Aphorisms and the arts: from Aristotle to Oscar Wilde

The American film critic A.O. Scott jokily dismisses reviewers as snobs, slobs and scolds — while reminding us that we all are (or should be) critics to some extent

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth A.O. Scott

Cape, pp.277, £12.99, ISBN: 9781910702550

The author of this jam-packed treasure trove has been a film critic at the New York Times since 2000 and is also professor of film criticism at Wesleyan University. As if these platforms weren’t enough, he’s now written a book about the tangled worlds of films, books, music, paintings and criticism, dragging in Aristotle, Pope, Plato, Matthew Arnold, Isaiah Berlin and millions of others — but not, alas, my former next-door neighbour, the wonderfully controversial Brian Sewell.

Crammed in alongside George Orwell’s ‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy’ and H. L. Mencken’s ‘Literature always thrives best in an atmosphere of hearty strife,’ the author’s own views often hit hardest. ‘Music,’ he tells us, ‘is to art what its cousin mathematics is to science.’ The Hollywood studios are ‘hotbeds of corporate greed’ and newspapers ‘have been swamps of mendacity and corruption from the start’. ‘Our creativity,’ he believes, ‘originates in anguish and longing’ — and education ‘has a soul-killing effect on art’.

He’s even better on the thorny issue of finding fault and bestowing praise, and jokily dismissive of us weirdos, slobs, snobs, scolds and losers — his words — who do these things to earn the occasional crust. ‘Is criticism the snake in the garden?’ he asks, and then complicates it by pronouncing: ‘A work of art is itself a piece of criticism.’ Bolstered by Oscar Wilde’s ‘It’s more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it’ and Susan Sontag’s ‘To interpret is to impoverish’, he heartily agrees with T.S. Eliot’s opinion that, as long ago as 1921, we were already living in a speaker’s corner of ‘contending and contentious orators’. Since then, he tells us, ‘The disease has gotten worse… There is just too damn much of it.’

Oh dear, oh dear. And now we’re in the digital media age, the ‘blogosphere’ or what the author calls ‘a forest of modern cultural abundance’ — though it may be some consolation to know that back in the 1890s our ancestors felt equally unhappy about the arrival of ‘telegraphic communication’; or that only a few decades later, the advent of cinema sound caused the German aesthetician Rudolf Arnheim to argue that the art of film had now begun to wither away. ‘The whole infrastructure of literacy,’ we’re now told, ‘is in danger of vaporising’ — though not from the point of view of an Underground traveller like me, often squeezed beside a dozen other passengers glued to their books.

Though painfully highbrow at times, at others the author’s self-mocking sub-clause-rich conversational prose (could some of it have been written in his university canteen?) is reinforced by several spoof interviews with himself. And the result is often deeply rewarding. A chapter on the ‘sprawling warehouse’ of the Louvre is particularly amusing. Scott even bothers to describe the long queues to get into this ‘cosmos of modern global tourism’. He goes on to claim that the Mona Lisa’s fame far outshines its worth, and then complicates matters by quoting Walter Pater’s remark that the world’s most famous picture is actually a ‘portrait of modern civilisation’.

In another chapter, he has gripping things to say about the ‘calendar of crimes’ attributed to critics, not least, of course, the death of the 25-year-old John Keats, which certainly makes me want to read this poet again to see if John Gibson Lockhart’s brutal dismissal of his work had any justification at all.

Though full of obvious truths like ‘Art can make you feel different’, this book doesn’t really describe how the process works or, indeed, how criticism can make your life better. Scott overlooks the fact that most critics are authors in their own right, only touches on restaurant reviewing at the last moment, doesn’t mention tap-dancing at all or say a single word about picture-framing, which can surely make or break a work of art. He also steadfastly avoids the topic of whether friends should review each other’s works.

I have never met Professor Scott, but I trust that he will take my little grumbles in his stride and, above all, remember William Blake’s remark that opposition is true friendship. Who knows, perhaps one day we’ll be friends and he’ll give me an equally mixed review for my first film?

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