What I learned from A. O. Scott about the craft and value of criticism



Last February, The New York Times spoke with its own chief film critic A. O. Scott about his then-newly released book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Although he’s a film critic, his insights into the craft and value of criticism apply to music too.

Scott addressed two issues I’d constantly struggled with: how much a critic should focus on describing and how objective a critic should be.

A recurrent theme between Scott, Chandler Levack, and Jesse Brown is that the ultimate purpose of criticism is not to tear down or build up a work; it is to develop an understanding of a work in oneself and in others.

Scott has helped me tactfully insert my subjective experience into my live reviews. I used to avoid first person no matter how awkward my sentences would end up, but he’s right: the only thing you can be sure of is your own experience. But, he stresses, you shouldn’t leave a review at “I saw this show. I thought certain things about it. I felt a certain way. I was bored, moved, frustrated, confused.” As a critic, you must turn your experience into something that might be useful or interesting to somebody else. Explore why you felt certain ways or thought certain things and what that experience was like. Compare your experience to those of others around you (as far as you can perceive, anyway). What did everyone else seem to feel? What did they comment to each other? Did their views or moods align with yours? Why or why not? What might the performance have done for them but not for you? Start with what you know. Your argument will follow from there.

Reaching these levels of understanding also provides the basis from which you can write negatively but constructively, or at least with tact. Ask of a performance or work: “What is this for? What is this doing? Who is the artist talking to? Who does the artist imagine their audience is, and how does the artist appeal to that imagined audience? How can I imagine myself in those audience’s positions? What would that experience be like? How is the music failing to speak to me?” If the piece doesn’t speak to you, it’s fine for you to say as long as you clarify your viewing context and try to understand how the piece might work for other people.

Description may be even more fundamental to criticism than understanding. Description will bring you as close to accurate judgment as possible. But, as has already been explained, reviewing is more than just giving a book report or telling what happened. Avoid these pitfalls by returning to your own experience. Your argument will follow from description.

At one point or another, most critics probably ask themselves, “Who am I to judge?” To Scott, the answer is simple: you’re just another person in the world. There are people out there, even just on Twitter, who know far more about a specific subject than critics do. But the critic’s job is to organize and extend the conversations that are going to happen anyway and are happening all the time. Plus, the fun of critiquing to Scott is that no one needs a license; there’s no bar or examination.

It’s reassuring to hear Scott express the same points that I believe about the value of taking in culture that you are not a fan of or don’t know anything about. By reading reviews outside of your specialty, not only do you broaden your knowledge; you pick up unique descriptions and inventive metaphors too. Forcing yourself (or being forced) to experience works or performances outside of your tastes or specialty forces you to think critically about those art forms. So read critics who write about topics you’re unfamiliar with or dislike, and see how those writers discuss their respective forms. And of course, there’s always the potential to be surprised – or confirm your distastes.

As a critic, you want to be useful and provide some consumer advice. But, as Scott points out obviously, readers could just be looking for something to kill time with, so you need to be entertaining too. Develop a relationship with them so they come back to your work. The critic should be a companion to them but one who’s just a few steps ahead in terms of analysis and ideas.


The New York Times: “The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism'”


I could post every thought-provoking part of this New York Times article, but I’d end up copying & pasting the entire piece. So I’ll just stick to the portions that relate to art or are broad enough that they can apply to the arts.

Kyle Chayka, the article’s author, traces the term “minimalism” back to its roots as an insult that British philosopher Richard Wollheim levied against “a group of artists whose work was characterized by ‘minimal art content’ – that is, a lack of art” in 1965. These works included industrial objects such as bricks and plain metal boxes laid out on a gallery floor.

Yet those artists and future scholars extolled the virtues of minimalism:

The austerity of their objects freed the viewer to experience the work in any way they wished. “Minimalism can return you to this basic state where you’re perceiving purely,” says David Raskin, a professor of contemporary art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Less is more because you strip away the familiar,” opening an opportunity to see the world without preconceptions. The objects might look mundane, but rather than the plain metal box on the floor, it’s the stark sensory experience the object incites that is the art, no previous knowledge necessary. The artist opens a radical infinity of possibilities. “Minimalism in the 1960s was very much along the lines of taking LSD,” says Miguel de Baca, an associate professor of art history at Lake Forest College.

From there, the term was adopted into consumer culture and became a signifier of class – a symbol of decadence. “To wealthy practitioners,” Chayka says, “minimalism is now little more than a slightly intriguing perversion, like drinking at breakfast.”

Reassuringly, attitudes are often cyclical. As Chayka points out, “already, the pendulum is swinging back,” and he is by no means the first to return the serve. Only now, the term “minimalism” is swinging back as an even more loaded insult, having gained momentum from its broader application to fashion, design, and architecture.

Returning to his main point – regarding the present classist dimension of minimalism – Chayka refers to cultural critic Arielle Bernstein:

Writing in The Atlantic in March, Arielle Bernstein described minimalism’s ban on clutter as a “privilege” that runs counter to the value ascribed to an abundance of objects by those who have suffered from a lack of them — less-empowered people like refugees or immigrants.

Having grown up on welfare in an immigrant family, I can vouch for this attachment to material things. When you are without, you’re driven to accumulate because you never want to go back to being without. But the opposite is often true too: you’re satisfied with having less because you’re used to having less. To this day, I still oscillate dramatically between both mindsets. Most often, I incline towards acquiring and hoarding because I always have a slightly irrational concern that all of my assets will suddenly disappear one day. But I also have bouts of debating the logical worth – the practicality – of owning stuff. What’s the value in being weighed down by or concerned about material things? Every time I think I’ve lost my phone, I get angry at myself for how worked up I become over that sense of potential loss. “I’d be so much less stressed if I had less stuff. I’d save so much more money if I downsized to a smaller apartment.” Informed conjecture. Wish and wonder.

Chayka succinctly summarizes minimalism’s shift in function and value:

There’s an arrogance to today’s minimalism that presumes it provides an answer rather than, as originally intended, a question: What other perspectives are possible when you look at the world in a different way?

I often balk at the pretentiousness of contemporary minimalist art, but framed this way, I suppose minimalist art does still have a purpose. At least minimalism hasn’t been reduced to pure aesthetics yet.