: Carmen Henning)

A.O. Scott’s new book asserts that criticism is a “fundamentally democratic undertaking.” That’s a surprisingly populist sentiment coming from one of the two chief film critics at The New York Times. Criticism is surely no longer an oligarchy, where writers can claim a monopoly on taste, nor a dictatorship, where they can control hits and flops. But in the eyes of some, Rotten Tomatoes, Yelp, and other review aggregators spell criticism’s descent into mob rule. Democracies, after all, still depend on expertise at the top.

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, out today, attempts to resolve this issue with what sounds like a riddle: All consumers are critics, Scott writes, and all critics are artists. It’s a clever rebuke of anti-intellectualism, which, as Scott notes in the introduction, “is virtually our civic religion.” Those who resent film snobs, however, will probably be disinclined to read 277 pages of abstract critical theory. In that regard, Scott is preaching to the choir. But the book does seek a middle ground between everyday engagement with the arts and professional scholarship. “It’s a mystery and a horror to me that people are so blindly trusting of aggregated or dubiously sourced opinion,” Scott writes late in the book. “Not to mention a personal insult.”

An alternative, he suggests, is not to be “blindly trusting” of critics, but to use them to stimulate personal analysis. To say that all consumers are critics is like saying that all voters are political philosophers. It’s fundamentally true, but that only reinforces the need for journalists to facilitate discourse. Scott’s book is valuable for underscoring why the democratic vitality of criticism mirrors that of politics—more people participating requires more journalism, not less.  

Scott spoke with CJR at his newspaper’s Times Square headquarters. The following is an edited transcript.

 

CJR: You toyed with this book concept about five years ago. What motivated you to follow through with it?

SCOTT: I started the book at a moment when I was feeling that there were a lot of misunderstandings about criticism that I felt needed to be cleared up. Partly it was this idea that we’re not going to need critics anymore because now we have algorithms and Yelp and everybody can just decide for themselves and do whatever they want and it’s all cool. There was something bothering me about that and it wasn’t just defensive. 

When Samuel L. Jackson famously tweeted at me after The Avengers, “Let’s go find A.O. Scott a job he can actually do,” I had already started early work on the book, but I thought, What is my job? and also, What does this job in a certain way represent that everyone is doing? There’s this sense of enormous abundance: a thousand movies come out every year, a million hours of television are produced, there’s more music than anyone could ever listen to, and I don’t even know how you count the number of books that are out there. The question is, how do you deal with that? How do you find meaning and sustenance and pleasure and art and all of the things that you want from these things? I thought that exploring the role of the critic and the nature of criticism would be a way to think about that. That’s kind of the urgency or the presentness of the book: How do we find some kind of equilibrium, some way of not just drowning in it or hiding from it? 

CJR: You called The Avengers “a giant ATM for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.” Do you have an added responsibility to push back on Hollywood’s commercial excess?

SCOTT: I think you have to be careful because you can’t prejudge. Especially this last year, there are a lot of big Hollywood commercial movies that I liked a lot. There are plenty of scrappy little independent movies that are terrible. However much it figures in what you write and where you come down, you have to be aware of where things come from—in a sense, what the political economy of these art forms is.

In the case of The Avengers, you have to be aware of how something could actually have been a lot better. I felt like with that movie, the more original or playful or fresher ambitions were kind of compromised or blunted by the fact that it had to go out and make $1 billion around the world. Sometimes it works the other way: You see a movie like that and you think, my gosh, that used all of those resources and all of that money to do something fresh and wonderful and accessible and new. That’s true of a lot of the Pixar movies, which are not cheap little indie movies.

 

I see criticism as endless contention and the taking and changing of positions in a nonstop dialogue.

 

CJR: The book evaluates criticism as art and scholarship. What public interest does criticism serve?

SCOTT: In some ways it’s not different than the other forms of journalism we practice [at the Times], which is to present a disinterested and honest account of things that happen in the world. Independence is very, very important, and the thing about criticism that sometimes needs the strongest defense—not just a rhetorical defense, but an institutional defense—is that culture is made by a bunch of different industries: by the art world, by the publishing industry, by the Broadway theaters, by the Hollywood studios. There are enormous commercial interests at stake that are trying very hard to influence public behavior. I don’t want this to sound like a very sinister thing, but the job of critics is to offer potential consumers an independent, unbought account of these things.

The thing that shadows my optimism sometimes is the encroachment of various kinds of advertising and branded content into the discussion, whether it’s the way celebrity journalism works, or the way that access is controlled, or just the carpet bombing of the airwaves in the digital space with advertisements and trailers and teasers and all of this stuff meant to manipulate attention. It’s important that there be a place where people can go to find an alternative to that.

CJR: Do you think the book is accessible to the anti-intellectual crowd that doubts the legitimacy of your position?

SCOTT: I think so. I hope so. I very deliberately did not want it to be a very insidery book. There are parts of it that are fairly dense or abstract, and a lot of references to various thinkers or writers or works of art in the past. But I hope those are clear enough that they’re not a barrier.

I hope that it’s not a super heavy book. All of this is very serious. But beauty, truth, art, et cetera are also supposed to be fun. 

CJR: What about the book did you expect other critics would find provocative?

SCOTT: A lot of critics see criticism as the application of standards: that it should be about the identification of the conditions of excellence and judging things on those terms. I see criticism as endless contention and the taking and changing of positions in a nonstop dialogue. My view comes a little more out of pragmatism and the idea that those standards are what we’re making up as we go along, rather than things that exist outside of us as fixed points of reference.

Similarly, there are people who will find my agnostic-to-approving view of the internet and digital cultural to be objectionable. A lot of people see it as a threat, although that position was more in the ascendance when I started the book than it is now.

CJR: When you say you’re not much of an alarmist about digital transformation, does that relate to the viability of professional criticism, or to the understanding of art more generally? 

SCOTT: More the latter. I tried throughout this book to distinguish the two. I didn’t want to write a book that’s a defense of how cool my job is or how important I am. I wanted to make it about how criticism exists in the world and, as the title suggests, improves everybody’s life. In terms of the art of criticism and the practice of criticism, there’s a great kind of democratic flowering of voices and opinions and some very good writing that has come from non-traditional places, and there are a lot of very good people writing now with some degree of professionalism who kind of self-started. That’s all very healthy.

At the same time, I do worry as a journalist housed in a big traditional media company about the viability of my livelihood and its future. My best friend in this building until he died last year was David Carr, and David taught me a lot about how to look at the rise of digital media and its effect on traditional media. For him it was about getting the story and telling the truth and finding the different platforms that could do it. Sometimes that would be a big daily newspaper and sometimes it would be a bunch of people putting together a blog. Just looking at some of my own younger colleagues and some of my students [Scott teaches at Wesleyan], I’m very impressed with that kind of inventive and entrepreneurial spirit.  

CJR: But does this expanded opportunity to participate in criticism, which is something you seem to be celebrating, diminish your standing?

SCOTT: I think it’s the way you distinguish yourself. I certainly have this platform of The New York Times and that’s a very lucky thing in a lot of different ways, but I don’t see it as a place where I have a kind of top-down priestly authority. I have to go out into the world and, like everybody else, try to get some attention by writing as well as I can. I think good writing becomes, in a way, rarer and therefore more valuable.

People will either like or dislike the movie—there’s actually a narrow range of opinions that people can have—but there’s an infinite variety of ways to express those opinions and make them interesting.

CJR: Laura Miller’s Slate review described your role at the Times as “the film critic of record for the nation.” Does that affect how you approach the job?

SCOTT: That may in some objective way be true, but if I felt like that every time I sat down to write, I would be completely paralyzed or I’d be a total asshole, and I hope I’m not either of those things. It’s one of the reasons I do most of my writing in my house, where I’m sitting down just like when I was a freelancer or a graduate student—to figure out what I think.

Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt