Last week, I joined the legion of readers descending, en masse, upon bookstores and Amazon for a chance to delve into New York Times film critic A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. The book wastes no time, introducing the questions “What’s the point of criticism?” and “What are critics good for?” less than 10 words in.
And more intriguingly, it poses a series of query-like answers: Is criticism a job or, as he says, “a less specialized undertaking, something like playing cards or cooking or riding a bicycle, something that anyone can learn to do?” Or is it something even more basic, “a more elementary, more reflexive activity, like dreaming or breathing or crying?”
Those questions form the basis for the rest of the text to explore. It is steadfastly philosophical and intellectual, but Scott doesn’t forget to find ways to engage the average reader, those not looking to stare with blank adoration at the flowing, flowery language on the page. The thing is, though, he wants us to realize and appreciate that criticism is fundamentally art, something that is far too easy to dismiss, especially by other artists.
Everyone’s a critic nowadays, a point Scott makes early on, and the truth is in our need to quantify and qualify experiences with rankings and ratings. Every aspect of our lives is now open and susceptible to evaluation. Would you recommend the contractor who handled the remodeling job on your basement? How was your meal this weekend at that new restaurant in the city?
You see, plainly, the critical imperative, but in the processes that emerge to satisfy the urge, what is missing is how we seek to create a shorthand that ultimately devalues the results because it removes deeper critical consideration from the endeavor — and this is what Scott’s book investigates.
And once that element fades, so too does the possibility for artistic expression.
Here in our state, thanks to the Ohio Arts Council, criticism has earned artistic distinction and consideration, allowing it to stand alongside the more traditionally creative enterprises. As a recipient of an OAC Award for Criticism, I have taken on the challenge of passing the torch down to the next generation through WatchWriteNow, a nonprofit mobile film club dedicated to critically engaging teens in classrooms and community centers through the use of filmed content and providing a non-threatening outlet for critical and creative exchanges.
It is time that we rise up to offer an alternative to this dated notion that the critical cannot also be creative. Critical thinking — what I would call the art and soul of all forms of criticism — leads to the act of creation. There is art in the application of the hard sciences (think STEM) as well as the softer sciences (history, sociology and the like), but I am not interested in defending any of those areas of study. Instead, I would rather devote my decidedly inadequate efforts to parrying the pointless assaults on the state of film criticism.
Imagine film criticism as Hip Hop production, a masterful remixing of multiple referenced samples with new interpretive insights. I tell students all the time that criticism is never about a singular work under the microscope; rather, it is merely the jumping off point for a wild tangential ride through a stream of references within our consciousness that we do our best to bring forth for others to groove to.
If you think about it (and thinking is the point of all this, right?), Hip Hop has been around for centuries, in a low-fi format via book, art and early film criticism. Only recently, due to the long-form possibilities of the Internet, have the cut-and-paste aesthetic and the rise of Hip Hop mixtapes made their way into the critical sphere. And at this point, it is barely able to stand on its fledgling legs, but I am predicting fleet-footed strides in no time. In fact, I am banking that projects like WatchWriteNow will guarantee a blazing trail into our critical future.
Scott stands with me, and Better Living Through Criticism is his It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or his Invisible Man or his Norman Rockwell painting, waiting to be positioned on the great wall. Better still, the book might be more than his latest piece of art. Imagine instead that it belongs to us and will serve as a moving reminder of the power inherent in our conceptions and perceptions of the frames that we encounter.