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.
Jessica Lynne is a writer and art critic. She is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK, an online journal of art criticism from Black perspectives.
For Magicians Who Die On Stage (jayy dodd., Gay Magazine)
Benjamin Moser and the Smallest Woman in the World (Magdalena Edwards, Los Angeles Review of Books)
As 2019 comes to a close, I would like to offer up two essays, disparate in conceit, but both worth the return.
First, there is jay dodd’s “For Magicians Who Die on Stage” published by GAY Mag. It is a beautiful meditation on the body, pain and fear, the specters of habit that might loom over our presence in the world, and the material reality of/for Black Trans Women. Using magic as structural metaphor, dodd moves us through her relationship to sobriety and the desires of self-imaging. Here is a line that stays with me: “I don’t believe I am attempting an illusion just by being alive and hurting and outside. Part of being able to be anywhere is crafting a self that feels desirable to me.” In truth though, it might be better to say that every line of this essay has stayed with me. dodd’s sentences are seared with undeniable beauty and clarity.
Secondly, I remain struck by Magdalena Edwards’ essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Benjamin Moser and the Smallest Woman in the World,” in which Edwards recounts her experience working with the writer, editor, and Clarice Lispector translator Moser. Edwards, also a Lispector translator, vulnerably details the terms of a book translation project that, begun in deep admiration of Moser, leads to a reckoning with the ethics (or lack thereof) that guide Moser’s engagement with the work of one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Most importantly, in mining the politics of translation, Edwards centers a necessary question that remains critical for my own relationship to lineages of writing and research: “Who gets thanked for their devotion?” Edwards asks. “Who gets credit for their work?”
Jillian Steinhauer is a journalist and editor whose writing appears in the New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, The Art Newspaper, and other publications. She’s a recipient of a 2019 Arts Writers grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital.
The Tear Gas Biennial (Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett, Artforum)
Within the world of writing, criticism gets short shrift. Sure, maybe I’m just saying that because I’m a critic, but I do believe it’s true, both financially and in terms of how our society assigns value. Despite the ongoing journalism layoffs and consolidation bloodbath, a lot of great arts and culture writing was published this year. I don’t know if these two pieces were the best — I find myself utterly unable to make such judgments — but both are excellent examples of criticism at its best. And both have stuck with me.
The first is technically an opinion piece, but it does the work of criticism by helping readers better see and understand something in the culture — in this case, the debate over how artists in the 2019 Whitney Biennial should respond to protests against the Whitney Museum’s vice chairman Warren Kanders. The situation was pretty specific and probably lost on you if you don’t participate in the contemporary art world, but that doesn’t matter. In “The Tear Gas Biennial,” Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett break down the entanglement of art and politics with incredible clarity and moral force.
The same can be said of “Psycho Analysis,” Andrea Long Chu’s review of Bret Easton Ellis’s new book White. For better or worse, takedowns — let alone good ones — are hard to find these days. This piece reminds me why they’re so delicious when done right. Chu refuses to take Ellis’s bait and get angry. Instead, with equal parts rigor and wit, she entertainingly eviscerates his “deeply needless book.”
Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.
The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter (Sasha Bonét, Topic)
Few of the multitude of articles I read each year stick, and the ones that do tend to hail from magazines like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian. It makes sense: Those are places that not only have the resources to nurture the best writers, but also to carve their work into its greatest form. Which is why I didn’t want to pick anything from those places. I realize that Topic magazine isn’t the biggest underdog of all, but it’s a start. And I had never heard of Sasha Bonét before I read The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter. But that’s a story that I remember. It’s a story I sent people. Even just seeing the short description in my Twitter feed — the black artist Camille Billops abandoned her 4-year-old child in the ’60s to pursue her art — I knew it was for me. I, as I’m sure a lot of women artists do, have a particular affinity for stories about women who choose their art first, when they are always expected to do the opposite.
Bonét traces how Billops becomes self actualized as an artist by shedding her past — what she had been taught about black womanhood and its attendant motherhood — including her own daughter. If she hadn’t given up her daughter, the artist says, “I would have died, and if I would have died, she would have died.” In contrast, the piece offers up Billops’ partner, a white man who not only contradicted societal norms of the time, but also provided her the emotional support for her art that she couldn’t provide her own child. Bonét illustrates how Billops, following the initial rejection of her own family, adopts a community of artists as her chosen relatives.
“Her memory collided with the new world she had carefully and meticulously molded,” she writes. The eventual fraught rapprochement of mother and daughter, itself becomes a confluence of emotion and creation. Bonét doesn’t shy away from Billops’ fundamental paradox, which is that she could only nurture that which she chose to create: “Christa had said that meeting her birth mother and her biological family saved her life, but some may argue that it led to her demise.” A devastating but beautiful piece of art about a devastating but beautiful artist.
Danielle A. Jackson
Danielle A. Jackson is a contributing editor at Longreads.
Forgotten: The Things We Lost in Kanye’s Gospel Year (Ashon Crawley, NPR Music)
For Black Women, Love Is a Dangerous Thing—“Bitter” Showed Me How to Do It Anyway (Tari Ngangura, Catapult)
Like most people I know, I read a lot of articles and books and listened to a lot of music in 2019, for learning, for practice, for work. When it got to be too much, when work overwhelmed, or the world did, by way of the news or simply duty, I spent a fair amount of time reconnecting to pleasure. I needed to re-learn how to experience the art I love for the sake of sensation, for how it vibrated in my body, rearranged my cells, made me change. I never want to be too busy or too much in despair to remember that my work should be infused with pleasure, too, that what I place on the page, how I think and engage in the world must be infused with heart and feeling. These two pieces immediately struck me and stayed, guiding me through my attempts at staying connected.
First, Ashon Crawley’s examination of Kanye West’s Sunday services and their culmination, the very popular Jesus is King album, is a moving meditation on remembering, or rather, how, in the deluge of so much sensory input and so much hype, we forget precedents, echoes, entire people and eras. We lose the substance, Crawley insists, when we lose the memory. And so, we are so easily deluded, so easily bought. Crawley threads together stories of Zora Neale Hurston, who told us a century ago about the political underpinnings of Black American religious ritual, the author Hans Christian Andersen, and William Seymour, the founder of the American Pentecostal movement, to help us think through the sad, hollow spirit-lessness of Kanye’s endeavor into gospel. More importantly, Crawley proposes that failing to remember costs us in imagination and progress. In his words, “Gospel performance at its inception was the announcement of the practice of different worlds, the fact that alternatives are available, the sounding out of the here and now breaking with the normative and violent world. Sounds of otherwise possibility.”
Tari Ngangura’s Catapult piece “For Black Women, Love is a Dangerous Thing —“Bitter” Showed Me How to Do It Anyway” is a story and analysis of bassist and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello’s album Bitter, but also of Ngangura’s first encounter with it, and how the album allowed her to verbalize and move through the feelings and aftermath of an early romantic relationship. I love Ngangura’s insistence on hope through disappointment, her gentle pleas with herself to stay open. I love that a piece of art can help us do that.
Monica Castillo is a New York City-based film critic and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, RogerEbert.com, Remezcla, The Wrap, Hyperallergic and elsewhere.
Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies? (Wesley Morris, New York Times)
Earlier this year, while many critics and moviegoers were scratching their heads over the outpouring of love for the uncomfortable interracial buddy movie from Peter Farrelly, Green Book, Wesley Morris made sense of the ordeal by examining the way certain feel-good movies about race like Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy tend to win awards over more challenging and honest works like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The year Lee’s electric film broke out, it wasn’t even up for the Best Picture category at the Oscars. Instead, the award would eventually go to the much more saccharine movie in which Morgan Freeman played a happy-go-lucky driver hired for a racist client played by Jessica Tandy. Through his piece “Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies” and a few episodes of his podcast with Jenna Wortham, “Still Processing,” Morris explores the various shortcomings of the form and why its persistence does more harm than good. For starters, these types of movies always prioritize the character arc of the white character who’s maybe a little bit racist but not explicitly so, and over the course of the film, they learn the error of their ways. Unfortunately, that journey comes at the expense of the Black character who must endure the white character’s racist nonsense as they play second fiddle to the white protagonist’s story. Morris finds a through-line in Driving Miss Daisy and to other movies before and after it like Green Book that offers an easy out for white audiences because they’re not as bad as the worst racist villains in the movie. It was the incisive reading I needed — and still need to some extent, as there are still people who want to relitigate my opinion — to back up my own misgivings on the movie. Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture that night (and picked up a few extra awards as well), so Morris’ piece will likely continue to resonate for many more awards seasons to come.
Krista Stevens is a senior editor at Longreads.
Trigger (Michael Hall Texas Monthly)
More than anything, I love music and and I love writing that transcends time. For me, music is fifty percent art and fifty percent magic. During this most trying of years it’s been a salve I turn to (or perhaps tune in to?) every day to find solace as the planet collapses and the news cycle brings to mind Yeats’ center that cannot hold. Of all the pieces I’ve read this year as part of my curation work for Longreads, there’s one that particularly resonated with me as a keen student of guitar and bass. Back in the January 21st edition of Texas Monthly in 2013, Michael Hall wrote a lengthy ode to Trigger, Willy Nelsen’s faithful musical sidekick.
Wille’s been playing that same Martin N-20 classical for 50 years. In it, Hall chronicles Nelsen’s career through the battle scars literally etched into Trigger’s worn neck and battered body as well as the careful tending and regular repair the guitar has undergone in the span of five decades.
Reading the piece, my own small instrument family suddenly meant even more to me and it made me happier about the countless hours I’ve spent studying music. For is there anything more worthwhile than to make a bit of magic?
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