Everyone’s a Critic: A.O. Scott Discusses the Role of Criticism in Modern Society

by Hal Conick

“We’re too inclined to see art as an ornament,” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott said. “We trivialize art, we venerate nonsense, we can’t see past our own bullshit.”

Scott, reading from his new book “Better Living Through Criticism” at the The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, is “foolishly optimistic” about the state criticism. He’s come to fame reviewing films for 16 years at the Times and formerly co-hosted “At The Movies” with the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who joined him on stage in Chicago.

For years, Scott had been thinking about what role criticism plays in society. Once “At The Movies” was canceled, Scott said he had more opportunity to really think about how it fits into modern life. In 2016, social media is growing even bigger, print is in crisis, and hobbyist moviegoers and music fans drive much of the conversation; so what will happen?

“The whole concept of criticism as we’ve understood it as the work of professional journalists is fading away,” Scott said, adding that he wanted to think about this quandary seriously, but not defensively. “What is the thing that’s happening when we’re arguing about a movie? People, whether we’re on television or not, will be having these arguments.”

The questions of why criticism matters and what’s at it’s heart drove Scott to write more in depth than the 800-or-so words allowed by his column. Criticism, in its truest form, is not opinion or a gut-reaction, Scott said. Those are both “meaningless” and “not useful.” Instead of a simple expression of belief, criticism can forge human expression or feeling into an argument for why they feel or think how they do. Turning the response into an argument is the important part, the raison d’être of criticism.

How can you turn the feeling, the gut response, the split-section reaction, into an argument for whether something is deserving of acclaim or destined for failure? Experiences of the moviegoer are honored by putting the mind to work, thinking past prejudices, and taking that art seriously instead of simply leaving it at “I liked it,” “I didn’t like it,” or “Meh.”

Strings of thought unraveled by criticism, of course, don’t start or end at film. Scott noted that one of the first people to really inspire him to become more critical in thought was Rolling Stone magazine’s Greil Marcus, who was able to draw “a bottomless well of meaning” something many others might simple call a catchy tune.

“There was this way he could take something, take a pop song, and open it up and find a whole world in there,” Scott said. Seeing someone dig into something that seemed so simple opened up a new world of meaning for him, he said.

At a young age, Scott started reading criticism. This meant listening to music differently, reading differently, and most pertinent to his career, watching films differently. It started with Woody Allen’s classic “Annie Hall,” as Scott said he understood all the “jokey-jokes,” but the urge to understand the context of the things Alvy Singer and Annie Hall were doing and saying drove him to become critical.

In his youth, Scott saw other critics giving strong opinions of a film he loved or hated and it drove him to want to understand the argument. Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker from the late 1968 to 1991, stunned him by writing about her love for “Flash Gordon,” leaving him confused as to how any adult could enjoy that movie. This is where he learned that some of the best criticism can be “oppositional, in a way.”

Scott admits his process for reviewing films has changed immensely over the last decade, especially as the “rush criticism,” common at film festivals and quickly after new releases, takes place. He frequently taps the proverbial breaks, he said, finding ways to slow down and strike a balance between new media and critical thought.

Asked by a member of the audience if he believes people will ever “get tired of reading Twitter,” or what Phillips referred to as “Karaoke critics,” Scott said the constituency of criticism is still there and will always be there. He’s heartened by the reemergence of bookshops, vinyl, art film houses as signs of intelligent, critical life. And things aren’t all bad; Twitter gives a window into the mind of readership their own unique analysis.

“The noise is always going be there,” he said, adding that the reading public may be discovering the limits of user generated content. While the fight for readership and eyeballs between consummate professionals and excited amateurs may remain contentious for years to come, as intellectual life tends to, Scott chooses to stay optimistic, foolish or not, when it comes to the battle of the noise versus the intellectual mind.

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