Better Living Through Criticism - How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

I read this book in one sitting, a couple of hours at the Brooklyn Public Library. Later this month I’ll attend an event there where the author will be in conversation with another one of my favorite critics, Emily Nussbaum. I’ve been excited about this book for a while now, since I heard it was in the making about a year ago while watching a conversation between AO Scott and Ta-nehisi Coates on YouTube. I’ve waited for it with excitement and before its release, I read many reviews and interviews with Scott. Reading critics’ takes on a book about criticism can be a tautological exercise, but as Scott says in his book, criticism is a tautology in itself.

The true joy of this book is in its discourse with the thinkers that came before it. There’s plenty to debate and pick over in terms of definitions, arguments and evidence; like any good work of art the excitement comes from thinking and talking about it after it is over. But while I was reading, that’s not what I found most interesting. I was hooked by Scott’s choices to engage with critics like Pauleen Kael, Susan Sontag, Walter Pater, Harold Bloom, philosophers like Kant, poets like Keats, Shelley, Phillip Larkin and Rilke, painters, authors, artists of all kind. Some of these figures I’m more familiar with than others. But each example or argument taken up by Scott, illustrated through past works, and furthered through his own additions, brought some new perspective. In the end, I ended up with pages of notes, a long reading list and a renewed sense that both art and criticism are hugely important parts of my life (and dare I say, any life fully lived).

Another, more self-serving, reason I was so interested in this book is because I too take criticism seriously. For a few years now I’ve written a review of every book I read and every film I watch. I often write long emails to friends about podcasts, TV shows, exhibits at a museum, experience at a concert, a new album, art of all sorts. The central conceit of Scott’s argument, that we’re all critics and “intellectualization” is merely another way of saying “thinking,” is in line with my own philosophy of life. For me this feeling started somewhere in high school, was emboldened in college and has become stronger since. In fact, like Scott, I felt great kinship to both Remy and Ego in Ratatouille, and think about it often as a beautiful testament to the dual responsibilities of artists and critics.

While reading this book, I happened to choose one of Eric Whitacre’s latest albums. The choral works provided a great soundtrack to the scenes in museums, discussion of classical and contemporary philosophers, and the heyday of 20th century cinema. One of the tracks, “Little Lamb,” has been a favorite for a few months now. I often listen to it on repeat. Despite its simplicity, like much of Whitacre’s compositions, it is full of feeling. I’m not a religious person, in fact I think about religion almost exclusively as an academic or sociological act. I don’t derive much meaning from it. But the lyrics of this song, in the context of appreciating art and criticism hit me in a new way this time. “Little lamb who made thee/dost thou know who made thee” rang through my ears as I found myself feeling thankful for the creation of both man and art.