June 22, 2016

Book Review—Better Living Through Criticism: How to think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott

Before we being the review proper, let’s just savour the fact that this review is an exercise in meta-meta-meta-criticism—a critique of a text that critiques common criticism of criticism. Scott’s central thesis is the ever elusive link between art and criticism, and how they respond to and influence each other. This, as is the title, is certainly ambitious in its intent and nebulous in its parameters, covering a discussion of art, pleasure, beauty, and truth all through the prism of criticism.

It broadly falls into a category of works that promote the idea of art as self-help, much in the vein of McCall-Smith’s What W.H. Auden can do for you, or De Botton’s How Proust can change your life. But Scott’s approach is altogether more rigorous and larger in scope, and his conclusions are less directly palatable and less definitely inclusive. Although the body of the text carries over much of the nebulousness of the title, it does delve as it expands, usually with the aid of likes T.S. Elliot, Hesiod, and Rainer Maria Rilke. The ground covered is certainly vast, with its examples sometimes straining to reel-in its intent.

For Scott, the act of creation stems from the same urge that spawns criticism. Again, as Scott’s reading list attests, this is nothing new, but reminders of the concept can be timely and welcome. It takes the broad view that “everyone’s a critic”, not as some dismissive notion, but as an enlivening assertion that everyone responds to things they watch, read, and hear. But this comes with a caveat: although art is democratic (at least in today’s society), accessible to all, that does not mean that all will be overcome by Rilke’s indictment that “you have to change your life” based solely on the fact of having seen, or read, or heard a work of art. In short, artworks are readily accessible, but experiencing them is altogether more elusive, a fact that prompts criticism in the often vain hope of sharing those experiences with others. A critical condition indeed. 

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