The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer 2016)

The Decay of Criticism

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

A.O. Scott

New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2016.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

Like the air, like microbes, like the National Security Agency—the critical impulse is both omnipresent and invisible, shaping human life while rarely becoming an object of scrutiny itself. So argues New York Times film critic A.O. Scott in his new book, Better Living Through Criticism. In an age when the professional post of critic is vanishing even more quickly than other journalistic beats, we moderns have become increasingly enamored of criticism in our own lives. The natural tendency toward taxonomy has blossomed, in the Internet age, into a whole ecology of sorting.

Although he practices the critical art from a lofty vantage point at one of the few remaining bulwarks of traditional print journalism, Scott has spent much time observing the ebb and flow of criticism in the digital age. From these observations, he attempts both a defense of criticism and a re-imagining of its role in the years to come. Unfortunately, his vision suffers from a fundamental lack of clarity as to what criticism actually is, or how it functions. Although he devotes a whole chapter to arguing that critics should embrace making wrong choices, Scott continually presents multiple views on criticism but hesitates to choose from among them. The result is a book that expends a lot of energy without building much momentum.

That is not to imply that Scott has no insights to offer. His tendency to hold dichotomies in tension does produce moments of wisdom, and the several passages of analysis that find their mark do so with vigor. Early in the book, he argues for criticism’s place among the arts as a sort of cadet devoted to wrestling his older brothers for the mutual strengthening of all parties. Criticism exists in a dependent relationship to art—it cannot come into being without art first eliciting it—but art also gets created as a form of criticism, a response to the swirling cloud of witnesses who have pursued beauty in the past.

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Asher Gelzer-Govatos is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Washington University, St. Louis. His writing on film and culture has appeared in the online magazine The A.V. Club, Books & Culture, and The Week.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.2 (Summer 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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