Everywhere and nowhere: A. O. Scott on criticism

There is a minor genre of books bemoaning the state of contemporary criticism. According to most of them, the “crisis” in criticism is internal or self-inflicted: it comes from critics who have lost interest in making judgments, or perhaps who only know how to make the wrong kinds of judgments. A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism is a departure from this narrative, but a vexing one. As a guide to understanding the material conditions behind criticism’s present woes, it falls short. But his positive vision of criticism opens up some interesting and neglected theoretical avenues.

The book is pitched as a defense of criticism. But against whom, or what? A defense requires a set of fairly determinate challengers and charges to be rebutted. Scott offers neither of these. Instead, he wanders through a series of essays that offer nuggets of erudition on loosely related topics in the (recent) history and reception of criticism. He cites a number of previous writers and theorists (Kant, Sontag, Henry James, Yvor Winters, Edmund Wilson) who comprise strands of the critical genealogy that he wants to recover, but these figures are only laid beside one another, never woven together.

Scott’s main opponent, as the book’s dialogue chapters suggest, seems to be himself. Read this way, the book is a therapeutic exercise, an attempt to quiet his own skeptical worries about the value of what he is paid to do. A book about criticism written in the form of confessional self-analysis might be an interesting conceit if pursued seriously and at length, but Scott lets his doubts remain flickering and unfocused, cloaked in amusing self-deprecation. It’s telling that the actual objections that arise in the text scarcely merit a response. For instance, an entire chapter humorously dissects popular representations of the critic’s personality, but does anything seriously need to be said in response to conversation-stopping claims that critics are jealous elitists or meanspirited parasites?

In any case, what is actually driving Scott’s writing is not trifling complaints like these, but a partially articulated anxiety about the zeitgeist as a whole, the constellation of trends and forces slowing eroding the standing of criticism within the intellectual culture at large. Fragments of what could have been the book’s main argument are scattered throughout the text, in the passages where Scott comments on how the public space for critical discourse is being swamped by creeping Yelpification, the spread of amateur reviewing on blogs and other platforms, and the algorithmic generation of recommendation lists and consumer taste profiles. All of these are means of directing our attention to some cultural products rather than others, and therefore potential usurpers of the critic’s role: namely, to transmit their own sense of what is interesting and worthwhile, thereby saving otherwise neglected works from being swept away on the rapids of history.

From such materials one could muster an argument that criticism is becoming hopelessly dispersed by the churning eddies of capital. It’s true, after all, that cultural and market forces have decimated the traditional newspaper and magazine criticism that Scott is so plainly wistful for. Prestige publications like the Times and the New Yorker continue to employ full-time critics, but the majority of writers are freelancers, working ad hoc for venues that are often digital, ephemeral, and low-paying.

This sketch of the dispersed, precarious conditions under which art criticism is produced suggests that a materialist analysis of criticism needs to go beyond the simple terms in which Scott couches it. It would need to address who writes criticism and under what conditions of production, who pays (or doesn’t pay) to publish it, who its actual or intended audience is, and what measurable influence it has in shaping tastes, reputations, and markets. It’s telling that these basic questions receive no discussion in Scott’s work. As Manuel Betancourt points out, Scott’s paradigms of critical authorship are frequently white and male, which certainly fails to reflect the diversity of contemporary art writing. Similarly, the audiences and expected impact for a review in Artforum, a scholarly essay in October, a post on e-flux, and a column in the New York Times are far from the same. Even lumping these writings together as if they belonged to a single practice called “criticism” may be a mistake.

In all of this, it’s important to separate three possible senses in which it might be sensible to talk about a critical crisis. The first is the sort of crisis in publishing described above, in which legacy industries are swept aside, reformed, and possibly replaced. The second is a crisis of authority, in which competing voices from outside of the traditional mainstream attempt to elbow their way into the discourse. This is related to the crisis in publishing, since the decline of these mainstream outlets that has given these outsiders more visibility, but it centers more on worries about amateurism versus professionalism and the source of critical credentials and authority. Finally, there is a crisis of writing. This is the locus of the familiar charge that critics have become more interested in description and self-expression than in making finely honed judgments about artistic quality. This is the form of the crisis that was most often discussed in the first recent wave of crisis mongering, but it bears no intrinsic relationship to the other two (although a case could be made that the rise of “contemporary art English” does).

In any case, if the threats to criticism are mainly driven by changes in the broader publishing landscape, a book like Scott’s, for all its merits, can’t possibly be the cure. Large-scale and mutually reinforcing technological, institutional, economic, and social transitions are deaf to paeans to the value of critical discourse, even when they are couched in such lively, learned, and inquisitive prose as his. These problems are, at the moment, receiving a lot of discussion—witness, for instance, the SuperScript conference held at the Walker Art Center in May, 2015, at which a number of open  possibilities for the future of art writing were debated.

Still, I want to put them aside for now and close by returning to a systematic ambiguity in how Scott understands the concept of criticism. Often he means it to be a purely professional designation, as when he is focusing on the different roles that academics and journalists play in the critical ecosystem. At other times, though, he sees criticism not as a publicly conducted writing practice with a specific origin and history, but in more universal terms, as a kind of mental act; perhaps even as coextensive with thought itself. While criticism in the first sense may be near extinction, in the latter sense it is deathless, manifest everywhere.

In this expansive understanding, Scott claims not only (1) that criticism is an art, but also (2) that art depends on criticism for its health and progress, and finally (3) that art itself is also criticism. Of course, the terms of this syllogism are slippery and self-undermining. If art is criticism, then it’s not clear why criticism as a separate artform is necessary—presumably whatever critical impetus is needed to keep art changing and progressing could be provided by the inner critical resources of artists themselves. In fact, this seems obviously true, since art criticism as it is written now is a set of highly contingent practices. Whatever origin point one picks out for it (Pliny, Vasari, Diderot, etc.), it is clear both that these modes of writing have waxed and waned over time and also that they are only one force among many shaping the trajectory of art. Weak periods for criticism can nevertheless produce extremely strong art.

In any case, the health of a certain form of writing is not the same as the persistence of a mode of thought. The book’s most suggestive ideas concerning the relationship between the two are (1) and (3). Consider the idea that criticism itself is an artform, a position that descends from Oscar Wilde and has been recently taken up by James Grant in The Critical Imagination. Near the book’s end, Scott settles on a definition of criticism as the act of paying close attention to an object of interest, and of making these acts of attention interesting to others. Criticism is a mechanism for expressing and transmitting interest. This communicative conception clearly ties in with the social function of critics as cultural salvage operators (what Orit Gat calls a “service” or “discovery-oriented” practice). There is much more to say about how this incompletely sketched account of critical practice relates to others.

Finally, consider the idea that all art is, in some way, a form of criticism. For Scott, criticism can be of anything that a person can be interested in, a property that is presumably shared by art itself. So insofar as an artwork has any sort of subject matter of interest, and involves the attempt to make the scrutiny of that object interesting to an audience, that artwork counts as criticism by this definition. Presumably this captures what is going on in many works—even if it might seem odd to say that they are pieces of criticism.

I can imagine objecting that this inclusiveness shows that there must be something wrong with Scott’s notion of criticism after all, but instead I want to consider whether it opens up the possibility that artworks might constitute art criticism in particular. This can’t be true of all of them, since even if all art contributes to an endless conversation with other works, they aren’t part of the direct subject matter of every work. But many works do take others as part of their subject matter, whether to comment on them as art historical precedents, or to consciously cite the history of the medium, or to parody other artists, or to best their achievements. In all of these cases, the work produced may achieve its own interest in part because of how it engages with and comments on its predecessors and contemporaries.

The idea of visual, or at least non-verbal, art criticism is one that has little theoretical precedent, but I’ll be returning to it in future posts, particularly to cases of images that criticize texts. It’s a virtue of Scott’s broad understanding of criticism that it liberates it from writing and thereby gives us the tools to make sense of these ekphrastic reversals.

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