A.O. Scott doesn’t have a popular job. Since 2000 he’s written about the arts for The New York Times, graduating to chief film critic in 2004. Since then he’s become a well-known name — renowned enough to get name-dropped in an episode of “BoJack Horseman.” (He confesses this gets him choked up.)
His is a profession of sometimes savage opinions that often inspires savage opinions itself. Scott confronts many of the arguments against criticism in his first book, “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth.” Beyond being mere consumer reporting, Scott discusses how criticism should inspire readers to think critically about life and argues critics are a necessity to understanding art and the world.
Scott talks to us about the changing nature of his job and not wanting to rest on his laurels as a writer for a renowned publication.
The other day you tweeted out a message from Tom Green congratulating you on the book, which gave you the opportunity to post your old positive review for his film “Freddy Got Fingered.” You wrote one of the few non-hostile pieces about it.
At the time even Tom Green was fairly shocked to have a positive review in The New York Times. They didn’t use the quote in the ads. It wasn’t the image they wanted to project. That review has stuck around, and people have maybe taken another look at the movie. Some have put on the DVD and turned it off after 10 minutes, because they’re just appalled at what they see. Other people may think, “Oh, there’s something going on here. This might be art.”
A lot of pieces about film criticism tend to be very defensive. This is more positive.
I didn’t want to write a book that was just a defense of my job, that said I should be allowed to keep it and I’m very important. Some people might assume or think that’s what the book is. But it's not about criticism as a profession, though there’s certainly stuff that talks about its history and its future. It’s more about criticism as an activity, as part of the larger cultural product of making and evaluating art and figuring out our place in the world. This book is not an instruction manual on how to do criticism. It’s more like an encouragement to figure out how to do it.