Thumbing Down

Continuing to track the critics who continually track the decline of film criticism, I thought I’d say a word or two about A.O. Scott’s ineffectual apologia, “A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All,” which appeared in this week’s New York Times.

First, a bit about A.O. Scott. I like him. He backs up his assertions, doesn’t let his taste impair his judgment, and he’s pleasant to read. Yes, in my book, that makes A.O. Scott a fair critic. But I don’t think he’s a forceful one. Years from now, I suspect we’ll look on Scott as we do Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ upper middle-brow status-quo critic of the forties, fifties, and part of the sixties, a man who is remembered less for his voice than his bland, unshakable standards. He was the gold standard of standard criticism.

Now that the whole damn everything about professional film criticism is under siege, Scott has thrown down in favor of (what else?) the critic. He maintains film criticism will be just fine because, as he goes on to explain, criticism is an essential part of the human impulse to debate. He writes,

It is not a profession and does not stand or fall with any particular business model. Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life — a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them.

Fair enough in theory, but dead wrong in fact. If criticism weren’t a profession, then A.O. Scott would not be paid for the piece I’ve drawn from. And as one of the chief film critics for The New York Times, I think it’s safe to assume he was.

So why diminish his arrangement? Why make a play for the other side? It can only be that Scott is trying to ingratiate himself to the winning team, and to do so, he believes – wrongly, I might add – that he has to deny his own qualifications to leap aboard the blogwagon. For all of his “Everything’s going to be fine” etc., that sounds a lot like surrender to me.

He’s not alone. It has become intensely unfashionable, and even a tad offensive, to assert evidence of one’s own expertise. Long before blogging, when I was in the Liberal Arts racket, students were encouraged to “teach” their teachers in small discussion sections used in adjunct to the main lectures. The underlying idea, that the very notion of “knowledge” (or, to use the term of the day, “hegemony”) was extended to all people, no matter what their background, accomplishments, or IQ, was meant to be a very uplifting thing indeed. All are welcome! All are right! But the fallout is now upon us. A.O. Scott, who I would count among the lecturers, has abdicated to the discussion group. I wish he would go back to the podium.

Because the world of learned criticism is not a democracy. It’s a savage oligarchy.

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