ritics, like belly buttons, come in two kinds: innies and outies. The innies—critics, not navels— are appreciative, inclusive, always hoping for the best and, some might say, too often finding it. Those most likely to say so are the outies, who view themselves as guardians of culture, exclusive, permanently posted to make certain no second-rate goods get past the gate and into the citadel of superior art. The innies are hopeful, sympathetic to experiment, more than a touch nervous about the avant-garde marching past and leaving them behind. The outies are skeptical, culturally conservative, and tend to believe, with Paul Valéry, that everything changes but the avant-garde.

A critic is putatively an expert, responsible for knowing his subject thoroughly and deeply, whether it is music, literature, visual art, film, theatre, or any other art. This would include knowledge of its history, traditions, techniques, the conditions under which it has been made, and all else that is pertinent to rendering sound and useful judgment on discrete works of art in his field. Along with knowledge, which is available to all who search it out, the critic must also have authority, the power to convince—a power that has been available only to a few. Whence does such authority derive? Edmund Wilson, a dominant literary critic from the 1920s through the 1960s, places its source, one might say, authoritatively. “The implied position of people who know about literature (as is also the case with every other art),” Wilson wrote, “is simply that they know what they know, and that they are determined to impose their opinions by main force of eloquence or assertion on the people who do not know.”

“Those who cannot do, teach,” George Bernard Shaw famously said, but he would never have said that those who cannot create art, criticize—for he himself, the leading playwright of his day, wrote strong theater and music criticism. One of the many accusations against critics is that they are frustrated artists. Not, as it turns out, true, or certainly not always. The best critics of poetry have been poets: in the modern age, these have included T. S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, W. H. Auden, and Randall Jarrell. Many other important critics have devoted themselves exclusively to criticism without, so far as one knows, ever attempting art: F. R. Leavis in literature, B. H. Haggin in music, Clement Greenberg in visual art, Robert Warshow in film.

The chief purpose of criticism, as T. S. Eliot formulated it, is “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” The able critic does this through comparison (with other works) and analysis (of the work at hand). When it comes to older works, the result usually leads to deflation or enhanced appreciation. If he is good at his task, the critic will have done an aesthetic service by instructing the rest of us, the incognescenti, in the intricacies and ultimate quality of the art we ourselves have already experienced or soon will.

The reviewer advises you on what to see, read, hear, or not to see, read, hear. The critic accounts for the aesthetic principles underlying his judgments and sets out the significance, or insignificance, of the work at hand.

Then there is the more complicated matter of critics instructing artists. (Highly conscious artists, of course, are their own most stringent and best critics.) As men and women who have presumably trained themselves to see trees and forest both, critics can be helpful to artists in informing them where and how they have gone askew or cheering them on when they are doing important work? Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg not only wrote about the contemporary visual art of their day but also coached, for better or worse, many of the artists who produced it. In the best of all worlds, the relation between artists and critics is symbiotic, each helping the other. Most artists would of course prefer to have critics on their side, especially in those situations where criticism weighs in heavily on the commercial fate of the art in question. Without interesting art, of course, critics are out of business.

The one ticket to heaven critics may possess is acquired through their discovery of new art or promotion of neglected art. H. L. Mencken earns a ticket here for helping to establish and find a wider readership for the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather. Edmund Wilson was invaluable in his day for introducing readers, in his book Axel’s Castle, to the great modernist writers and through his reviews in the New Republic and later in the New Yorker to a wide range of works, foreign and domestic, they might never have discovered on their own. Wilson prided himself on what he called his efforts at international literary cross-pollination.

Critics can be immensely disputatious among themselves, and have over the years formed schools from which schisms and thereby further schools have resulted. “Criticism, far from being a simple and orderly field of beneficent activity from which impostors can be readily ejected,” Eliot wrote, “is no better than a Sunday park of contending and contentious orators, who have not even arrived at the articulation of their differences.” Nor, usually, do they, ever.

A. O. Scott, one of the current movie reviewers of the New York Times, uses this Eliot quotation in the survey of the schools and fields of criticism that appears in his book Better Living Through Criticism.1 Note that I have called Scott a “reviewer” and not a “critic.” The reviewer advises you on what to see, read, hear, or not to see, read, hear. The critic accounts for the aesthetic principles underlying his judgments and sets out the significance, or insignificance, of the work at hand.

The distinction is a useful one, and it is noteworthy that Scott fails to explain the difference anywhere in his book. This is a mark of the work’s thinness, and how it inadvertently reveals the true condition of criticism in our time. Better Living Through Criticism is intended as an argument in favor of the enduring power of a great and noble form, but it is in some ways more akin to an obituary.


ot yet fifty, the son of academics, a Harvard magna cum laude, a former assistant to Robert Silvers, the founding editor of the New York Review of Books, A.O. Scott has the perfect resumé of the contemporary bien pensant. Scott is a writer in the glib school of New York Times critics begun by John Leonard and continued by Frank Rich. He is a man who refers to “late capitalism,” always a giveaway phrase for those who wish to make plain their progressivist credentials. (What, one wonders, is to follow late capitalism? Early Utopianism, perhaps; or, possibly, middle Gulag?) Contemporary glibness leaves its greasy prints nearly everywhere on his pages. He avails himself of the words “bullshit,” “sucked,” “punked.” In discussing Kant, he writes: “Having nothing better to do in the Prussian city of Königsberg, [Kant] set about investigating the nature of taste.” He refers to “the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin riffing on an aphorism of the pre-Socratic philosopher Antilochus.” At other times he can become grandiloquent. Apropos of John Ford’s movie The Searchers, he writes: “The mythology of The Searchers has grown more troubling and volatile over time, as it reveals the racial animus and patriarchal ideology, the violence and paranoia, woven into the nation’s deepest well-springs of identity.” Beware, I advise, white men calling other white men racist.

Scott also enjoys taking a refreshing dip in the bathwater of political correctness. He scores off Robert Warshow for his “unreflecting sexism” for using the word “man” instead of the more, as they now say, inclusive “persons,” though Warshow did so more than 60 years ago. He defends jazz, which he feels was insufficiently appreciated because it was the art of a minority group, when it needs no defense, and has always been an art with a small but devoted following, black and white. Elsewhere, siding with the young, he writes: “To look at the record of contempt for jazz, hip hop, disco, rock ‘n’ roll, video games, comic books, and even television and film is to witness learned and refined people making asses of themselves by embracing their own ignorance.”

Scott grew up reading, in the Village Voice and in Rolling Stone, “a great many reviews of things long before I saw them, and in a lot of cases reading the reviews of something I would never experience firsthand was a perfectly adequate substitute for the experience.” He read “Stanley Crouch on jazz, Robert Christigau and Ellen Willis on rock, J. Hoberman and Andrew Sarris on film, Peter Schjeldahl on art.” He was especially taken by a critic named C(ynthia). Carr, who wrote on avant-garde and underground theatre and performance art; what won him over to her was less her ideas than “the charisma of her voice.”

In Scott’s writing, one senses a man much worried about being thought out of it. This fear of not being au courant is a key element in his view of the role of the reviewer. Toward the end of his book he notes that “there is a moral danger—a danger to morale, and to decency—that many of us [reviewers] face as we age.” The danger turns out to be a lapse into nostalgia, a loss of youthful ideals, with a corresponding loss of critical energy. But, then, the kind of reviewer-critic Scott admires is one willing to make mistakes, and for whom one of the gravest mistakes is moderation. One has to imagine, say, Harold Bloom, but a Harold Bloom dragging in Emerson and Freud to write about comic books.


ike the A student he is, Scott brings in the usual suspects from the past on the subject of criticism: Johnson, Shelley, Wordsworth, Arnold, Pater, Wilde, Mencken, Orwell, Trilling, and the obligatory Walter Benjamin. No mention is made, however, of Randall Jarrell, who, as long ago as 1952, fourteen years before Scott was born, adumbrated Scott’s career in an essay called “This Age of Criticism.” Jarrell wrote: “These days, when an ambitious young intellectual finishes college, he buys himself a new typewriter [make that laptop], rents himself a room, and settles down to write…book reviews, long critical articles, explications.” Jarrell, a poet who was the best critic of poetry of his generation, adds: “No wonder poor poets became poor critics, and count themselves blest in the bargain; no wonder young intellectuals become critics before, and not after, they have failed as artists. And sometimes—who knows?—they might not have failed; besides, to have failed as an artist may be a more respectable and valuable thing.”

Does popular culture require study in universities? Wasn’t the movie Casablanca somehow more enjoyable before it was recognized, in film courses and else where, as a classic?

When Jarrell wrote “This Age of Criticism,” critics were the dominant figures in American intellectual life. The leading intellectual journals of the time—Partisan Review, COMMENTARY, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Encounter in England—were filled with criticism. Of the now well-known New York Intellectuals, only three, Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz and Mary McCarthy, were imaginative writers, and the poems of Schwartz and the novels of McCarthy might never had got the attention they did without their criticism running, so to say, interference for them. The other New York Intellectuals—Warshow, Philip Rahv, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Clement and Martin Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, et alia—were critics; the young Norman Podhoretz started out as a literary critic. The universities harbored such critics as R. P. Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Yvor Winters, Ian Watt, and Robert Heilman. Critics in that day were much esteemed; they were heroes of culture. With the blurring of high and popular culture, they could no longer be so. Better Living Through Criticism suggests, if only by omission, why this is so.


he book is divided between chapters that are disquisitions on various aspects of the traditions of, and changes over the years in, criticism, and chapters that are set up as dialogues in which a Mister Interlocutor, as the old minstrel shows had it, asks the author questions about his own critical career. The book is meant to be a justification for criticism and an apologia pro vita sua of sorts for Scott’s choice of career.

What Better Living Through Criticism leaves out is the old but still essential distinction between highbrow and popular art. Since the time of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) critics of all arts were given their assignment, which was to discover and promulgate the glories of culture, which was itself “a study of perfection.” This same culture, according to Arnold, “seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light.” Under these marching orders, critics were to be simultaneously missionaries and propagandists. Theirs was a search and destroy mission. They were to search out all that qualified under the rubric “best that has been thought and known” and to destroy all that was pretentious, drivel, crap, which included all middlebrow and most popular culture.

Of course not all popular culture is drivel or crap. Lots of it gives pleasure without bringing corruption in its wake. Much of it informs us, in ways that high culture does not, about the way we live now, which was once the task of the novel. Yet does popular culture require study in universities? Does it require a corpus of criticism? Wasn’t the movie Casablanca somehow more enjoyable before it was recognized, in film courses and else where, as a classic? Why do I find it immensely appealing that the late Julius Epstein, who with his brother Philip wrote the screenplay for Casablanca, when complimented on the movie, replied, “Yes, it’s a pretty slick piece of shit.”

In an earlier day some believed that even attacking popular culture, which then often went by the name “kitsch,” wasn’t worth the time and energy put into it. Best to leave it alone altogether. Harold Rosenberg twitted (not, mind, tweeted) Dwight Macdonald for spending so much time writing about the movies. What Rosenberg thought of Robert Warshow’s interest in popular culture is not known. Warshow’s tactic was neither to attack nor exult in popular culture, but to explain its attractions. His two essays on why Americans were attracted to gangster and western movies are among the most brilliant things ever written on the movies and on popular culture generally.

Today the standard of highbrow culture has been worn away, almost to the point of threadbareness. For political reasons, universities no longer feel obligated to spread its gospel. Western culture—dead white males and all that—with its imperialist history has long been increasingly non grata in humanities departments. Everywhere pride of place has been given to the merely interesting—the study of gay and lesbian culture, of graphic novels and comic books, and more—over the deeply significant. Culture, as it is now understood in the university and elsewhere, is largely popular culture. That battle has, at least for now, been lost.


n “This Age of Criticism,” Jarrell was actually bemoaning the spread of criticism, which he felt was choking off the impulse to create stories, plays, and poems. He also felt critics were insufficiently adventurous, content to dwell lengthily on the same small body of classic works. His dream of repressing the field has come to be a reality.

And so we are left with A.O. Scott, whose key thesis is that criticism is “the art of the voice.” His own voice, in his reviews and in Better Living Through Criticism, is that of a man who vastly overestimates his own voice’s significance and charm. The Age of Criticism Randall Jarrell condemned is over and done with—but in a way he would not in the least have approved. Were he alive today, Jarrell might have to seek work reviewing video games.

1 Penguin, 283 pp.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link