Longreads Best of 2017: Arts & Culture Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in arts and culture writing.

Kyle Chayka

Writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Curbed, Racked, and many others.

Julian Eastman’s Guerrilla Minimalism (Alex Ross, The New Yorker)

How does one write about culture when culture seems to be ending? The question plagued 2017, when each day brought its own small apocalypse. What I appreciated most this year was cultural criticism that turned into acts of construction rather than deconstruction, helping us to better understand our collective predicament. A line from John Kelsey’s “Halftime Vibes” in Texte zur Kunst stuck in my head: “Strange new forms are being tested every minute as news and advertising metabolize the very image of global precarity.” (Evan Osnos’s New Yorker feature “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich” uncovered some of the aesthetics of this forever-incipient apocalypse.)

But my favorite feature was an act of rediscovery. Alex Ross’s New Yorker essay on the almost-lost Minimalist composer Julius Eastman was revelatory. Eastman was a gay, African-American musician in the all-white halls of the iconic Minimalists. His life and art were messy and unresolved; his work was clashing and autobiographical. What better figure for our time of reclamation? Eastman’s “Stay On It” is a repeated slamming on a disco-like hook, poppy and addictive until it becomes sinister: a portrait of America’s violent ambivalence as potent now as 1973.

Rachel Syme
Writer and cultural critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic and elsewhere.

Female Gaze: Lana Del Rey, I Love Dick, and the Love Witch (Meaghan Garvey, MTV News)

So many outlets for beautiful longform writing went under this year, not the least of which was the most recent incarnation of MTV News, which in its short blaze of glory published some of the most exciting cultural criticism on the internet. Perhaps my favorite essay on the site was Meghan Garvey’s “The Female Gaze,” which weaves together three threads — the new Lana Del Rey record, the novel I Love Dick and the Amazon show that grew out of it, and Anna Biller’s campy, retro-inspired indie flick The Love Witch — as a way to talk about women who stare into the void and address what they see. Garvey effortlessly slides back and forth between these topics, jamming in about 100 other cultural references, from Hamlet to Eve Babitz to Laura Mulvey , and in doing so, creates a mesmerizing piece of criticism that I keep returning to over and over at the end of the year.

What Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Depiction of Mental Illness Has Meant to Me This Season (Angelica Jade Bastién, New York Magazine)

I wanted to pick something that Angelica Jade Bastién wrote this year, as she has been one of the most exciting new critical voices of 2017. I vacillated between selecting her incisive piece on race and The Handmaid’s Tale, or her sharp deconstruction of The Beguiled, or her essay on how dystopian fiction rarely tackles racial prejudice. But right at the end of the year she wrote this essay on mental illness and television that really knocked me out. She manages to seamlessly interweave the personal (her own struggles with depression and hospitalization) with the cultural (an examination of Rachel Bloom’s musical comedy about a manic-depressive who is herself struggling to get a handle on her mental health), and it combines to form one of the more poignant pieces of writing I have read this year. What I love so much in Bastien’s work is that she is undeniably a rigorous critic — her writing on classic films like Now, Voyager reveal her deep background — but she also is unafraid to draw on her own experiences to flesh out and heighten the understanding of the art. In a time when the personal has never been more political, I am really inspired by her work.

Tess Thackara
Senior editor, Artsy

Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till (Coco Fusco, Hyperallergic)

In a year where we’ve seen tension over who gets to speak for whom, Coco Fusco’s essay on the controversy around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial brought welcome context, history, and measure to the discussion. She argues not that the painting shouldn’t be critiqued, protested, and debated fiercely, but that—whatever one might feel about the degree of care (or lack thereof) that Schutz took with a painful, charged image—those who called for its censorship, even its destruction, were walking us towards a slippery slope that better suited to the tactics of the far right than the political left.

How the Sandwich Consumed Britain (Sam Knight, The Guardian)

It’s hard to imagine anything more British than this hilarious and brilliant tour through the history of the sandwich and its market dominance. Knight delights in the simple excellence of this innovation, which could only really have taken off in Thatcherite Britain — the traditional triangular tea sandwich is somehow droll, buttoned up, and expedient like the Iron Lady. He also enjoys the absurdity of corporate strategy and jargon when it finds its way into something as seemingly inconsequential as two slices of bread, a few prawns, and some mayo. In this time of global doom and gloom, it’s a relief to consider the humble sandwich.

Jason Farago
Art critic for The New York Times and editor of Even

Get Real (Susanne von Falkenhausen, Frieze)

Once every decade Europe’s two most important exhibitions of contemporary art coincide: the Venice Biennale and Documenta. Years that end in 7, therefore, often end up serving as mileposts in art history. But Venice this year was a bland, hippieish nonevent, while Documenta descended into a self-righteous muddle.

No one did a better job this year diagnosing what went wrong than German art historian Susanne von Falkenhausen, who unpacked how these European shows had used the praiseworthy aims of thinking globally and acting politically to smuggle in regressive aesthetic principles. All across the world of contemporary art, she notes the disturbing comeback of cultural and ethnic “authenticity,” a vogue for mythmaking and magic, and an embrace of anti-rational discourse as a supposed technique of “resistance.”

Once you read van Falkhenhausen, it’s hard not to see Documenta and other major recent exhibitions as cases of the rich world afraid to look life in the face, outsourcing higher forms of aesthetic engagement to a racialized other. The western art world has been here before: This is the birth of modernism all over again. “I wonder,” von Falkenhausen writes: “is what was called ‘primitive art’ for too long — teaching the Western avant-garde around 1900 new ways of seeing —now serving as a reservoir of the spiritual for the Western world?”

Josephine Livingstone

Culture staff writer, The New Republic

The Two Voices of Whitney Houston (Doreen St. Félix, The New Yorker)

Doreen St. Félix’s review essay on the speech patterns of the Greatest American Celebrity thrilled me. She traces the practiced debutante Whitney, the “Bobby!”-screeching Whitney, the angelic singing voice. Together, St. Félix shows, these voices sing a polyphonous (and discordantly raced) public identity. Part of the joy of this piece is its formalism. St Félix takes one cultural artifact — the documentary Can I Be Me? — and one aspect of Whitney — the voice — and does something very unexpected with both. The observations (“Her evident pain made her eccentric”) build gradually until St Félix hits an earned, solid summary: “Houston code-switched: between black vernacular and white English, palatable pop and searching R. & B., between producer’s plaything and autonomous composer, between haughty grace and extreme vulnerability, between alertness and breakdowns—and she did so tremendously, tragically.” A perfect piece.

Aaron Gilbreath
Contributing editor, Longreads

The Most Hated Poet in Portland (Laura Yan, The Outline)

A story is rarely an objective narrative, readers bring something to it that shapes our experience. Laura Yan’s story found me sleep-deprived from raising an infant, and my outlook on life darkened by the toxic newsfeed. Yan tells the story of Collin Andrew Yost, a white, tattooed, and bearded poet who posts his poems on Instagram in a typeset font decorated with cigarettes. This is a story of how artists use social media to promote ourselves, and how the internet provides enough anonymity to encourage trolling and hostility toward people we don’t like.

A lot of people didn’t like Yost’s poet persona, myself included. But Yan’s feature is also about the author herself, how she initially mocked the poet but quit when she decided to try to understand him more fully. Whether or not you like the Yost’s writing or a persona composed of clichés, you can appreciate the author’s examination of empathy and tolerance, which are things we can all benefit from now, in a country scarred by deep divisions, and helmed by a heartless narcissist bent on hurting everyone but himself.

Michelle Legro
Senior editor, Longreads

Of Women, Men, and Ballet in the 21st Century (Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times)

This piece came out in the early weeks of 2017, and it’s worth revisiting now, after a year of so many reckonings. “Can ballet express a modern view of the sexes?” Macaulay begins his essay with a question that goes round and round. If it can’t, then what does it express? And what does any partnering express in dance? Ballet is largely about the male gaze, and many roles cannot be reversed, “We inhabit a world where many women are enslaved, demeaned, abused. Should ballet be an art that reflects only their glorification?” Macaulay’s essay is one of the most masterful discussions of power and gender in dance in the 21st century, and a reminder of how important it is to ask these questions of culture, especially in a space where tradition holds sway.