In Bookforum, Laura Kipnis reviews Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott, long-time film critic at the New York Times. In the book, Scott seeks to carve out a humble space for the cultural importance of criticism, while also suggesting that good criticism is itself an art, rather than just parasitic on other people's art. Here's a snippet of Kipnis's review (who is a much-lauded critic in her own right):
Yet his defense of the critical enterprise can also lean toward the megalomaniacal, lending the book an occasionally seesawing momentum. Against skeptics who’d charge that criticism is parasitic, not creative on its own, Scott not only wants to dissolve the hierarchical distinctions between what artists do and what critics do, he’d like to see them reversed—for the world to understand that criticism is the lifeblood of art, not its enemy. Criticism is an art in its own right. Wait, not just an art, one that may supersede all other arts! It’s larger and more encompassing—“not parasitic, but primary.” Maybe it’s not critics who are failed artists, but artists who are failed critics—after all, isn’t all art really critical commentary on what came before? Look at Shakespeare, noted ransacker of cultural cupboards; look at “Ode on a Grecian Urn”; look at the French New Wave: would-be critics all.
Scott is a great summoner of examples and anecdotes: vastly knowledgeable about every medium and byway of Western culture from antiquity to Pixar, ranging easily from Gissing’s New Grub Street to the Rolling Stones to why people cried at Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Woven in are highlights from the history of criticism—Aristotle’s Poetics to Kant to yesterday’s hatchet-job book review. He feints low, ruminating on the fictional food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille,then reaches high, pronouncing on the hugest aesthetic and existential questions with deceptive ease. What does art do? It’s an urge to master and add something to reality. What is the greatest human purpose? A longing to restore a sense of lost wholeness. Why do we create? Out of primal feelings of alienation, perceptions of our subsequent decline. He fears not the large claim. His critical bon mots—“Art perpetually hovers in the neighborhood of sex”—manage to be provocative rather than reductive, compacting volumes of scholarship into insightful epigrams. Or this great summation: “Modern culture, as surveyed in the annals of modern criticism, looks like a series of funerals punctuated by episodes of zombiism.”
Image of A. O. Scott via NY Times.