Hidden Pleasures

Scott (2016)A. O. Scott (2016) promises more with the title of his new book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth — than he provides in its pages.

I was intrigued near the end when Scott explores the relationship between criticism and scholarship. I’ve long wondered about the usefulness of studying literature in schools where, at least in my experience, teachers too often ruin the experience for students. 

Scott sees a paradoxical relationship between art and the academy (237). Art, in the academy, finds protection and patronage, and yet the goal of academic study is the “normalization and standardization of intellectual activity” (237). Nonetheless, American universities, he maintains, have been able “to emancipate and regiment” (239).

He then acknowledges a disruption of the balance between substantial criticism and profitable publications through “the new digital dispensation” that both challenges the livelihoods of critics and allows for “a more direct relationship between artist and audience” (245). This situation, which he insists is more complicated than many recognize, might be “unpredictable” yet certainly “cries out for criticism,” as a way of sifting through the digital surplus (251-252).

Scott concludes by suggesting that critics, who are able to assess anything, should “help to activate the interest of others” in ways, as he also suggested elsewhere, that both “‘exuberantly democratic and unabashedly elitist’” and that reflect “‘good taste and aesthetic accomplishment not as snobbish entitlements but as universal ideals’” (255-256, 262). In doing so, they will also eliminate the distinctions between “labor and pleasure” and even “art and life” (268).

How critics might do that, however, is never quite clear.


Scott, A. O. 2016. Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. New York: Penguin.

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