Andrew Barrow

Among the snobs, slobs and scolds

The American film critic A.O. Scott jokily dismisses reviewers as snobs, slobs and scolds — while reminding us that we all are (or should be) critics to some extent

The author of this jam-packed treasure trove has been a film critic at the New York Times since 2000 and is also professor of film criticism at Wesleyan University. As if these platforms weren’t enough, he’s now written a book about the tangled worlds of films, books, music, paintings and criticism, dragging in Aristotle, Pope, Plato, Matthew Arnold, Isaiah Berlin and millions of others — but not, alas, my former next-door neighbour, the wonderfully controversial Brian Sewell.

Crammed in alongside George Orwell’s ‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy’ and H. L. Mencken’s ‘Literature always thrives best in an atmosphere of hearty strife,’ the author’s own views often hit hardest. ‘Music,’ he tells us, ‘is to art what its cousin mathematics is to science.’ The Hollywood studios are ‘hotbeds of corporate greed’ and newspapers ‘have been swamps of mendacity and corruption from the start’. ‘Our creativity,’ he believes, ‘originates in anguish and longing’ — and education ‘has a soul-killing effect on art’.

He’s even better on the thorny issue of finding fault and bestowing praise, and jokily dismissive of us weirdos, slobs, snobs, scolds and losers — his words — who do these things to earn the occasional crust. ‘Is criticism the snake in the garden?’ he asks, and then complicates it by pronouncing: ‘A work of art is itself a piece of criticism.’ Bolstered by Oscar Wilde’s ‘It’s more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it’ and Susan Sontag’s ‘To interpret is to impoverish’, he heartily agrees with T.S. Eliot’s opinion that, as long ago as 1921, we were already living in a speaker’s corner of ‘contending and contentious orators’. Since then, he tells us, ‘The disease has gotten worse… There is just too damn much of it.’

Oh dear, oh dear.

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