Best review you’ve ever read? Why?

There has been a lot of discussion lately, especially within the restaurant community, about a restaurant review published on June 11th by Frank Bruni of the New York Times on Ago in Tribeca. Needless to say this was arguably the worst (as in most negative) review by the New York Times (at least that I am aware of) and yet has received the best (as in most acclaim) praise. Here is where the “artistic” relevance to this blog comes from. Is all the praise this review is receiving due to its excellent description of the restaurant? Or is it receiving praise because it has transcended its “primary purpose” (that of a review) and has become a work of literature worth reading? To the extent are more people reading this particular review because of its style, humor, and overall creativity rather than because they are curious about the restaurant?

I am particularly enjoying this issue as being one who regards both the creation of a restaurant as well as the writing of a review as artistic endeavors, or at least as having the potential to be artistic endeavors. So to that end has this review become artistically active because it has so distanced itself from having another purpose, that of informing its readership to the quality of this restaurant. But if it is failing to do that then in reality its a bad review. I’m sure many familiar with the review would defend its informative capabilities and they would probably be right to do so, however one must also acknowledge the bizarre circumstance by which the reviewer was reviewing, its one of those “the wrong person to let that happen to” kind of cases.

What interests me about this scenario is (and this may seem abstract or even dumb to some of you) that this review can almost be seen as say a film adaptation of a work of literature, but one that has surpassed the original work and established itself independently. In regards to the restaurant, Ago doesn’t really serve a purpose, this bizarre wall of wine could have occurred anywhere. What I really mean is that there is nothing unique to who the restaurant is that produces this result.

I’ve made some assumptions along the way here that lead to arguments once had on Literature’s Next Frontie, where does journalism fall in the world of art? With reviews we have a similar situation as there is a primary difference between a reviewer and a writer, that of purpose. A reviewer has a job to do that must fulfill basic requirements in order to be published, a writer is free to write what ever he or she chooses (though it better be good in order to be published, and don’t ask me what good is because since I am not a publisher I do not have to make that terrible decision).

Thus let us turn this into a discussion on two points: First, can a review be art? And if it becomes art, does it then no longer exist as a review? Second, where does this particular review fall and from where is it receiving the praise? For a more culinary crafted discussion on this review please visit Coffee Straws.



5 responses to “Best review you’ve ever read? Why?

  1. Reviewing a restaurant is a particularly difficult proposition because you have to generalize from a few experiences to many. With a book, it’s much easier – people usually only read a book once, and the experience, at least in terms of the book’s contribution, is essentially the same for everyone. All the critic has to do is try and account for (either by excising or by justifying) his or her biases. Reviewing a piece of recorded music gets a little more complicated, since people will generally listen to it many times and in different situations. Because of this, it’s generally considered irresponsible to review a recording based on one listen (see also: A restaurant is even more difficult to review than that, because it’s not just the situation of the experience that varies, but the content as well.

    Given that difficulty, and considering that someone’s livelihood might be on the line, professionalism becomes particularly important for the restaurant reviewer. In fields in which professional standards are paramount, aesthetics has to be muzzled, and so does creativity. I’m not saying that these things have to be eliminated, but they can’t be allowed to interfere with the honest reporting of reality. It’s because of this that I don’t think reviews (or journalism, for that matter) should be considered art. It leads to a definition of art that allows for too much restraint on the artist’s freedom. Reviewing is a fine craft, but artistic expression is out of place in a review.

    Also: if you think the decision to reject a work that someone wants to publish is terrible, you should try working at a literary magazine. After seeing the kind of garbage that makes up 99% of the submissions, you start to appreciate the need for a filter.

  2. Oh Nixon, of course you would interpret terrible as bad, I believe within the context of which it is presented the meaning of terrible as hard is pretty well conveyed, but for your benefit I’ll spell it out for you: I of course appreaciate the filter in some circumstances but I recognize the difficulty with which the filter has to operate. To use an extremely popular example when arguing against filters, Manet’s work was rejected.

    Secondly I disagree with the notion that a field with limitations is inherently inartistic. There is an entire strand of post-modernist literature that is “produced” strictly through the use of limitations. Is it not then possible to say that the same can be true for a review. Or as Picasso has showed us with his collages, can’t reviews and journalistic texts in general be the basis for art? But I guess in that genre of art there need also be an artist to do the act of choosing which texts to put together.

    Lastly I also don’t really think the “professionalism” of the reviewer and “livelihood” of (I’m assuming) the restaurant owner should matter either, and if they do, certainly not the latter. I derive this result from the fact that this is a service industry and the restaurant’s primary goal is to entertain. Therefore any failure to do so with anyone at any time can and in some cases should be noted. Slander is wrong and must be avoided but artfully portraying an honest bad experience has merit and can, I think in particular with this review, can be looked at for artistic qualities.

    Simply put, beyond the bad experience at the restaurant, this review is an extremely enjoyable review and was the most entertaining review I’ve ever read. But the reason for the superlative is not because it is extremely insightful but rather because of its entertainment value, which I consider to be inherently artistic.

  3. The “livelihood” I was referring to was indeed that of the restaurant, but I may not have been entirely clear what I meant. I don’t think that a reviewer should feel the least bit afraid to ruin a restaurant’s reputation if it’s justified, but above all other considerations is the imperative to avoid _unfair_ criticism – slander, as you said. Avoiding slander is what I mean by professionalism. That type of standard is very different from an artist-imposed limitation like Georges Perec’s decision not to use the letter ‘e’ in La Disparition, a limitation which is really internal to the work, and imposed for artistic reasons. The need to avoid slandering someone supersedes the critic’s ambitions as an artist. There can be artistic _qualities_ in a review, or, if you prefer, the review could have the quality of being artistic, but that doesn’t mean that the review should be considered as primarily form of art.

    Regarding the other comment I made, I didn’t interpret ‘terrible’ as bad, but more as difficult on a personal level. It’s never long before one ceases to feel sorry for the people whose work gets rejected. Works with merit are sometimes passed over, but cases like Manet are exceedingly rare: for the most part, it’s pretty clear-cut that something is bad, and the bad doesn’t get a whole lot of sympathy.

    There’s also the unfortunate fact that the choice is usually based on whether something will sell rather than whether it’s good, but that’s another matter.

  4. Yes I agree with all your points, save the one on selection, though I have always been one to try and find art in everything and who believes there isn’t bad art but rather art that doesn’t appeal to me. But regardless you are right that in reality it isn’t about “good” but “profit” instead.

    Its interesting what you said about production. I am not as quick as you are to separate the two forms of limitations. Yes I agree with you about the differences but is it possible to find a similarity between the choice of the limitation by Perec in your example and the choice to write a review in the other? Can’t the choice to enter into that set of limitations be seen as an internal choice?

    Beyond that however I am interested in your thoughts on my last paragraph. If you don’t consider reviews to be in the realm of art than what is it about this particular review that makes it so outstanding. I believe we can all agree that it is not because it is a well founded and thoughtful review but rather for its entertaining and literary attributes. If not artistic, what then would you describe those as? Perhaps simply entertaining, and leave it at that, which then makes it an example of the difference between art and entertainment.

  5. I would define two levels on which we can look at art (and keep in mind I am just making them up now): what it does, and how well it does it. The latter – I’d call it craft – is where you can really single something out as bad, whereas the only kind of injunction you could really make against a piece on the grounds of its artistic purpose is an ethical one. That’s not to say that everything has to be a spectacular example of technical ability, but a piece does have to have sufficient technical merit to pull off what it attempts to do. This is where I think a piece of art can be called ‘bad.’

    The cases where good art is passed over as bad can generally be ascribed to the misunderstanding of what the works are trying to do, which leads the craft elements to be judged on the wrong terms.

    I don’t think that there is a line between art and entertainment, but I also don’t think they are exactly equivalent. I think it is possible for something entertaining to lack any artistic qualities, be it because it never attempts to be art, or because it fails to be. I do not, however, think that it is possible for work to be artistic if it has no entertainment value whatsoever. Art always emerges from entertainment.

    Nevertheless, I would place the creation of witty prose on the level of craft. I’m not denying that artistic qualities can appear just about anywhere, but I don’t think whether something is an enjoyable read reflects directly on whether or not it possesses such qualities. Art runs deeper, and sometimes you have to tease it out.

    I think that a case could be made for the particular review that you cite as art. It reflects the confusion of the restaurant’s management with a wit that does more than just entertain and inform, and I would agree with you that part of what it does is artistic. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut distinction between where artistic qualities may appear and where they may not. But I do think that there is a distinction between forms in which those qualities are of primary importance and forms in which they are incidental; the restaurant review is one of the latter. So I would not call it an art form.

    Your argument about the two forms of limitation is an interesting one. However, I don’t agree that the standards of food criticism should be considered part of the text. I can see the limitations of a particular medium as being a part of a work’s artistic content, but not those of a profession. Frank Bruni was already a food critic when he entered the restaurant.

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