In an earlier day some believed that even attacking popular culture, which then often went by the name “kitsch,” wasn’t worth the time and energy put into it. Best to leave it alone altogether. Harold Rosenberg twitted (not, mind, tweeted) Dwight Macdonald for spending so much time writing about the movies. What Rosenberg thought of Robert Warshow’s interest in popular culture is not known. Warshow’s tactic was neither to attack nor exult in popular culture, but to explain its attractions. His two essays on why Americans were attracted to gangster and western movies are among the most brilliant things ever written on the movies and on popular culture generally.
Today the standard of highbrow culture has been worn away, almost to the point of threadbareness. For political reasons, universities no longer feel obligated to spread its gospel. Western culture—dead white males and all that—with its imperialist history has long been increasingly non grata in humanities departments. Everywhere pride of place has been given to the merely interesting—the study of gay and lesbian culture, of graphic novels and comic books, and more—over the deeply significant. Culture, as it is now understood in the university and elsewhere, is largely popular culture. That battle has, at least for now, been lost.
In “This Age of Criticism,” Jarrell was actually bemoaning the spread of criticism, which he felt was choking off the impulse to create stories, plays, and poems. He also felt critics were insufficiently adventurous, content to dwell lengthily on the same small body of classic works. His dream of repressing the field has come to be a reality.
And so we are left with A.O. Scott, whose key thesis is that criticism is “the art of the voice.” His own voice, in his reviews and in Better Living Through Criticism, is that of a man who vastly overestimates his own voice’s significance and charm. The Age of Criticism Randall Jarrell condemned is over and done with—but in a way he would not in the least have approved. Were he alive today, Jarrell might have to seek work reviewing video games. [emphasis added]
See, the thing is that writing about cartoons and comic books doesn't seem necessarily "low" to me. I've got no problem writing about cartoons about superheroes in a way where I could reference G. K. Chesteron, Solzhenitsyn, or even quote Adolf Schlatter. I could then comfortably turn around and discuss aspects of sonata allegro form in early 19th century guitar sonatas or share impressions I had about The Big Short.
So who's to say that if Randall Jarrell were alive right now we know he wouldn't be writing reviews of video games? We can't know. Mozart wrote vocal canons on vulgar textual riffs that might resemble a song or two about uncles from a South Park scene.
If there's a puzzle to how Scott sounds like he's written about criticism as an art form it may be that a thread we'll see in reactions to Scott's book is that he's long on style and short on substance and by substance we could mean sticking his neck out a little more.
Scott may be a film writer for our time if after all his circling about and encyclopedic riffing he ends up just advocating for ... his day job. I'll get to this later but a complaint I am beginning to have about film criticism is that there's two pious bromides that appear in Christian and secularist film criticism. The lazy pious bromide for the Christian is obvious--so-and-so is a Christ type or X plot point presents a parable of soteriology. The secularist one is more devious because it's less obvious to those not attuned to it, but the pious bromide of secular film criticism is that a film ends up being about film itself.
Well, let's play with an idea here. All art is in some sense vicarious living and criticism is a way to live vicariously in a way that lets you experience art. The trouble with the kind of defense of criticism as an art form A. O Scott seems to be fumbling toward, at least as we survey what writers have to say about his work, is that if art is a way of living vicariously and criticism is writing as an art form then we're talking about vicariously living about vicarious living and that only works if the third-hand life seems worth living. Generally a whole lot of people who go through life tend to heed third-hand accounts of how people could or should live when the mediating party is a government branch or making claims of divine inspiration or military force or all the above. In other words, vicarious living, assuming everybody is totally cool with vicarious living, needs to be, I don't know, vicarious enough to make the fact that it's not YOU living it not be so bad. Scott may be emblematic of a breed of writer about the arts who wants a kind of sacralized art about art that could be, and here I'm just being a punk on purpose, showing a form of artfulness but in a sense denying the power thereof.