On March 10, Harvard’s Department of Comparative Literature welcomed A.O. Scott ’87-’88 to the Barker Center for a presentation of his new book, “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.” In a speech and a question and answer session, Scott addressed the concept of criticism as a more centered and condensed version of what people experience every day when they look at art.
As a film critic for the New York Times since 2000 and the paper’s chief film critic since 2004, Scott is well-respected in the world of criticism. He has reviewed books for Newsday and has written essays and articles for publications including Slate and the New York Review of Books. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. He currently serves as a professor of film criticism at Wesleyan University.
Scott began by musing about what scholars have in common with critics like himself. Scholars analyze texts and works in the many subcategories of art—from English to philosophy to the Romance languages—and explore their cultural and historical context and meaning. Critics like Scott judge, rank, and evaluate these same kinds of art. Indeed, according to Scott, critics and scholars aren’t opposing figures but instead operate in a kind of symbiotic relationship. “I think that critical journalism very often veers toward or rests implicitly on a basis of scholarly interest and concern,” Scott said. “I also think that a great many scholarly careers, maybe most of them, began in the throes of a fan-like enthusiasm, in the argumentative and judgmental and passionate state of enthusiasm that the other kind of criticism—the journalistic, case-based, evaluative kind—exists to serve and to inflame.”
Having graduated from Harvard with a degree in literature, now known as comparative literature, Scott also took on the role of the professor during his speech and had his audience look at two poems: Philip Larkin’s 1953 “Reasons for Attendance” and Frank O’ Hara’s 1960 “Having a Coke With You.” According to Scott, Larkin’s poem discusses art as a distraction from sex, while O’Hara’s is conversely about sex as a distraction from art. “[My] whole book is kind of in [Larkin’s] 20 lines, in that it’s about what happens to us when we encounter this thing called art,” Scott says. “Without making any great claims about ultimate stature or canonical value, it's this thing that we hear that calls us to ourselves. Through its very individuality, through that fact that it isn’t anything other than itself, [it] reminds us that we have a similar kind of integrity and authenticity in ourselves.” The second poem, in contrast, shows the connection between the idea of art—and the beauty, harmony, and excitement that the arts represent—and the idea of love, which passes in between persons. According to Scott, the former may be a substitute for the latter.
Scott then related the poems back to the discussion about criticism. “These poems to me are in a way prefaces to the discussion [about] what criticism can be, because they are discussions about what art is and what it is doing in our lives,” he said. According to Scott, art can come from a great diversity of places, even from everyday events. “What is that? What just happened? What does it mean? Why does it matter? Those are really the fundamental questions of criticism, and I’d like to think that they arise, that they erupt in the midst of everyday life, while we’re doing other things, when we don’t necessarily expect them to confront us,” he said.
Scott concluded with a reflection on his personal definition of a critic’s work. “Criticism above all is a mode of conversation,” Scott said. “It’s the way we have of talking about the very puzzling and pleasurable experience we have with works of art.”—Staff writer Mila Gauvin II can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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