Sound Criticism in the Noise of Opinions: A. O. Scott Speaks at Seminary Coop

Everyone’s a critic, and yet no one seems to know what a critic’s good for.

Or at least this is how New York Times film critic A. O. Scott started off his recent book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Scott talked about the art of criticism with the Chicago Tribune’s film critic Michael Phillips last weekend at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.

The format of his conversation with Phillips nodded to the formatting of his book in which Scott breaks long meditations on criticism with sections of Socratic dialogue. The dialogue helps readers navigate the book’s larger themes raising questions about criticism.

Such as, what’s the point of it?

Many people may scorn critics, but Scott celebrates the discipline. He argued criticism is an art, echoing the Oscar Wilde essay “The Critic as Artist.” But instead of creating with paints or musical notes, critics use other art as their creative material.

On the flip side, he argued art is a criticism. That the artist creates to critique his or her surroundings and circumstances. Art and criticism are like two sides of the same coin, adding to one value.

Criticism can serve multiple purposes: we can assert taste, challenge point of view, and critique larger threads in society. Scott wrote in the first section of his book, “it’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.”

And the responsibility of criticism is to separate it from mere opinion. It turns opinion into an argument; it is to take a position.

The idea behind the book first came to Scott in 2009 when he saw firsthand print media decline while online media grew. And he started writing in the defense of criticism when Samuel L. Jackson sent him an angry tweet following Scott’s review of The Avengers. Jackson asked why critics have to ask so many questions and why they can’t seem to simply enjoy a piece of popular culture.

Scott decided to answer with a book.

With the growth of online media, criticism is now more participatory. A New York Times writer can see how his or her readers respond in real-time. Professional work by critics is going away, Scott said, and criticism is “not just a job, but an activity.” But while the internet democratized opinion-sharing, Scott warned that the speeding up of media has led to premature pieces, rushed reviews, and the ever-so oxymoronic “instant-analysis.”

Better Living Through Criticism is the book for someone who has been asked “why are you thinking so much? Through meanderings, Scott searches for meaning. His book is a meditation on criticism as well as a practice of skepticism which he believes can lead to a better life.

Better Living Through Criticism (Penguin Random House, 288 pages) is priced at $28 (or less) for the hardcover or $14.99 for the ebook version.

Colin S. Smith
Colin S. Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.