Defending criticism as art

If critics can neither sway popular opinion nor accurately represent it, what good are they? A.O. Scott, the long-time film critic for the New York Times would say “That’s the wrong question.” His new book is an extended meditation on, and impassioned defense of, the practice of criticism.

Scott begins to explain his intentions with an anecdote from his own career. When The Avengers came out in 2012, he had a mixed review. He found parts of it entertaining while the whole came off as bland spectacle. One of the stars of the movie, Samuel L. Jackson, was offended and took to Twitter to say: “AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” Scott uses this comment as a springboard to a consideration of what he actually does.

This is Scott’s argument: that criticism is an artistic practice just as fiction or art or filmmaking is. “Criticism is art’s late-born twin,” he writes, claiming that a stellar review can hold just as much artistic merit as the film or book or piece of music under review.

Scott means to be provocative, but in my case, he’s preaching to the choir. I love reading reviews. Anthony Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect, a collection of his film reviews for The New Yorker, is one of my favourite books, filled with descriptions of both schlocky blockbusters and arthouse fare. Criticism is art? I’m sold.

Perhaps for this reason, I found myself getting impatient with Scott’s book. I’m a big fan of Scott, having followed his work for years, and I had been looking forward to this book. But since much of the book is framed as a defense of criticism, anticipating objections both real and imagined, there is less room for actual criticism of actual art. This is unfortunate, since Scott is excellent when it comes to describing what it feels like to experience a work of art.

One such example, which I enjoyed immensely, sees Scott elucidating the conceptual artist Marina Abramovic and her famous 2010 show “The Artist is Present” at The Museum of Modern Art. The show was as minimal as art gets. Abramovic sat in a chair on a raised platform. Across from her was another chair, where audience members were invited to sit and look into Abramovic’s eyes, maintaining complete silence. The show was a huge hit. But why?

Scott finds in Abramovic’s performance an almost perfect metaphor for the experience of encountering a work of art. What we’re often looking for when we read a book or go to a movie, whether we’re aware of it or not, is a sense of presence, of occupying the same emotional space as another human being. As Scott writes, “your sense of everyday perception is disrupted by the sense of a presence that is hard to describe but impossible to deny.” Sitting in that chair, Abramovic was all presence.

If only the book were two hundred and fifty pages of insights like this! But much of the rest of it consists of thumbnail sketches of aesthetic debates and issues. Scott has a habit of thinking in rather binary terms in these sections, surveying first one traditional school of thought, contrasting it with another, more radical one, and finally proposing that the best criticism will take the strongest elements of both while jettisoning the rest. Sure, that sounds good, I found myself thinking. So why not try that?

Even the book’s weaknesses are, in a sense, a testament to Scott’s strengths as a close-reading critic. This is wonderfully apparent in the book’s last chapter, a consideration of the Pixar film Ratatouille. It is thrilling to see Scott the artist-critic come alive as he describes this film about art and criticism, teasing out nuances that had never occurred to me.

Scott says that a critic is “a person whose interest can help to activate the interests of others.” He certainly passes that test, and the passages of the book that consist of him explaining his interest certainly activated mine. I just wish there were more of them.

  • Adam’s work has appeared in many venues, including the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature and Real Life. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and two daughters.

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