NYT’s A.O. Scott: Critics Are Artists, Too

The New York Times film critic speaks at the Free Library tonight.

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Books about art criticism usually dedicate at least half their pages to defining the critic (and the other half defending the critic). A.O. Scott, currently chief film critic for the New York Times, offers up a number of working theories in Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, most amusingly in lengthy Q&As with himself. He never settles on one definition, but he has fun exploring the facets.

The critic is a leech, an artist, a failed artist, anybody who criticizes anything. Mostly he seems to go for the ‘artist’ definition, though he also argues that all consumers are critics. And we’re all consumers. So we’re all artists. So.

Scott admits criticism’s reliance on another piece of art makes it uniquely challenging and assailable.

“Every critic grows accustomed to dealing with skepticism and suspicion and, sometimes, outright contempt. How dare you! What gives you the right? Why should anyone listen to you? We get this all the time. Provoking people to question our competence, our intelligence, our very right to exist — that seems to be a big part of what it is to be a critic.”

Scott is defensive, sure, but proud of his thick skin. Thick-skinned artists are hard to come by, in my experience, but critics (a breed of artists, Scott argues) have to be. They also have to be confrontational, wary of publicists, popularity and fellow critics, though he wisely avoids excessive aggrandizement of his chosen profession.

“Criticism is not nice,” Scott writes in Chapter Four: The Trouble with Critics. “To criticize is to find fault, to accentuate the negative, to spoil the fun and refuse to spare delicate feelings.”

A.O. Scott speaks at the Free Library tonight at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.