It may come as no surprise, but A.O. Scott, Pulitzer finalist and film critic for the New York Times, has plenty of opinions about criticism. His new book, Better Living Through Criticism, is a meditation on a field Scott calls "art's late-born twin." It's a craft that's held in contempt by so many, yet Scott passionately argues for its validity as an art form.
Scott started working on Better Living Through Criticism in 2011 in response to the rise of Facebook and Twitter. As more people used social media to share their own play-by-play verdicts on the dizzying amount of culture available to the world, Scott sensed a challenge to the professional critic.
"To some, it seemed like there would be this horrible new world of social media and Yelp and Amazon, and professional critics were going to die off," Scott said in a phone interview. "That got me thinking in a more focused way about what criticism is, what it's for, and what the relation is between what critics do and how ordinary people experience works of art."
Scott thinks that professional criticism is a field more necessary and valuable than ever before. In a time of cultural overabundance that leaves most people feeling constantly overwhelmed, critics stake a claim as gatekeepers by building trust with their readers and helping guide them through a vast amount of new media. "I think one of the things that professional critics can do today is organize and facilitate the conversation," Scott says. "There's more of everything than any of us can keep track of, so we have to kind of help each other out, [and I think] the relationship that people have with professional critics endures because they're someone you trust."
Scott points out the paradoxes of a world inundated with culture. While many value the ability to connect with other fans and live-tweet the latest Game of Thrones episode, the current media environment also leads to a situation where "our ability to pay attention to any one thing or cherish it is undermined," he says. He suggests that the resurgence of vinyl records and increased book sales indicate that people crave a "unique experience that doesn't dissolve so quickly," and that "we can still value and appreciate works of art and the experiences that make them special."
For somebody who dedicates his life to critically appreciating culture, it's distressing when one realizes that people can absorb only a fraction of humanity's creative output. This awareness set in later in Scott's life, which he says was "bittersweet." While some may use this conundrum as "an excuse to narrow [their] perspective," Scott instead sees it as a chance to "find and articulate what is meaningful" in life.
"I argue for an openness to the new, a willingness to jump the tracks of your own tastes or what is familiar or what's comfortable," he says. "I hope that even though you're not going to see everything, that doesn't become an excuse to maybe not see some things that you should."
Of course, "professional criticism" is an extension of mainstream-media outlets. To Scott, one of the great promises of the web was its democratizing power—specifically, the potential to alleviate the "deep systemic problem" of the white-maleness of criticism and journalism. He observes that in many ways film criticism has actually become more male-dominated during his career, reinforcing a "narrowness and homogeneity" that he calls a "real problem." While still finding flaws with the slowness of change in the industry, Scott cites a recent meeting at the New York Times: ten film-related New York Times staffers joined to discuss the #oscarssowhite trend; he was the only white male in the group, evidence that change is happening, albeit slowly.
"I'm not just trying to let the Times off the hook," Scott says. "I think the popular culture is such a remarkably diverse and complex entity that it needs critical voices who can keep up with that and reflect that, and I certainly need those voices to read and learn from."
The question is: In the 21st century, will the kind of professional criticism practiced by Scott and others survive? As newspapers across the nation downsize, with arts critics often the first to go, it remains an open question as to how the field will evolve in the future. The accelerating pace of the culture industry requires many critics to pronounce judgment just hours after the latest surprise album drop.
"To see the movie on Tuesday and review it for Friday's paper already seemed about as fast as you could go," Scott says. "Today, there's really a premium on getting there first, getting a snappy takedown. It's tough."
Even as the professional field struggles, Better Living Through Criticism persuasively suggests we can all find our inner critic. Scott writes, "Of course, we're all determined beings, made by circumstances beyond our control. But we're also changeable creatures, highly susceptible to the influence of accident, free agents with the power to invent ourselves." Even though he wrestles with what it means to be a critic today, Scott has no doubt criticism will endure. He describes a scene from Teju Cole's Open City in which the book's protagonist is so shaken by a work of art that he is startled, "with the feeling of someone who has returned to the earth from a great distance."
"That's what we're looking for," Scott writes. v