Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A.O.Scott at The New School: The Critic's Critique

Introducing the prolific byliner A.O. "Tony" Scott to the crowd, moderator Greil Marcus is generous and honest -- Scott has a flair for writing, can grab a reader's attention, but fashions his essays and reviews in the New York Times in such a way that the reader is often left wondering what Scott is trying to say. This is the motivation, Marcus believes, for the reader to watch the movie Scott has just written about, or to think more deeply about Scott's underlying message, and is the mark of a successful critique, but are we convinced? Scott fidgets with the papers in his hand and we wait for his response -- a collective of piqued curiosities, pens in hands poised over notebooks, underdressed students and faculty settling into the start of a new semester.

Scott begins his talk with a warning that panels on any kind of cultural criticism -- literary, performing arts, music -- tend to be "predictable, dispiriting and masochistic affairs," so be warned. He grins, clears his throat and adjusts his glasses. Who is a critic, and who deserves to provide criticism? Who is the audience, and what are they expected to know? He draws a quick comparison between mainstream criticism -- the stuff in books and print media -- and the blogosphere -- that whiny crowd of "self-credentialed elite." But perhaps the old-fashioned critics are just that, "dinosaurs," and it's the information-at-their-fingertips generation who craft more nimble opinions. Does criticism follow any rules, or does the "wide open space" of the internet that encourages such "unregulated discourse" allow for more free-flowing thought?

Visual cues help. Scott asks: who do we imagine a critic to be and recalls Anton Ego from the Pixar film Ratatouille -- a word he elocutes cautiously, giving each 't' a moment to resonate -- who, if we recall the movie, is a gaunt man, perennially frowning at the plate of food cowering before him. "Weirdly monastic," Ego is that stereotypical critic who is "devoted to an art form" but a "miserable, terrifying authority figure" at the same time -- an "intrinsic tension" ubiquitous to art and criticism. Ego's name isn't a coincidence, either; critics are known for thinking highly of themselves and for the opinions and reactions they are about to unleash upon an ignorant crowd. As the infamous Addison Dewitt from the movie 'All About Eve,' says in one scene:
Those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theater.
Back to that intrinsic tension: the critic doesn't toil, but he can only survive in his native habitat; the critic doesn't perform, but he is essential. When people ask Scott if it's true that all critics are failed artists, Scott jokes that in fact, all artists are failed critics. The point is, one feeds off the other: an artist is inspired by an audience's reaction to his work, just as a critic is engaged in reacting to piece of art. And so what can seem too analytical, impatient or caustic is also the critic expressing his depth of knowledge -- and, therefore, appreciation -- for something. As 20th century American critic and poet R. P. Blackmur wrote in his widely received essay 'A Critic's Job of Work,' "criticism is the discourse of an amateur." And 'amateur,' etymologically, comes from French, meaning 'lover of' or from the Latin amatorem or amator, meaning 'lover.' So, really, Dewitt's biting criticism is an ode to an art he can't live without!

Scott notes the rising "mistrust of one's own reactions" from which people suffer -- another reason for valuable criticism. Mistrust is a dangerous thing, as is mutation, but Scott -- a self-confessed "cynical, overeducated 45 year old man" -- urges the audience to respect the goal of criticism. To know enough about something and "judge fairly" is difficult, so be sincere.

In his speech 'The American Scholar' given at Cambridge University in 1837, Ralph Waldo
Emerson described the multifaceted community that is mankind, in which he asserted that "the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is, Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men's thinking." (Read the full essay here.)

Scott concludes that criticism is not meretricious* (I had to look that up), nor should it be sclerotic** (yup, that word, too). Society thrives on debate and campaigns, especially when these originate from honest, if audacious, premises. Does Scott prefer writing a kind review or a nasty one? He quotes W.H.Auden in response: "Pleasure is by no means an infallible guide, but it is the least fallible." Coherency v. truth, scholarship v. intuition, your opinion v. mine -- such is the nature of the beast, and one which Scott will continue to explore as long as his job (a word highly disputed by 9 year old skeptics of his) will allow it!

* Apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity
** Becoming rigid and unresponsive; losing the ability to adapt

No comments:

Post a Comment