Some years ago a friend discovered the perils of watching movies with me. Thanks in part to the existence of a superb independent DVD-rental store in my hometown, I grew up with near limitless access to good-quality film. Throw in the fact that I am both a professional academic and an extrovert … no doubt you can already guess the way this story is tending. My friend, meanwhile, loved film no less, but it was for him a much more immediate and innocent experience. He could barely remember actors’ names, much less those of directors or composers of musical scores. More than anything, he hated the “meta” dimension — and, I am sure, the inevitable pretentiousness — that only a roomful of graduate students talking about film is so eminently capable of producing. Film was escape for him; the escape ceased to work precisely insofar as he was conscious of the film as stage set and not as living performance.
The incident has stuck in my mind, if only as a living reminder of the complex and often ambivalent role played by criticism and analysis of works of art: Although criticism is privileged within the academic community, is my experience of film necessarily better or higher than my friend’s? When we analyze, do we add to the experience of art or do we take away from it? And if we the critics are not mindful of our audience, do we sabotage the experience of art for others?
In 2012, New York Times critic A.O. Scott found himself in a Twitter standoff after his negative review of the first Avengers blockbuster. The film was, by and large, well-received among critics and popularly adored, Joss Whedon enjoying in geek culture at present approximately the same status as Shakespeare. Scott found himself on the wrong side of fandom and of the film’s performers, especially Samuel L. Jackson. Not one for suffering in silence, Jackson attacked critics generally as a breed of parasites, not producing art themselves and tainting the enjoyment of ordinary mortals. Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (2016) is Scott’s long-form response. In some ways analogous to David Brooks’s recent Road to Character, Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism represents a kind of substantive personal manifesto from a newspaper columnist and internet personality detailing why he thinks his profession should exist and what role, ideally, criticism should play in relation to art.
Early on in Better Living Through Criticism, Scott invokes the work of formidably learned literary critic George Steiner, specifically his book Real Presences. Originally written in 1989, the work has had a sympathetic audience within conservative Catholic circles and remains influential — as noted on Artur Rosman’s blog Cosmos The In Lost — on those looking to locate a strong place for the arts within a Christian counterculture. At the beginning of Real Presences, Steiner proposes the existence of a kind of Platonic Republic: in this utopia, however, it would not be artists who would be banned but certain types of critics. The truest and most “responsible” form of criticism, Steiner argues, is itself artistic performance, a ballerina taking on the choreography of Balanchine or Henry James responding, in A Portrait of A Lady, to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. In this way, criticism is kept close to the experience of art itself and is not permitted to acquire a life of its own.
Steiner’s foundational premise is that all artistic experience is grounded in the “necessary possibility” of God’s real presence and is, in fact, a “wager on transcendence.” The stakes are therefore very high for Steiner, whose understanding of what constitutes art and culture is notoriously refined. A Jewish emigré born in France to Viennese parents, the multilingual Steiner grew up in the shadow of the Jewish community’s tragic belief that culture, education, and involvement in and patronage of the arts were gateways to acceptance in European society. The artist — and Steiner would only apply the label by definition to someone who produces good art — plays a near-sacramental role in his proposed utopia. The critic, however — and Steiner was writing at the high watermark of the influence of theory and literary criticism — is characterized as the producer of ephemera, distracting at best.
Scott respects but ultimately opposes Steiner’s vision, not least because his understanding of art and culture, and of criticism, is much broader than Steiner’s. Criticism, argues Scott, is an intrinsic, necessary potential component of anyone’s response to art, and we defend our response necessarily as right and correct. In this way, Scott finds himself steering a moderate, populist course between an understanding of criticism as the personal property and prerogative of an intellectual, academic elite and the general public’s rejection of all critics and criticism.
These two camps have become so well defined of late, both in print and online, that it is difficult not to see Scott as a lone voice crying in the wilderness. This is a role he is fully prepared to inhabit, seeing it as an integral part of the critic’s role, but it leaves Scott with a perhaps insoluble problem of audience. Will Samuel L. Jackson and his ilk be convinced by a book of this sort? Will they read it at all? Or is this the sort of book that will merely confirm an intellectual elite in their preconceived beliefs?
That Scott begins his book with the Avengers contretemps and punctuates it throughout with dialogues à la David Foster Wallace, in which he questions his own prejudices and preconceptions, shows the extent to which he is trying to make criticism self-deprecating and non-threatening. His central image for the relationship between artist and critic is the chef and food critic of the animated film Ratatouille, and references to Star Wars reassuringly abound. But precisely as Scott gets more passionate and more verbose, out comes a detour into the thought of Kant. One hopes the average reader will engage with, and not skip over, Scott’s more serious arguments.
The cultural world of George Steiner, as well as the exalted position of the critic within the academy he both exploited and attacked, for better or for ill, is no longer with us. The Internet has flooded the market with bloggers, pundits, and opinions, aggregated by search engines and quantified into approval ratings: criticism now is both omnipresent and democratized. And yet for all that, as Scott points out, we have few reliable guides to what constitutes good taste: supposedly personal and therefore inviolate, it remains incredibly difficult to hack a path through the thickets of information, entertainment, and analysis available. The critic’s role, argues Scott, is to be accountable for her legitimate response to art of whatever sort, even (or especially) if she is later proven to be wrong. To some extent, a critic’s job may involve being a contrarian, bucking social trends that sanction or reject without thinking certain kinds of art; regardless, she must answer publicly. And as such she performs a valuable social function.
For those seeking to find a place for art and artistic experience within a specifically Christian context, it strikes me that one may easily adopt Steiner’s foundational premise, in which one accepts aesthetic experience as “a bid on transcendence” and in some way a manifestation of “real presence,” while broadening our vision of how that real presence manifests itself in our world and incorporating Scott’s populist and socially conscious approach to the role of the critic. Man does not live on Dostoevsky, or even the Criterion Collection, alone. Readers may already suspect that the role of the critic as Scott envisions it has certain resonances with that of cultural theology: the critic’s role as public interpreter of artistic and aesthetic experience bears a distinct resemblance to that of the priest or the preacher very consciously seeking to communicate the texture of spiritual experience before a congregation, in conversation with that congregation. What matters is the bearing witness.