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(Response Paper) The Conundrum in the Stars: Appeasing the Human Mind with Art and Criticism

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In response to: “What is Criticism? (A Preliminary Dialogue)” and “The Critic as Artist and Vice Versa” in the book “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth” by A. O. Scott

A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class

After reading “What is Criticism? (A Preliminary Dialogue)” and “The Critic as Artist and Vice Versa” in the book “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth,” writer A.O. Scott led me to remembering the stars in the night sky, as well as the constellations formed through the stars. The way people see and try to understand and/or imbibe art and criticism depends on one’s perspective and place in the world (and the universe). It is impossible to have a single answer to certain questions and concerns, including the seemingly very simple yet very challenging questions “What is art?” and “What is criticism?” To find a particular answer to each conundrum, one can look at the vast sky and study the patterns and shapes formed through the stars. One sees a constellation and focuses on that. After spending enough time with it, there may be some form of epiphany. The answer lies in the stars, as some would say. While this epiphany or eureka moment provides an articulated answer somehow, in some way, this answer is not all-encompassing. It is an answer fitting only this particular aspect of the constellation. One can only look at one part of the sky at a time, and perhaps, look at some constellations at a time, but it is impossible to see the entire universe to find a single answer to everything.

“What is Criticism? (A Preliminary Dialogue)”

In “What is Criticism? (A Preliminary Dialogue),” Scott admirably answered questions to somewhat intimidatingly composed questions. In trying to find that undoubtedly elusive answer to the question “What is criticism,” the expected response on whether it is “a job, a form of journalism or scholarship, or an intellectual discipline,” or perhaps it is “a less specialized undertaking like playing cards or cooking or riding a bike” that relatively anyone can directly learn how to do, or perhaps it is “a more elementary, more reflexive activity like dreaming, breathing or crying,” meant running in circles. When he responded saying “Thinking is where criticism begins,” then the line to the supposedly never-ending drawing of a circle finally deviated to go another direction, an interesting one at that. He moved further implying “critical thinking goes beyond the mere consumers of culture.”

Scott responded to the infamous Twitter beef he had with actor Samuel Jackson after publishing his New York Times review of “Avengers.” Jackson who played Nick Fury in the blockbuster hit posted in Twitter “#Avengers fans,NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” In no time, Scott was being picked on for his stand on the movie as a corporate spectacle with no intention more than blockbuster conformity. And while my line of thought somehow urges me to discuss this Scott-Jackson incident further, let me head back to what this paper aims to focus on, and in so doing, it may also address the root of such kind of backlash against film critics. Interestingly though, the said commotion ended up as a win-win situation for both Scott (for gaining a few hundred Twitter followers and reaching more people for awareness, while other critics stand up for the integrity and importance of their profession) and Jackson (for contributing publicity to the movie and for igniting a good discourse on the issue for the world wide web to indulge in). As the cliché goes, “good or bad publicity is always good publicity.”

Scott explained how it is a critic’s job to dig through how people regard art. Quoting him, “We trivialize art. We venerate nonsense. We can’t see past our own bullshit.” While it is “the job of art to free our mind,” it is “the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Indeed, putting an art work in intellectual scrutiny requires thinking – critical thinking. This means exploring a world beyond what is already there, far beyond the comforts of groupthink. For him, being a critic means “putting our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.”

“The Critic as Artist and Vice Versa”

In Scott’s discussion of George Steiner’s attack on criticism being a “defense of art” in “The Critic as Artist and Vice Versa,” I agree with Scott who’s in complete disagreement with the quote “If art is to live, criticism must die.” He further explained how “criticism is often perceived as time-bound and reactionary, helpful but disposable,” as how it is generally treated in the society. However, criticism is actually there for the defense of art itself. As cultural critic H.L. Mencken said, a critic is there “for no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully,” ending his words with “and make an articulate noise in the world.” This makes me go back to my response paper about the Susan Sontag essay “Against Interpretation” entitled “Discourse in Art: Beyond Interpretation, Form, and Content.” For me, “art fosters discourse. The very discourse sprouting from it already services the art work and its audience because this puts value to art in the society, whether positively or otherwise.”

It is interesting to learn about the many renowned critics who were also distinguished artists, as Scott mentioned in his book. These names include Charles Baudelaire who brilliantly wrote about modern painting without harming his standing as a celebrated poet, the great composer Hector Berlioz who was a preeminent music critic, the acclaimed English-language drama critic George Bernard Shaw who also turned out as a reputable English-language dramatist, and the esteemed architect Le Corbusier whose writings about architecture turned out as influential as his buildings. In cinema, a good number of key French New Wave directors also found success in film criticism, particularly those associated with the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, including Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and François Truffaut. In the Philippine setting, film scholars including Joel David described in one of his essays how National Artist for Cinema Ishmael Bernal also successfully worked as a well-respected film critic.

Scott said that “every writer is a reader, every musician a listener, driven by a desire to imitate, to correct, to improve, or to answer the models before them.” It is worth noting how he initially pointed out how a critic is often described as a failed artist, and eventually, he goes back to this by pointing out how “an artist is a failed critic who is unable to appreciate what already exists without adding to it.” He further explained, “it does not seem to me inaccurate to say that all art is successful criticism.” This led me to infer that criticism also becomes essential in the fields of archaeology and anthropology, and at some point, even psychology and other intertwining disciplines in the social sciences as well. Generations and generations of art works, as well as generation after generation of critiques of these works, allow us to learn more about humanity. There is a beautiful clash between the precision of science and the subjectivity in art. It is such a wonder how “The past,” according to T. S. Eliot, is “altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

The nature of art is for a spark of idea to turn into a creative expression. History tells us how even the most successful artists started out as audience members, often times looking up to the great artists from current and older generations. Finding inspiration in prior works of art, an up-and-coming musician would initially cover his or her favorite songs. Apprentices train with masters. As mentioned in the reading, a young painter named Picasso began his career evoking Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, and other Spanish masters in his early paintings. A young Jean-Luc Godard used to be a disciple, as well as the interpreter, of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. A young Quentin Tarantino revolutionized audio-visual remixes of cinema classics in his early works. Copying, transforming, and combining prior sources from the past to the present, from one generation to another, come in many forms with the terms paying homage, becoming a source of inspiration, spoofing, honoring, and repurposing, to name a few, becoming part of the artistic process of the past, the present, and the future. Reinvention moves forward from an artist of one generation to the next, so goes with the development of technology involved in art creation.

I concur with Scott when he said, “creation and analysis work together like a hinge that conjoins twin activities.” This supports the argument that artists are critics themselves. As they grow and master their craft, they become more autonomous and confident that they can even thrive beyond the work of their predecessors, including their very own heroes and heroines.

As Scott described how Our drive to create originates in — and compensates for — a primal feeling of alienation, of lostness in the universe and confusion about our identity,” I remembered my scriptwriting workshop with the renowned and respectable scriptwriter and mentor Ricky Lee when he described how the conflict in a film’s narrative involves the character’s struggle against her or his own imperfection/s and the imperfect life in this world. Narratives have conflicts because we try to be complete. We attempt to answer questions to fill up the void inside and outside us. All the more that these insights further come into play with Scott’s mentioning of Greek tales including that of Prometheus and the insights of Italian artist and historian Giorgio Vasari who expressed that “art is always tending toward perfection.” Being humans living in an imperfect world, critiques seem to try to make sense of the great, the imperfect, and everything else in between.

Scott concluded, “there is no single category or set of criteria to fit as a universal guide” to critique a work of art because too many things come into play – culture, history, technology, and existing canons of craft. He said that “To judge is the bedrock of criticism. Whether or not it’s our job, we do judge.” Clearly, humans can’t help it because it is human nature.

One crucial realization I had, strengthening my thoughts on the subject after reading this book, is that art and criticism are on two opposite ends – and opposites work as great lovers. Opposite attracts. Diversity is exciting. Too much uniformity can make things boring. Moreover, one thing that puts further value to both art and criticism is knowing one’s roots. Exposing ourselves with and studying and understanding our past are both inspiring and enlightening. In this regard, studying art and history becomes an essential part of understanding the world and humanity. In the case of film criticism, film studies hone one’s need to articulate what one thinks and feels. A critic chooses a path toward knowledge, awareness, judgment, sense of direction, and articulation. He or she must choose one part of the vast night sky to look at and study the stars, their inherent beauty and value in the universe, and appease his or her human mind with complex awe, curiosity, and splendor serving as his or her means of making sense of questions with no absolute answers in the mundane world.

Works Cited:

Scott, Anthony O. “Introduction.” Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, Penguin Books, 2016, pp. 15–27.

David, Joel. “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic,” The Manila Review, 2015, http://themanilareview.com/issues/view/pinoy-film-criticism-a-lovers-polemic.

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Rianne Hill I. Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano is a freelance production artist working as a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. 
https://www.riannehillsoriano.com
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