Archive for April, 2016

Quick Critic Critique

April 27, 2016

Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott came out this year (2016). Criticism is a worthwhile activity that Scott certainly has the chops for. The book expands upon the role criticism plays, mainly within the arts and culture purview. A major contribution Scott makes is to re-remind us that criticism is the stepchild of any relationship. Pan briefly, dear reader, to a New Yorker style cartoon of two pigs feeding their faces at the trough of an industrial ag operation. One says to the other: “The lighting could be better in here.” And so it goes with criticism – it is an enhancement to the relationship or activity at hand. Scott likewise enjoins that criticism is an extension of art itself, an enhancement or even an embellishment. He traces much of the history of western European criticism. With that history comes the heavy reliance on argument, and the binary elements of form/content, nature/nurture, etc. (for every tit, a tat). He fails to break free of this. One senses that Scott “knows” there is something else to criticism but his historical expertise with western European thought inhibits such articulation. He touches on it when he promotes criticism as being a constituent component of art itself, part of quality. The Stalinist era Soviet literary scholar and critic Mikhail Bakhtin took an analogous tact by positing criticism as a necessary aid to understanding. The artist, along with the viewer/reader/audience, is “incomplete” in their knowledge or understanding of the activity or relationship at hand. The created work, within the process of becoming sensible, makes certain demands, revealing certain aspects of the author or artist. In becoming sentient, it articulates qualities the artist or author hasn’t considered – restrictions, agendas, outcomes, consequences, etc. (almost like Galatea and Pygmalion or Pinocchio). The artists as well as the viewers are likewise “incomplete” in their knowledge or understanding of themselves/each other. There is a segment of ourselves that we cannot see/appreciate/grasp. Yet others see it readily (for they stand outside the person). We rely on them to inform us. Academics term this “dialogical criticism” (involving more than one, a dialogue form) and students all remember the “more than one” part without noting the “incomplete” part. Scott likewise misses this characteristic of not only the works to be critiqued, but of those experiencing and engaged in the activity critiqued (why so much criticism centers on theater and cinema). Completion is the unspoken basic assumption underlying most western European “conceptual” definition, be it art, science, economics, etc. (if it’s conceptual, it’s complete). In a recently aired (4-24-16) Le Show interview with Harry Shearer, economist James Galbraith spoke about the inability of mainstream economists/policy makers to recognize this assumption. Criticism is disconcerting because, by its very being, it calls attention to this incompleteness. To cut to the chase (as this is a “quick” critic critique), does the lighting contribute to the repast or is it of no consequence – the consumption of swill being complete in itself?