A few weeks ago, teenagers Kevin Nguyen and T. J. Khayatan found themselves bored and unimpressed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). They placed a pair of glasses on the floor a few inches from the gallery wall; passersby began to notice, treating the glasses like they were part of the exhibition.
The two posted a photo of the prank on Twitter, and the story went viral, with coverage from The Huffington Post, NBC, The New York Times, and more. As one might expect, it evoked a range of reactions, from SFMOMA’s lighthearted response (“Do we have a Marcel Duchamp in our midst?”) to angry commentary about the emptiness and absurdity of contemporary art.
For much of the last century, debates of this sort have raged. Duchamp, referenced in SFMOMA’s tweet, is perhaps most famous for his work “Fountain,” which premiered in 1917. The work is an ordinary urinal, which Duchamp signed “R. Mutt 1917,” placed on a pedestal, and displayed in an art gallery. In the century since, many artists have taken “found” objects and placed them in galleries. Jeff Koons did it with Hoover vacuum cleaners and Nike posters. Damien Hirst did it with taxidermy. Along the way, “Is this art?” continues to echo in the halls of galleries.
At the same time, the rise of pop culture and mass culture has given us a proliferation of books, movies, records, and TV shows. We live in an age of weighty dramas like The Wire and Mad Men, and also an age of ever-expanding Star Wars and Marvel franchises. The former earn the praise of critics while the latter explode box-office records. Arrested Development cleans up at awards shows but can’t attract enough of an audience to warrant its place on Fox. The next big comic book movie is sure to make an obscene amount of money—and just as sure to earn the scorn of film critics.
“What do the critics know?” we ask. “Why should we care what they think?” Critics praise the absurd and nonsensical in the art galleries, the heavy and slow in the cinema, seemingly intent on offending the masses with their counterintuitive takes on what’s good, what’s bad, what’s popular, and why.
Driven by Love
These issues are at the heart of A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. In a way, the book is a direct response to a line of criticism directed at Scott by Samuel L. Jackson. When Jackson’s film The Avengers released, Scott wrote in The New York Times: “The secret of The Avengers is that it is a snappy little dialogue comedy dressed up as something else, that something else being a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.”
Jackson attacked Scott on Twitter and in the press, suggesting Scott find a new job—“one he can actually do.” This feud became a widespread web phenomenon, with no little vitriol directed at Scott.
In response, Scott offers Better Living Through Criticism, which might have been better titled A Defense of Criticism, since that’s what the book actually is. It’s a look inside the mind of this particular critic and the world of criticism in general. Scott argues the critics are artists, albeit the lowest on the totem pole of artistic endeavor. Their job is to behold the work of other artists and render the experience into words, something many artists and critics argue isn’t entirely possible. He acknowledges the oddity of critics and their place as a kind of scavenger and hanger-on. “What kind of man sits through Kung Fu Panda scowling and taking notes?” (141).
But he also defends their place as one whose project is driven by love—love for the art criticized and the experience of rapture only good art (whether a Grecian Urn, punk rock show, or Hollywood epic) can deliver. The critic enters a world flooded by mediocrity, suffers its lukewarm waters, and emerges with the pearls for the rest of us.
Flood of Mediocrity
Hannah Arendt described this flood of mediocrity in a 1961 essay from Between Past and Future. In this world, there is a disposability to most of what Hollywood offers: “The entertainment industry is confronted with gargantuan appetites, and since its wares disappear in consumption, it must constantly offer new commodities.” Things aren’t meant to last or become part of the “culture”—which Arendt describes as art that’s cultivated, kept for generations to come:
Mass society . . . wants not culture but entertainment and the wares offered by the entertainment industry are indeed consumed by society just like any other consumer goods. . . . The commodities the entertainment industry offers are not “things,” cultural objects, whose excellence is measured by their ability to . . . become permanent appurtenances of the world. . . . They are consumer goods, destined to be used up, just like any other consumer goods.
Arendt’s description is important and helpful; when art is a consumer good—or more specifically, when a movie is a consumer good—it has a kind of expiration date. Jackson, in his reaction to Scott’s criticism, went so far as to acknowledge that The Avengers was “a piece of bull**** pop culture.” Movies like this are destined, in large part, to vanish with time, to become “dated” or obscure. Arendt contrasts this kind of consumable artifact with art that should endure and find a place in a safeguarded, preserved body of work we call “culture.”
Thus we can imagine people 100 years from now watching The Godfather or reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s harder to imagine them watching Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet or reading Miles to Go, the 2009 autobiography of Miley Cyrus.
But while some of these distinctions are obvious, some are not. It’s hard to sort the good from the great, and determining the criteria for differentiating is difficult. A big part of Better Living Through Criticism seems to be an effort to show what informs Scott’s assessments; he brings Kant, T. S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the book of Genesis, Bob Dylan, and Pixar into dialogue with one another. He shows the thread that connects artistic traditions, how they inform and react to one another, how criticism is intrinsic to the artistic process, and how there’s a unity to it all in the experience—however rare and fleeting it may be—of beholding a work of art that’s truly great and deeply moving.
At one point, he describes Maria Abramovic’s work, “The Artist Is Present.” Abramovic is a performance artist, and “The Artist Is Present” was part of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. During the exhibition, from the time the museum opened until the time it closed, Abramovic sat silently at a chair on one side of a table. Opposite her, in another chair, visitors to the exhibition took turns sitting, meeting her gaze. People stood in line for hours for the chance to sit across from her. Some nervously laughed, some tried talking to her (she remained silent), and many wept.
Like the glasses mentioned before, and like the many absurd and strange works that make up the world of modern art, “The Artist Is Present” provoked many to exclaim, “You call that art?!?” And of course, that is no surprise to Abramovic. In fact, that response—along with the enthusiasm of the exhibition’s visitors and the many tears shed by those sitting opposite her—emphasize the point that it is art. The extent of its provocations—anger, joy, sadness, love, ecstasy—affirm its power as a work of art.
Moreover, the performance reveals something fundamental about encounters with a work of art. Scott writes:
The attraction [Abramovic] exerted simply by announcing and sustaining her presence was perhaps a measure of—and a temporary antidote to—the profound alienation we feel from one another and from ourselves. What does it say about us that we have to go to an art museum to find connection with another soul?
But why else would we go? Why else have we ever gone? . . . The motives that bring us to the door of the museum—to the box office window or the bookstore or wherever else we find ourselves with a little time, the price of admission, and sufficient curiosity on our hands—are often casual, even banal. . . . And yet, somehow, it happens: your everyday perception is disrupted by the sense of a presence that is hard to describe but impossible to deny. (64, 65)
This experience—the sense of feeling known and understood, or lifted or broken before a work of art—separates the sheep and goats of cultural artifacts. It’s what artists hope to accomplish and what critics hope to discover.
It’s no wonder Scott finds a sort of kindred spirit in Anton Ego from Pixar’s Ratatouille. Ego, the fierce food critic whose reviews can kill a restaurant overnight, has a fanatic devotion to food. Scott finds him sympathetic. Ego’s religious love for food “produces a steady diet of disappointment in the actual, secular world of ordinary eating” (148).
People wonder why a critic like Ego (or Scott) can’t just enjoy a meal, or a movie like The Avengers, and Scott points to this fanatic devotion. Love for the great spoils love for the good, and leaves the world a disappointing place where failed potential is painful.
Longing for a Better World
Better Living Through Criticism challenges its readers to think more deeply and broadly about the art we encounter. Far from elitism, it advocates thoughtfulness and love as the primary hermeneutic for what is good. It’s a testament to Scott’s skills as a writer that he manages to talk so skillfully about beauty, the experience of transcendence, and the sublime within an entirely secular framework. And yet, one can’t help but sense that worldview stretching, cracking a bit, under the weight of Scott’s own love for and enchantment with the arts. He convinces us there’s an immense power in art that’s truly good, and invites us to a way of thinking and living that will send us searching for that kind of beauty, but he can’t (or at least, doesn’t attempt to) tell us why beauty—whether it’s a meal, a movie, or poem—has such captivating power over us.
He gets close to it at the end of the book, while discussing the end of Ratatouille. Scott views the end—in which Ego is no longer a critic—as the heart’s longing for all critics, a point where “the boundary between art and life . . . will dissolve, along with the distinction between labor and pleasure” (268). Ego’s work—his search for the sublime—has ended. In a sense, he’s come home, and has only to sit at the table and enjoy the feast, no longer suffering the mediocrity of creations that don’t reach their potential. He has found what every critic and every human being most longs for: satisfaction.
It’s a vision that’s, frankly, eschatological: a world where sorrow, disappointment, and longings end, where the soul is satisfied, and a feast awaits. It’s a vision to which I want to say “Amen,” and ask Scott: what if that’s the world we were actually made for?