Better Living Through Criticism

How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth

By A.O. Scott

Penguin. 277 pp. $28

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Reviewed by Carrie Rickey


In 1972, filmmaker Emile De Antonio made

Painters Painting

, the canonical documentary of 1960s New York artists. He trained his camera on Barnett Newman and asked the lyrical abstractionist to talk about his art. Newman, face wreathed in cigarette smoke, shrugged and answered, "Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds."

For Newman, the taxonomy of art was as irrelevant to the painter as the genus and species of birds is to a scarlet tanager. Artists paint, birds fly, and fish swim without requiring standards and determinations of how and what and why, and who does it best.

Not so for A. O. Scott, film critic of the New York Times, in his Better Living Through Criticism. Aesthetics is for Scott what nectar is for birds. Socratic dialogues about critical practice punctuate his meditation on theories of criticism through the ages.

For Scott, criticism is not only his job but "everyone's." And he makes his point in prose that ranges in tone from ornithological (name-checking authorities from Hesiod to Susan Sontag) to nectar-filled (the dialogues threaded through this meditation).

He rejects the idea of criticism as a parasitical practice, contending that artist and critic are engaged in what biologists call mutualism. Rather than feed on art, criticism is its lifeblood. "It is not parasitic," he argues, "but primary."

And he makes the judicious distinction between criticism in the Renaissance, when Giorgio Vasari wrote The Lives of the Artists, and in today's more secular society, when so many of the arts are abstract or nonrepresentational.

For Vasari, the first artist was God, who "in the act of creating man fashioned the first forms of painting and sculpture." In contemporary times, when, as he writes, "we prefer to look for clues about our origins in science, rather than in myth or religion," Scott wonders whether and how criticism has adapted.

He cites biologist E. O. Wilson: "The creative arts became possible as an evolutionary advance when humans developed the capacity for abstract thought" - and, it follows, abstract forms.

Scott's six chapters and four dialogues circle his subject, at times chronologically, at times affectionately, and often warily. Rather than hypothesize a schema or methodology, he studies how criticism looks to its practitioners, subjects, readers - and posterity.

Critics are often wrong, he says, citing the lukewarm reviews of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Scott also cites the New York Times pan of the 1938 film Bringing up Baby, now considered "the quintessence of screwball."

Critics kill. Consider the vicious reviews of John Keats' "Endymion" - thought to have accelerated the frail poet's death from tuberculosis. Critics also annoy the hell out of readers, as when Scott's review of The Avengers brought a Twitter tirade from one of the 2012 film's stars, Samuel L. Jackson (and inspired this book).

Looping toward a resolution of the "paradoxical and tautological" practice of criticism, Scott reflects on his own process. He takes notes on Kung Fu Panda while making faces at the screen - something civilians can empathize with, although they probably don't write their thoughts in a reporter's notebook.

Scott comes much closer to how he does it in the book's lighthearted interior dialogue about Ratatouille, the Pixar film about a food critic, Anton Ego, who recognizes the greatness of Remy, a chef who happens to be a rat.

It's significant that this film is largely about food. Scott suggests that his critical process, like that of Anton Ego, involves careful concentration on taste, texture, flavor, and how disparate elements come together to make something greater than their component parts. After the meal, the critic digests and contemplates, the result being the evaluation of his communion with the artwork.

Though reading about criticism is, for me, what ornithology is for birds, Better Living Through Criticism provides food for thought. Not to mention provoking the reader to talk back to the author.

Carrie Rickey is a former Inquirer film critic.