A. O. Scott, Critic Without a Cause

The New York Times film writer has a take on everything but says nothing.

Doug Chayka

“You must change your life.” Those are the severe and startling words that conclude a renowned sonnet Rilke wrote in 1908, after an encounter with an ancient marble torso in the Louvre. They suggest that an experience of art is akin to a conversion experience, that an encounter with art confers not only ravishments but also obligations, that a sense of the beauty of existence entails a sense of the gravity of existence. Even the most transient of impressions may be a summons—a call to a commitment, to a spirit of seriousness about what is at stake in a life. It is an exorbitant demand.


Rilke, of course, was an athlete of transformations and an addict of transfigurations; the distinction between feeling and swooning was sometimes lost on him; and he was comically without humor. For a certain contrary impious temperament, the commandment at the end of “Archaic Torso of Apollo” will seem obnoxious, the pomp of an aesthete. (“Rilke was a jerk,” wrote Berryman with a vengeful hilarity.) Still, correcting for all the programmatic ejaculations of the Rilkean spirit, there is something inescapable about the poem’s injunction. It represents a lasting challenge to lazy habits of demystification, and to the contemporary idols of irony and charm. Perhaps there is nothing ridiculous, after all, about grandeur and consecration and transcendence and a single view of the world. Perhaps one should not return unchanged from a museum. Perhaps a decision does have to be made.

A. O. Scott is of many minds about this, as he is of many minds about everything. Rilke’s poem figures prominently in his book and he analyzes it skillfully, though he puts it in the company of the chic stunts of Marina Abramović. He describes its theme as the “momentarily disruptive impact of art on the equilibrium of everyday consciousness.” Scott is a cultivated man—one of his chapters consists in not much more than a run through Aristotle, Pope, Keats, Shelley, Arnold, Emerson, Addison DeWitt, R. P. Blackmur, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Warshow, and Susan Sontag—and he yields to nobody in his belief in the power of art. But the implications of its power make him jittery. Surely there is nothing momentary about the aftermath of the revelation in Rilke’s poem. And there is nothing “hyperbolic,” as Scott says there is, about the poet’s imperative to alter one’s life, at least not for the poet.

“People say this kind of thing all the time,” Scott explains. “Magazines publish surveys in which celebrities are asked to name the book, film, or song that changed their lives.” Indeed they do. Why is this important? Who cares what celebrities do? The vulgarization of “you must change your life” into the American pastime of personal growth may be less an indictment of Rilke and his preferred state of concentration, and more an indictment of us and our preferred state of dispersal. When it comes to the question of what bearing the lower realities of American culture should have upon its higher ambitions, Scott regularly acquiesces in too much. “Culture now lives almost entirely under the rubric of consumption,” he proclaims. Speak for yourself, friend. The fight for the integrity of aesthetic experience is not over. Scott is not a fighter, he is a man on the scene. And so he continues, in the leveling voice of the wised-up idealist that characterizes the whole of his book:

Relatively few are likely to heed the instructions Rilke inferred … Honestly, who has the time? Schoolchildren, tour-group visitants disgorged from buses, solitary students, honeymooners, and the handful of actual Parisians wandering the corridors will no doubt resume whatever lives they were leading before they came.

And so they should. Rilke did, too. After he left the Louvre, he continued to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The challenge that he issued in his poem was, rather, an inward challenge—whether the refreshment of the senses and the refinement of the mind that attends an experience of art can be made somehow to last, so that one comes to live more significantly in the commonplace, at a higher plane of consciousness. Honestly, who does not have the time? But such a duty discomfits Scott. He honors the heights but gladly descends from them, all the while wondering anxiously whether something a little less sublime, a more easeful ideal of the engagement with art, does not shrivel him into a fan or a consumer. The anxiety is fully warranted.

Better living through criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth—the title is a kind of reverse trigger warning. It offers friendly assurance to anyone who might be daunted by its vast abstractions. It is a promise of fun, which may be the only form in which we are now prepared to take our intellectual medicine. Scott’s subject is the nature of criticism, which is his profession (he is a movie critic for The New York Times) and his vocation, and he broaches his subject, which is as ancient as Aristotle and Longinus, with a preening account of his Twitter war with Samuel L. Jackson about The Avengers. As I say, fun.

About criticism Scott has various things to say—“that it is an art form in its own right; that it exists to enhance the glory of the other arts; that it is an impossible activity; that it is necessary and vital to human self-understanding; that it can never die; that it is in perpetual danger of extinction”—but his thinking vanishes into a jovial blur of local perceptions and easy paradoxes. The reader will learn many things about criticism but finally not much. These pages are full of big ideas chatted away. Philosophy is trifled with (“Immanuel Kant, having nothing better to do in the Prussian city of Königsberg, set about investigating the fundamental nature of taste”), as is profundity. In flight from intellectual heaviness, Scott arrives at intelligent weightlessness. Every notion is flipped this way and that; the answer to every question is yes and no; the proliferating examples from all the arts (Scott is vain about his range) overwhelm the observations that they are designed to illustrate; the general impression is one of an uncontrollable articulateness. Scott does not think his thoughts; he convenes them. There is not a sign of struggle anywhere.

The interest of Scott’s book lies not in its contribution to the solution of the problems it treats, but in its exemplification of our moment in American culture and American cultural journalism. It is an accurate document of the discourse of “takes.” This movie, that book, this poem, that painting, this record, that show: Make a smart remark and move on. A take is an opinion that has no aspiration to a belief, an impression that never hardens into a position. Its lightness is its appeal. It is provisional, evanescent, a move in a game, an accredited shallowness, a bulwark against a pause in the conversation. A take is expected not to be true but to be interesting, and even when it is interesting it makes no troublesome claim upon anybody’s attention. Another take will quickly follow, and the silence that is a mark of perplexity, of research and reflection, will be mercifully kept at bay. A take asks for no affiliation. It requires no commitment.

Better Living Through Criticism is a triumph of the nonaffiliated and the noncommittal. Near the end of the book, Scott declares about his fellow critics that “whether we’re cheerleading or calling bullshit, our assessment has to proceed from a sincere and serious commitment.” The commitment that he has in mind is unclear: He seems to be referring to nothing more specific than a faith in the universal possibility of art, so that the critic may become more inclusive in his search for beauty. It is an excellent scruple, but it is exceedingly general. It is a commitment that is the opposite of a choice. When it comes to making choices more concretely among works and styles and doctrines and ideals, Scott is like Isabel Archer: He is a little on the side of everything. “Choosing is the primal and inevitable mistake of criticism,” he asserts. In its context—he is discussing the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, the conflict between the ideology of the old and the ideology of the new, and arguing wisely that neither position should be dismissed—Scott’s sentence is understandable, but in the context of his entire book it is a damning admission, a gaffe of conviction.

Scott’s aversion to philosophical and aesthetic commitment; his genial refusal to take any side in the quarrels over fundamentals; his merry satisfaction with a life of sampling and commenting, of “graz[ing] among the objects”; his habit of correcting high thought with the social and economic lowdown (his film reviews are often compromised by the same winking worldliness)—all of this begins to look like the anti-intellectualism of an otherwise earnest intellectual. Scott offers many alibis for his methodological shiftiness. He deplores, for example, “our stubborn inability to see things as they are”:

Attempts to direct the practice of criticism, to discipline our attention in order to prevent or minimize error, typically force an uncomfortable choice: we are instructed to look at the shape or the substance, the outward aspect or the inner, often invisible core, the vessel or the essential stuff that has filled it up.

Scott does not grasp that the fullness of vision he seeks may occur not before the work of analysis and absorption, but only after it. A first look is a literal look. The controversies of interpretation—choices about sense and meaning and value and truth—are what reveal a thing in all its aspects. Believing is one of the conditions of seeing. “Ordinary objects” are never “simply themselves,” except for secular mysticism of the sort that Rilke pursued: “What if we are here just for saying: house, bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window …” But when we say those words, how much have we said?Like almost everyone on almost every street corner, Scott preaches epistemological humility. It is one of the chief platitudes of the day. We are finite creatures with finite standpoints. We work in the dark and we do what we can. Everything is tentative and nothing is certain. We live after Hume and after Hayek. A dream of definitiveness is a will to power. And so on. Scott similarly abhors “brazen declarations of certainty.” He takes inspiration from “the essential modesty and rigor of the scientific method.” “To participate in a debate on just about any topic,” he writes scoldingly, “is to state an allegiance, to declare oneself a partisan, and the difficult dialectical work of discerning the good, the beautiful, and the true is lost in the noise of contending pseudoprinciples.” Maybe Isabel Archer had the proper theory of knowledge.

Scott’s book presents a fine occasion to offer some resistance to all this relaxation, to broaden our understanding of intellectual possibility and to toughen our sense of intellectual urgency. Why are staunchly held and carefully defended principles “pseudoprinciples”? They may be wrong, but the fervor with which they are espoused is not what proves or disproves them. Perhaps it is their specificity that counts against them, their exclusion of other principles; but this exclusion is not coerced, it is reasoned, and anyway every principle does not go with every other principle and so every principle cannot be right. And “difficult dialectical work” is hardly antithetical to “allegiance.” Where is the crime in partisanship? Intellectually honest attachment is as common as intellectually dishonest detachment. There are parties, moreover, to which it is an honor to belong. A sense of correctness about one’s considered opinions is not mental dogmatism—it is mental self-esteem, the confidence that comes from having gone to the trouble of rigorously defending a view, and it is thoroughly compatible with an awareness of one’s fallibility.

Scott describes criticism as a realm of “intuition, judgment, and conjecture,” but he has a dubious gift for judgment that shirks choice. His likes and his dislikes are never confining, or all-in; they do not inhibit his lighthearted promiscuity, his Arts and Leisure roaming, which in his pages looks merely like curiosity and an appetite for his profession. As for the sciences, modesty is hardly all they teach: They progress by defying the limits of what is known, and they owe their excitement in part to the immodesty of the astonishments that they claim to know.

So let us learn to stretch again. The impossibility of perfect certainty does not condemn us to a vapidly uncertain life, to a life of small thoughts about small things, as if all we can be are metaphysicians or shoppers. It all depends on the scale that we elect for our questions, on how high we aim. What we do not need now is another cheerful exhortation to aim low. Scott disdains, for the partiality of their perspectives, the pessimism about movies that was expressed by some of his precursors. Yet there is more wisdom about the art of cinema to be found in the complaints of Agee and Farber and Kael and Denby and Thomson than in Scott’s garrulous and complacent musings, precisely because they state an allegiance. They are animated by large principle and an unembarrassed grand view of the art. They are criticism. Scott believes in criticism, and he believes in art, pleasure, beauty, and truth, but most of all he believes in brunch.