Everyone’s a critic, right? That old saw has become something of a phenomenon at a time when access to social media—multiple blogging and networking platforms—is shared by anyone with an internet connection and a point to make. But more than that, the concept of the armchair critic has turned into a competitive field, not just among the hoi polloi, but also between them and professional reviewers alike.
Part of the reason for this could be credited to a universally embraced set of tools that expedite the distribution of ideas and content (citizen journalists abound, as do gossip reporters who seek out the most recent photo or lead populated on Page Six, to say nothing of TMZ’s dedication to find and “break” a story quickly). Everyone’s got a camera and a pulpit these days. With all of that competition out there, why wouldn’t a professional critic feel the heat to get a story out first, and make a name for him- or herself in the process?
Publishers and advertisers know the importance of it, too. Showy, often salacious content gets packaged as journalism as long as it brings more eyes—and more clicks—to the site that it’s been posted. This “click bait” has many different formats: Compromising photos of celebrities taken and published against their wishes; sensational reportage admonishing people or hyperbolizing about “things that are going to kill us”; and of course criticism. Each of these tracks leads to the same destination, the audience. If the content is controversial or negative enough, the hope is to get more people to share it, make it go viral, and benefit from winning, if not holding, attention.
From a business standpoint it is a sound idea. Last year, Yahoo YHOO +2.17% purchased Tumblr in a brilliant move, which will enable new advertising possibilities; the user base of bloggers in the Tumblrverse numbers more than one hundred million. But for employed journalists at venerable publications, the competition to be read first (and possibly to be remembered for your review rather than for what you’re reviewing) is now fiercer than ever before. And as a result, the content in contention for clicks and reads is part of a shifting rubric. In short, the role of the critic has become more profound than ever before, and is also more vulnerable than ever before. In addition to holding a vaunted position, there’s more than a modicum of responsibility required.
By now, most epicurious New Yorkers—and food enthusiasts across the country—have read the recent review of Villard Michel Richard by Pete Wells of The New York Times. It won’t be quoted it here—that’s been done already, by scads of bloggers and news outlets. Suffice it to say, it is a scathing piece. But curiously (and frustratingly), when the food is mentioned in detail, it is not critiqued in a way that would prove instructive or analytical to any chef or staff member in any restaurant, anywhere.
The descriptions of dishes are rendered with imagery and flavors that have nothing to do with food at all. At one point in the review, a dead man is summoned and the Times critic foists a presupposition of what the corpse would do—all to slam items on the menu on a bombastic scale.
When I was in college, I was taken to task by a professor who took umbrage at a sentence in a term paper I had written: “If the Gershwins were alive today, they would have been moved by this musical’s harmonies and lyrical straightforwardness.”
My professor scrawled this in blood-red ink across the top of my paper: “Unless you know the Gershwins personally, this is lazy and doesn’t get your point across. Unacceptable.” I had to rewrite the paper entirely because I had put myself before the art that I was analyzing.
Wells is a wonderful writer and has been blessed with an extraordinary palate. This is what makes reading his assessment of Villard Michel Richard so fascinating. Unless he has in fact a) eaten paste, b) noshed on Novocain, or most disturbingly, c) been able to reanimate the body and mind of August Escoffier to know what the long deceased godfather of the cookbook would serve to a Nazi, Wells chose a baffling means to deliver his assessments. There’s a line between discriminating and cruel, between critical and mean. It made me think about other critics who have hurled similar invectives at art and artists.
One that came to mind was a bombshell review of Rob Reiner’s movie “North.” The critic was Roger Ebert:
I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it. I hold it as an item of faith that Rob Reiner is a gifted filmmaker.
As brutal as his take on the movie is, it is not disrespectful. It’s a tough review of a less than great film, filled with context and never resorts to condemnation without tangible context. It never pulls imagery out of the air that has nothing to do with a product or its ingredients. It is helpful to the audience, as well as to those responsible for the movie-going experience. It’s a learning experience.
Now that professionals must race with each other in addition to the millions of armchair critics who also want to weigh in on cultural goings on, it would make sense that there’s even more added pressure to perform.
But when the goal to be the first and most notable (and quotable) authority on a subject becomes so unclear that the role of a critic gains as much attention as that played by the art or artist being critiqued, that represents a real disconnect.
Restaurants take time to find their rhythm and develop real esprit de corps. With editors champing at the bit to get their publications to cover and analyze a notable or high-profile dining experience, the timeline for a restaurant to be open long enough to find those rhythms—and to be judged on them—has been cut down dramatically. Apropos of this, is it germane to compare dishes coming from a kitchen that is three months old to similar ones coming from a different kitchen, in a different city, that is several years old? Maybe; maybe not.
What can be said is that Michel Richard’s restaurant is, like all art, a continuous work in progress. What it will become remains to be seen. It is evolving, as do all artists and their work.
Screenwriter Richard Lagravanese wrote a terrific line in the underrated movie, “The Ref,” starring Kevin Spacey as an entrepreneur whose attempt at opening a restaurant crashed and burned by the acid pen of a reputable food critic:
When the Restaurant Guidebook of New York recommends you to Hindus looking for a fun night out of fasting, what did you expect me to do, change the menu?
And then there’s the following text written by filmmaker Brad Bird, in a speech he devised for a character in his Oscar-winning animated movie, “Ratatouille.” It represents both a thoughtful exploration of a culinary experience, as well as a self-realization for the film’s antagonist, an influential food critic named Anton Ego. It is the final and most significant speech in the movie:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
The critic plays such an invaluable role in art. A critic can be a teacher as well as a student, an explorer and an excavator of ideas and an interpreter of the dialogue between the artist and the audience. Let’s just hope ”If you can’t do, teach” doesn’t become “if you can’t create, condemn.”