I have spent a great deal of time with New York Times art critics. Willingly, you ask? Well yes, I am married to one – now retired – though still critiquing his way through the world. I was with Ben Brantley when he pointed at the “Critics” sign in the office and said, “It might as well say ‘throw bombs here.” I sat at the great Joe Lelyveld’s house when literary critic Michi Kakutani kept us on the edge of our seats recounting a performance piece where the artist ate monkey brains over and over. Oh, and let’s not forget the titanic John Rockwell going mano-a-mano about French culture with a woman wearing at least 10 strands of pearls. (John said it was over. She disagreed.)
Always interested in what might go on inside my husband’s head, I picked up a copy of A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism. Now involved in the film business, I couldn’t wait to hear what this fine reviewer had to say about the movies.
Ooph, did I buy the wrong book. This great film reviewer had become the expert of everything art and the whole enterprise read like an unmoored balloon, filled with gas and headed god knows where.
Here is, in no specific order, the artists and thinkers this film critic invokes: The Avengers, Mencken (required), Kant, Rilke, T.S. Elliot, the French New Wave, Pollock, Plato, Dante, Velazquez, Milton, Joyce, Horace, Aristotle, Orwell, Facebook, Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Wilson (required), Kant, Kafka, and Henry James….AMONG MANY OTHERS. It’s a huge scrum of all the characters involved in a Liberal Arts education and A.O.’s parents got their money’s worth.
Maddening. A book that could throw out this nonsensical sentence, “Or maybe I’d conclude that we are able to make determinations and discriminations of value because we have access to innate and eternal standards that, though they mutate over the centuries and express themselves differently from place to place, nonetheless keep us on the path of truth and beauty” makes me think, DAMN, WHERE WAS A.O.’s EDITOR THAT DAY? A POSITIONING MEETING? What a pompous meaningless sentence. The pointed pencil should have come down like the Sword of Allah.
Please Mr. Scott, descend the abstraction ladder and help us out.
But then A.O. says this and my mind lights up like the Fourth of July: “A work of art is itself a piece of criticism.” BOOM! He hit the mark. And thus the maddening up and down of this book, both dense and convoluted and direct and fresh, keeps you from tossing the book at your critic husband for yet a few more pages.
And now I want to be a critic. The place? The Vatican. The moment? Four summers ago. I came around the corner after fleeing my group of tourists and there she was, out for cleaning. I stood understanding and not understanding at the same time. Her face was calm yet filled with the sorrow of all of mankind as she held her dead son across her lap. I started crying, that deep kind where the tears just run and you can’t even make noise. I may have even dropped to the floor, I no longer remember.
From that moment forward, she created a kind of reverse PTSD in me, flashing in front of my eyes at the strangest times, goading me toward love and empathy. As a critic, I can not compare her to anything else made by human hands because she was larger than that.
It was Michelangelo’s Pieta and my review would have said, “No words.” Just that. Everybody would have understood and we didn’t need Kant or Mencken to get there.
A.O. Scott had a different motive when he conjured Rilke up in his book, but it fits my experience with the Pieta as well:
……………..For there is no place here
that doesn’t see you. You must change your life.
P.S. That’s my husband’s book up top on the right, Something I Heard. He’s a music critic so it’s about music. Seemed a good fit.