Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

Article excerpt

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. By A. O. Scott. New York: Penguin Press, 2016. 270 pp. $28.00 (cloth).

This spirited book reads somewhat differently each time one picks it up. Is it just a fun romp through the pleasures (and, all too often, tortures!) of assessing creative works begging for approval? Or, perhaps it is a thinly veiled self-justification by a highbrow film critic/college professor? Maybe it is many things at once: social analysis and communitarian provocation; moral philosophy and moral outrage. Having now read this new book (published just before summer 2016) twice over a period of seven months, and in a presidential election year marked by near universal disgust and a shocking disdain for Truth, I confess that I feel as though I am reviewing two different books. The book I picked up in May just because I loved the title-Better Living Through Criticism-has become for me a more enduring book because of its subtitle, How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.

First, who is this A. O. Scott? New York Times devotees will know him as one of the most trusted movie reviewers the paper has ever published, and academics will couple this credential with the equally important role he has played as Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Scott's two lives-scholar and columnist- blend in this thoughtful exploration of the nature and meaning of criticism. Early on we hear from some of "The Greats" (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, H. L. Mencken, George Steiner, even Harold Bloom), and are invited to sit at the feet of Socrates in Plato's Symposium. Scott's summary of the impulse to create mirrors a human need to be critical: "Our creativity originates in anguish and longing, and our creations, when we contemplate them, seem alien and mysterious.. . .We doubt their value and question their meaning, and find ourselves by turns enthralled and puzzled by their power" (p. 38).

However, like much in this deeply balanced book, we are given several more positive metanarratives for the origins of art and criticism. For Scott, science, above myth or religion, takes front stage in the modern era, and the project started when "we found ourselves able to make things, and also, as a consequence, to judge them. Not unlike the original critic in Genesis, who cast his eye over what he made and decided it was good" (p. 42).

Judgment, that universally detested activity of our own day, plays significant roles in Better Living Through Criticism, and it is in this turn to "living" that Scott's book advances from cold theory to a practical essay-a sort of secular moral theology. You are spot-on if you sense that Immanuel Kant will appear strong in Scott's argument, and he does in a huge way. In an important chapter called "The Eye of the Beholder," Scott offers Kant eleven pages to tell his story about judgment, both objective and subjective. Here we learn about the universality of aesthetic judgments: "When someone says something is beautiful," Scott then quotes Kant: "? …

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