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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BOOK REVIEW: The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde

The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing NothingThe Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this dialogue, the characters of Ernest and Gilbert reflect upon the value, nature, and limits of artistic criticism. Ernest serves largely as foil and questioner, taking the everyman view that critics are failed artists and that criticism is a puny endeavor that isn’t good for much. Gilbert, on the other hand, defends criticism of art as an art unto itself, and a difficult one at that, one that requires revealing elements and ideas of the artistic piece that the artist didn’t put in the piece in the first place. Throughout, Gilbert lays down his counterintuitive bits of wisdom about the job of the critic, the characteristics of good critics, and – also – about artists and art, itself. [Ideas such as that all art is immoral.]

Oscar Wilde was famed for his wit, quips, and clever – if controversial – turns of phrase, and this dialogic essay is packed with them. A few of my favorites include:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.”

“Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing.”

“If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.”

“Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.”

“Ah! don’t say that you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

“…nothing worth knowing can be taught.”

This is an excellent essay, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in art, criticism, or who just likes to noodle through ideas. You’re unlikely to complete the essay as a convert to all of Gilbert’s tenets, but you’ll have plenty to chew on, mentally speaking.


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