Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Book Reviews

The Decay of Criticism

Asher Gelzer-Govatos

La lectura, 1953, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973); Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, New York; © 2016 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Like the air, like microbes, like the National Security Agency—the critical impulse is both omnipresent and invisible, shaping human life while rarely becoming an object of scrutiny itself. So argues New York Times film critic A.O. Scott in his new book, Better Living Through Criticism. In an age when the professional post of critic is vanishing even more quickly than other journalistic beats, we moderns have become increasingly enamored of criticism in our own lives. The natural tendency toward taxonomy has blossomed, in the Internet age, into a whole ecology of sorting.

Although he practices the critical art from a lofty vantage point at one of the few remaining bulwarks of traditional print journalism, Scott has spent much time observing the ebb and flow of criticism in the digital age. From these observations, he attempts both a defense of criticism and a re-imagining of its role in the years to come. Unfortunately, his vision suffers from a fundamental lack of clarity as to what criticism actually is, or how it functions. Although he devotes a whole chapter to arguing that critics should embrace making wrong choices, Scott continually presents multiple views on criticism but hesitates to choose from among them. The result is a book that expends a lot of energy without building much momentum.

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