BOOK REVIEW: Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and TruthBetter Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth by A.O. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There’s a chasm between title and book. The title, which is clearly meant to play on the Dupont motto turned recreational drug user motto that substitutes the word “chemistry” in place of “criticism,” suggests a book that will be directed toward a reader, teaching said individual how to hone his or her skills of art criticism. This book, on the other hand, reads more like a review of the criticism industry that is meant to be received by an audience. In other words, it feels more like you’re in a Ted Talk than that you’re having a private lesson or conversation. It’s a fine book, witty, thought-provoking, and insightful by turns, but not the book one would expect from the title, subtitle, and blurb.

This essay (or collection of six shorter essays – if you prefer) examines the life and livelihood of art critics and how the endeavor has ebbed and flowed over the years. While the author is a film critic, he adeptly uses examples and stories from across the arts: poetry, paintings, music, theater, etc. In addition to the six chapters, there are three dialogues that are presumably meant to be reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s essay / dialogue “The Critic as Artist,” a piece that is referenced and quoted in the book.

While the book is generally readable, it would probably benefit from more clarity of message while dialing down attempts to be witty and interesting. It seems like the author may have aimed to do what the films that film critics tend to love do, leave one walking away wondering what it is that one just consumed.

If you want to know more about the criticism “business,” i.e. who does it and how the job has changed (and continues to change,) you’ll enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a book that (as this book’s subtitle suggests) will help you better understand “how to think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth,” then this might not be the book for which you’re looking.


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