I’ve enjoyed A.O. Scott’s critiques for many years. I was first introduced to him after he and (the very discerning Chicago Tribune film critic) Michael Phillips began their co-hosting stint on At the Movies. They’d taken over for the much maligned Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, who had succeeded the iconic Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper (Roeper—who’d succeeded the beloved Gene Siskel—wasn’t in the same league as Siskel, but was always a competent observer).
Their replacement was a welcome change. Ardent fans of the show like myself hated the Bens’ dim analyses impugning the legacy that their predecessors had worked so hard to build (imagine a boorish reality TV star infiltrated your political parties’ Presidential nomination process and you kinda get the idea).
Scott’s critiques—while I haven’t always agreed with them—were always backed up with a valid argument for or against a particular film, scene or bit of dialogue, and I respected his point of view. So with that in mind my ears perked up when I learned the PBS Newshour had conducted an interview with Mr. Scott about his new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. (See the segment below.)
In his review of BLTC for The Atlantic, Leon Wieseltier refers to the closing line of the Archaic Torso of Apollo—the sonnet by Rainer Rilke (which he wrote after having seen the classical Greek sculpture Kouros from Miletus during a visit to The Louvre). The English translation of the line is, “You must change your life.”
What Mr. Wieseltier suggests by citing this line is that a great work of art is “an experience akin to a conversion experience….(and) that a sense of the beauty of existence entails a sense of the gravity of existence.” In other words, when a great work of art moves us, it’s our existential duty to analyze why it moves us (the process of “demystification”, as he puts it). Making the complex coherent helps you (and everyone around you, if you’re a bloviator like me) better understand what makes a great work of art, well, great.
Think of your favorite artistic achievements (preferably someone else’s—unless you also have a piece in The Louvre). Enigmas like these demonstrate something very rare in our human world: perfection. The great sculptors, painters, poets, writers, composers, filmmakers (and yes, designers) have achieved that “something” from which we seek within ourselves. And it’s through that understanding of the “Why’s” that we begin to see the “How’s”.
As a designer I seek influence. That is why I study. And the act of knowing how to elucidate perfection could just enable me to see past my own limitations and achieve it for myself. And if you’ve no use for a legacy, how might the process of demystification help you to experience and appreciate even old works of art in any number of new and exciting ways? The act is at once self-serving and altruistic. Needless to say, I’m buying the book.