Whose Criticism? On A. O. Scott’s “Better Living Through Criticism”
By Manuel BetancourtFebruary 8, 2016
Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott
“WHAT HAS TO HAPPEN in a person’s life for them to become a critic, anyway?”
The line, spewed with venom by Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film Birdman, hints at oft-repeated dismissals of criticism as a parasitic, derivative form of cultural production. The washed-up movie star, once beloved for his portrayal of a franchise superhero, now finds himself on the verge of a crisis should New York Times theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) eviscerate his upcoming Broadway debut. All she writes, he tells her, are “crappy opinions backed up by crappy comparisons. You’re incapable of writing more than a couple of paragraphs, and you risk nothing of yourself.”
These accusations and many more like them are the motivating force behind A.O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. He’s heard them so often — his much-publicized beef with Samuel L. Jackson over a negative Avengers review emerges as the origin story of the book — that he’s written an eloquent defense of this most despised of professions. Rather than merely rehearse arguments in defense of criticism — which, as he epigrammatically points out, “are also arguments against it” — Scott offers a critical history of criticism that is both exhaustive and, in one key respect, disappointingly selective. Better Living Through Criticism moves effortlessly from Plato and Aristotle to Walter Pater and T.S. Eliot, from Horace and Kant to Harold Bloom and Andrew Sarris, covering ample ground in what is an immense bibliography of literature on art and criticism. This genealogy, which also includes extended ruminations on texts by George Orwell, Henry James, George Gissing, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, ends up feeling blindly devout to the critic as, if not practically then theoretically, always already male.
We might easily turn to one of the many citations that litter Scott’s text: “At the center of all truly successful criticism there is always a man reading a book, a man looking at a picture, a man watching a movie.” No sooner does Scott share these 1954 words by film critic Robert Warshow than he offers the necessary admonition one would expect from a discerning reader today. These words, he writes, “are striking today for their obviousness and their unreflecting sexism. Surely some successful criticism might involve a woman doing any of those things.” Tellingly, he offers no such gloss when he discusses New Grub Street’s Jasper Milvain’s assertion that “putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesmen,” nor when he cites Emerson’s “The American Scholar” who talks of “Man Thinking,” nor in many of the other instances when the gender of the critic and writer in question is explicitly, in form and practice, male.
The Warshow passage appears more than halfway through Scott’s book, which, perhaps obliviously itself, seems to spend comparatively little time discussing women doing any of “those things.” His syntax betrays him: that “surely” and that “might” feel more like theoretical possibilities than persuasive assertions. Indeed, Warshow emerges in Scott’s text as an example of the masculinist anxiety that ran through mid-20th-century culture. Scott is keenly aware of the gendered force of such language and the way Warshow deploys it — a powerful example of what Adrienne Rich once called “the exclusiveness of grammar itself.” The decades surrounding Scott’s birth may very well have been, as he describes them, “a high-water mark of white male self-obsession and of adolescent self-assertion through various kinds of rebellion.” And perhaps “you could hardly avoid it,” as he remarks. But these years were also host to an ever-growing feminist critical tradition, one that remains obstinately absent from Scott’s own discussion.
In crafting a transhistorical argument about criticism, one founded on the — he admits — outdated Enlightenment notion of “subjective universalism,” Scott constantly swats away any fruitful discussions on issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality that may distract from this higher purpose. Glossing the culture wars as a mere “skirmish” in the 1990s, which “often took the form of an especially loud dialogue of the deaf,” Scott finds himself making a case for the “nonpolitical virtues” in the writers and artists who continue to make up the Western canon. Thus, any critique of T.S. Eliot’s traditionalism and his defense of European high culture misses his “real interest,” we’re told, “in what it feels like to be an eager young artist looking for a place to stand in a field crowded with the monuments and muddy footprints of the great.” Since Scott is concerned with the “universal capacity of our species” to judge (“the bedrock of criticism”), much of Better Living feels unduly beholden to a tradition uninterested in the vicissitudes of lived experience. This explains why Scott looks to antiquity for primal myths about creation and criticism: Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Plato’s Symposium, Hesiod’s Works and Days, and Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists all offer Scott ample evidence to figure criticism as “art’s late-born twin.” In doing so he finds himself beholden to modernism’s version of criticism; criticism that valorizes art’s claim to autonomy above all else. Leaving out female critics — not to mention queers, working-class critics, and African-American critics — means leaving out an entire history of criticism that pushes back against this autonomy and embraces art’s potential to speak to the power imbalances of cultural production.
Female artists and critics are not wholly absent: Scott cannily uses Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present” as a key text to open up issues about the relationships between art, artist, and spectator, and he later professes his admiration for New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael and Village Voice writer C. Carr (“I didn’t know that the C. stood for Cynthia. I didn’t know if the byline belonged to a man or a woman”). And then, of course, there’s Susan Sontag. She gets a coveted spot in the epigraphs alongside Oscar Wilde and later makes the requisite appearance in Scott’s prose with her groundbreaking intervention into critical theory, Against Interpretation. Sontag’s 1966 tome offers one of the few possible rubrics for thinking about criticism that rebuke the language of “hearty strife” (H.L. Mencken), “primal struggle” (Harold Bloom), “unending fight” (Scott), and “military fervor” (Godard) that so permeate Better Living.
Not that Scott follows Sontag’s lead. Indeed, while he is clearly interested in seeing the critic as in a dialectical relationship with art, rather than think through Sontag’s call for an “erotics of art,” a rhetorical sleight of hand allows him instead to move to a playful joke about sex work: “If criticism is — or should be — a way not just of expressing love for art but also of making love to it, what does that make the people who do it for money?” That Scott so glibly glosses the sexual politics inherent in both Sontag’s call and in his own quip is emblematic of an otherwise nuanced and persuasive account of criticism, just one that recoils from discussing the gendered force of its argument. Female writers are not the sole proprietors of affective criticism, but their absence in discussions that flinch from and yet depend on affective response is particularly troubling, especially if we subscribe to Scott’s assertion that “the origin of criticism lies in an innocent, heartfelt kind of question, one that is far from simple and that carries enormous risk: Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.”
We might return here to the illuminating scene about criticism in Birdman. As played by Duncan, Iñárritu’s critic is a sphinxlike figure who helps coalesce the sexual and cultural implications of her profession: in an allegorical exploration of contemporary male cultural anxiety, here lies the wounded male artist; here his executioner, a humorless shrew. When Riggan hisses that Tabitha mistakes those sounds in her head for true knowledge, he manages to collapse a defense of artistic ambition with a long line of sexist language that undermines female intellectual acuity. Riggan’s tirade, though restrained, sounds no different than the taunts and jeers directed at critics like Anita Sarkeesian and Camille Paglia.
More importantly, Riggan gets at the very issue that’s at the center of Scott’s meditations on the role of the critic: thinking. This Scott borrows most readily from Kant: “his disinclination to be distracted by pleasure,” he writes, “his disciplined refusal, as a thinker, to be carried away other than on tides of sober dialectic,” is what makes the German philosopher “so important in the history of criticism and therefore of art.” Scott makes no attempt at disguising his desire to return to — or at the very least remember and take solace in — the now suspect “high philosophical confidence of the Enlightenment.” This is apparent in the ambitious aims of his title. Tackling “Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth” is a worthy goal and one that, as he persuasively points out, needs to be based on an engaged and committed understanding of the act of criticism. One only wishes he’d have looked beyond those “monuments and muddy footprints of the great” and looked as well into the long-standing history of feminism, which, as Rich reminds us, has been driven, in part, by understanding the very act of criticism as an act of survival. “A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse,” she writes,
would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative, and how we can begin to see and name — and therefore live — afresh.
That’s not far from where Better Living Through Criticism begins (or ends), making this blind spot all the more egregious.
How much more emboldening Scott’s account of writing and criticism would read if it had been bolstered by ideas such as Rich’s, which both warrant and push back against his larger project. If he’d included the caustic wit of Aphra Behn, who already in the 1680s was critiquing audiences’ and critics’ fickle tastes. Or the hesitant self-deprecation of Octavia Butler’s autobiographical piece “The Birth of a Writer” (later reprinted as “Positive Obsession”) rather than Rilke’s romantic and romanticized notion of artistic creation in Letters to a Young Poet. Or any of Virginia Woolf’s innumerable contributions to this conversation — perhaps her aptly titled piece “How Should One Read a Book?”: “Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice,” she suggests. Or, rather than the uncritically presented humanist language of Emerson, Toni Morrison’s inquisitive missives on blackness in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination — “How do embedded assumptions of racial (not racist) language work in the literary enterprise that hopes and sometimes claims to be ‘humanistic’?”
Or perhaps a passing mention of — and really, the impetus to list already belies the problem at hand — Margaret Cavendish, George Eliot, Margaret Fuller, Djuna Barnes, Zora Neale Hurston, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Cecelia Ager, C.A. Lejeune, Helen Vendler, Julia Kristeva, bell hooks, Margaret Atwood, Elaine Showalter, Julia Alvarez, Laura Mulvey, Molly Haskell, or any other number of female artists and critics who have spent the past couple of centuries reframing and refuting, repurposing and refueling, remaking and repealing the many arguments Scott so carefully outlines in Better Living Through Criticism. “We’re far from done,” he writes at the end of his book, “There is a great deal more to discuss.” One definitely hopes so.
Manuel Betancourt is a freelance writer based out of New York. He earned his PhD delving into the history and cultural significance of queer fandom. He’s a pop culture enthusiast interested in media representation. You can follow his musings at @bmanuel and his work over at mbetancourt.com.
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