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Faster Than the Speed of Sound: An Interview with Holly Maniatty

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | June 2017 | 11 minutes (2787 words)

 

Holly Maniatty is moving faster than anyone in the Wu-Tang Clan. She bounces up and down, her whole body undulates, her hands fly as she signs, her eyes flare precisely, her mouth articulates the lyrics. She is in the front row at the Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tennessee, where she’s interpreting the concert for Deaf fans. The other American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at the show looks at her in awe. Maniatty doesn’t pause.

Maniatty, who grew up in rural Vermont and holds degrees in interpreting and ASL linguistics, is a sensation in the Deaf community and among hip-hop fans. When she interpreted a Killer Mike concert, also at Bonnaroo, the rapper was so impressed with her rapid movements and visible passion that he jumped off the stage and began dancing with her. With a smile, he rapped a series of nasty words and phrases. Maniatty kept up; the crowd went wild.

Maniatty is an in-demand ASL concert interpreter and has grown in fame, appearing on late night shows from Jimmy Kimmel to Jimmy Fallon. Her skill is hard-won; for a single concert, she often prepares for up to 40 hours, to understand every aspect of the musical group she’ll sign for. She wants to provide near-perfect information to her Deaf patrons, so she learns everything: the group’s entire backlist, where they grew up, what charities they give to. By knowing the group she’s interpreting, she can more precisely — and more quickly — interpret their performance.

Maniatty wants to use her profile to bring greater equality to Deaf people. “There’s this whole population of culture in America that sometimes is easily overlooked and not served,” she tells me. Likewise, she wants attention turned not toward her but toward the Deaf performers who are breaking stereotypes of what it means to be a performing artist and what it means to be Deaf. She mentions her great respect for Deaf performers like Sean Forbes, Dack Virnig, and Peter Cook.

Maniatty and I discussed the boundaries of language, the complexities of interpreting, and raising awareness for the Deaf community. Throughout it all, she was upbeat and energetic, stressing how grateful she is to get to do what she does. Deaf or hearing, it’s hard not to look forward to her next concert.

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How did you become interested in ASL?

I had ideas about going to art school and I really felt like I wanted to be an interpreter and I went for it wholeheartedly. I was very fortunate to be accepted to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). The National Technical Institute for the Deaf is there so they have a large population of Deaf students. I lived in a dorm with Deaf people and interacted with Deaf people, and most of my friends were Deaf, so I was really lucky to have that immersive experience, and because of that, I gained the language quickly. Since then, it’s really been one of the fulfilling things I could ever think of in life, really.

I worked for a short time as a staff interpreter at RIT and as a freelance interpreter, and just randomly was asked to do a concert. They were having a hard time finding an interpreter for it. I jumped in and found that I really loved the work because of the preparatory process: going through the music and analyzing the lyrics, and doing what an interpreter would call “text analysis” of the intent of the speaker and, hopefully, the received message of the person you’re interpreting for. I fell in love with that process.

That was in between my two degrees, and I went back to school to get a degree in ASL Linguistics because I felt like there was so much more that I needed to know about the language before I could really do this at the highest level. The University of Rochester has a fabulous program that includes linguistics classes, brain, and science classes, but also a lot of Deaf history, and Deaf folklore, and Deaf poetry. I was able to take those classes, and it really helped build my skill. From there, I just started doing shows and patrons liked the interpreting that I was able to offer, and they requested me to do shows.


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Was that your big break?

After I moved to Portland, ME, I got involved in Bonnaroo and interpreted there, and, again, that was patron-driven: someone that I had interpreted for before asked if I was able to go to Bonnaroo, and I contacted the accessibility department there.

Starting at Bonnaroo was a big step for me because it wasn’t just one show a night. Over the course of a weekend, an interpreter at a festival can do fifteen to twenty shows in just three to four days. That was a big step for me and brought me to another level of being able to do a variety of music throughout one day. You could go from something that was more lyrical and folk all the way to something that someone would refer to as a hardcore rap show. It definitely stretched my skills, and I think built me up to be a better interpreter every single year that I did it. I just really enjoyed that.

There’s a fabulous team of interpreters that come from all over the country to do Bonnaroo so it was a great opportunity to learn from other professionals, and we had this great, little brain trust going on — learning from each other and working together and supporting each other through that process. It was one of the pivotal interpreting opportunities I had.

Where does your particular skill set lie?

That’s such an astute question. No one has ever asked me that. I think the things that most prepares me for this work is my ability to look at communication as a whole entity — almost this global package. I try to use as many different possible ways to communicate a message as possible. Obviously the sign language, but then there’s the poetic aspect of music that you’re always trying to relay and put that experience out there for a person that’s at a show.

I always go back to what I would term as “the old Deaf masters,” like Clayton Valli and Patrick Graybill and The National Theater for the Deaf and all those old things we watched on VHS tapes when I was in college — that’s how old I am. Going back to them and seeing how they creatively used their language and then incorporated that into the way you communicate as a human being. So accessing people’s visual representations of things — like if they’re talking about a political movement, what was the picture that went along with that political movement? Or what was the striking Pulitzer image that goes along with that, and trying to access that through the interpretation. I research how the performer moves, and I think that speaks a lot to how they feel about one particular song or album. You see the way they shift their body posture and even the way they’re projecting their voice can be different based on the album, which goes back to a time in their life.

The more you look at communication as a global thing — a global delivery as opposed to just looking at the language itself — you’re able to communicate things a lot more efficiently and a lot more effectively than if you were just kind of thinking, How can I translate this instrument to sign language? Music is about so many more things than that, and if you’re going from very rich and lush movement to ASL, which is also a very rich and lush medium, you want to take advantage of everything you have.

…the most important thing is that they’re experiencing the same thing as somebody else is. They’re dropping with the beat at the same time; they’re having that emotional moment. I’ve interpreted shows before and almost everyone in the crowd is tearing up, and you want that for the patron that you’re interpreting for.

Is there something we can learn about translation from how you interpret ASL?

I do think that there are implications with any language — cultural implications. In Taiwan, February 14th is not Valentine’s Day; it was their February 14 Massacre so you couldn’t go from English to Taiwanese or whatever dialect you were using there and not understand the implication when somebody mentions February 14th. I think that in any language, you have to understand the cultural implications, and ASL is so deeply tied with American cultural experience.

I’ve learned, obviously, from my Deaf professors that you have to understand that cultural implication. I grew up near Canada in Northern Vermont, and on Quebec license plates, it says, “I will remember.” I never really understood that, and then I had a professor who was from France who explained to me the whole cultural implication of “I will remember,” as in Quebec will always remember their relationship as being kind of separate from Canada. So it’s interesting. If you delve into the culture of the language, you’ll have a more complete translation and one that moves people in the appropriate way.

What’s the most important part of interpreting music for Deaf patrons?

I think the most important thing is that they’re experiencing the same thing as somebody else is. They’re dropping with the beat at the same time; they’re having that emotional moment. I’ve interpreted shows before and almost everyone in the crowd is tearing up, and you want that for the patron that you’re interpreting for. Ultimately the goal is that they’re feeling the exact same thing as everybody else. When you hit that interpreting sweet spot, there’s nothing else like it. You’re just like, “Yes! Mission accomplished!”

Tell us about the connection you make with Deaf patrons.

I did a Beastie Boys concert, and the patrons were really excited about it, and I worked really hard to make sure the cultural references in Beastie Boys songs and the funny puns were tangible. There are moments when everyone’s like, “Oh no. He just didn’t say that” all at the same time, including the Deaf patrons. That’s what you go for. Those are the moments when the twenty to forty hours of preparation for the ninety-minute show are absolutely worth it.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely had experiences where I’m at a concert and I think a song means one thing, and then I’m in a crowd of people and we’re all kind of feeling the same thing, and then I see the performer and I’m like, “Oh, that’s what they meant?” I think people have those a-ha moments, and you want to provide an opportunity for someone to have that a-ha moment. They will never forget the moment they really understood what that song meant, or what it meant to the person that wrote it. That’s really the challenge. You’re just setting an opportunity before somebody, and they grasp it just like everybody else.

I think people have those a-ha moments, and you want to provide an opportunity for someone to have that a-ha moment. They will never forget the moment they really understood what that song meant, or what it meant to the person that wrote it.

Why hip-hop?

It just became my thing over the last ten years of interpreting. The Beastie Boys concert was a huge education for me because I was like, “Yeah, I can do that.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute. What is this song about? Wait, who and what are they referencing?” I didn’t grow up in metro New York City so I didn’t know about the Pelham train so I had to look that up and I read all of that. And I mean that whole song has like seventeen different historical references about Manhattan in it and for someone who didn’t grow up there, that’s huge.

I ended up falling in love with the simplicity of hip-hop. It’s this really lush and diverse use of language. Everyone’s really excited about Hamilton because it’s telling a story in a more modern way, but hip-hop’s been doing that for a long time. They broke barriers. They broke social barriers, racial barriers standing for a long time. I think the masterful way that people use language in hip-hop songs is just amazing. It just fascinates me. I read everything I can about hip-hop culture. Every single time, in the same way that I feel like I learned something new about American Sign Language on a weekly basis, I’m learning something new about hip-hop on a weekly basis.

Holly shakes hands with Method Man from the Wu-Tang Clan while interpreting their concert at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.

Hip-hop is often the place where the vernacular of American English is first stretched. Are you likewise trying to expand the possibilities of ASL?

I’m a second-language learner, so I will never use ASL to one hundred percent of its potential like a native user. I understand and respect that. ASL is so complex and has so many beautiful nuances. It really is a perfect medium to translate any kind of hip-hop, just the way in which you can communicate so many concepts very, very quickly. Many of the aspects of ASL are spatial. We use first-person perspective and storytelling mode. It’s literally the perfect medium to make this accessible in a different language.

To what extent is the body a vital interpreting tool?

I think it’s super important. In preparation for a show, you have to think about the lyrical story and the story of the person who wrote it, but you have to think about the musical story too. Jay Z, in 99 Problems, uses this really awesome technique where there’s this weird static noise behind the lyrics where he’s “becoming” the cop that pulls him over. The way in which people are mixing and DJs are mixing their songs with these acoustic effects is really relayed in your body and the way you’re positioning your body in interpreting, and I think that — as much as the words — is important. The context is important, and the beat is just as important. There are some songs you know in just the first three seconds, like It’s Tricky from Run DMC. And that’s really important. If you can make your body movements equally as iconic as the music that’s written, it just enhances the access to the concert and to the musician.

What’s the most creative you’ve ever had to be when signing a lyric?

I think one challenge was when we were doing a back-to-back concert with Eminem and Jay Z. They’re very different performers, with very different approaches to the way they deliver the same genre of music. You have to be able to show that. Eminem had done a lot of sampling of other R&B like Rihanna, so that was a big challenge — to be really visceral like him and then kind of emotional like her in the same song and just kind of switch back and forth between that based on the lyrics and the hook.

I think, too, ideally as an interpreter, you’re making yourself vulnerable to whatever emotion the music is about. So there are some songs that are emotional and you have to go there, and it’s a risk. You really go the whole way and try to make the interpretation as accessible as possible even if it’s emotionally risky for you and other people there.

What do you see as your contribution to the Deaf community at large?

I hope my contribution to the Deaf community is bringing a greater spotlight to their need for access to interpreting. Not just concert interpreting — any kind of interpreting. The Americans with Disabilities Act just had its birthday; it’s twenty years old and people still struggle on a daily basis to get interpreting services for basic things like doctor’s appointments and surgeries.

I hope that somebody hears about this crazy person doing whatever concert and then looks at my page and sees maybe something about a Deaf performer like Sean Forbes or Dack Virnig and then they check out Deaf performers and then they go to their page and say, “Oh wow, this Deaf person is posting that the EDHI law is up for renewal in the United States House and that’s for early detection of hearing loss in children so that there can be ASL services and early intervention services.” There’s this whole population in America that sometimes is easily overlooked and not served.

Interpreters have an inside look on people’s lives. It’s a huge privilege being in a partnership with the Deaf community and Deaf culture. I will continue interpreting. and I will continue trying to be an advocate for access for Deaf people.
 

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris. Follow him on Twitter: @delistraty.

The Real Obama: An Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer David J. Garrow

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | May 2017 | 12 minutes (3,333 words)

 

There are few subjects in contemporary history who deserve a 1,400-page biography, but Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency merits every word. Deeply researched over nine years — with over a thousand interviews and many never-before-seen documents — David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama covers 44’s life to date: his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, community organizing in Illinois, his impressive work as a Harvard Law student, and his pursuit of politics as a profession in Chicago. All the while, Garrow shows, Obama was both being shaped and thoughtfully crafting himself, turning himself from the bright, jocular kid at Punahou School in Hawaii into one of the most revolutionary, exciting presidents of the modern era.

Garrow is a Professor of Law and History, and a Distinguished Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University, and has written several nonfiction books, including Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for Bearing the Cross.

His latest book has already been compared to Robert Caro’s history of Lyndon Johnson, but Garrow’s Obama biography seems to go even further: two hundred pages of footnotes, conversations with seemingly every vital person in Obama’s life, and a nonpartisan perspective that will no doubt open the floodgates of interpretation.

I spoke with Garrow recently, and it’s clear he’s a born interviewer; he began asking me questions about my own life, until, finally, I steered us toward a wide-ranging, exceptionally in-depth conversation in which we discussed Obama’s coming-of-age, influences, formative experiences, shifting personality, the significance of friends and family, and how he eventually understood his own legacy and the arc of his grand personality.

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Read more…

The Story of Memory: An Interview with Paula Hawkins

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | May 2017 | 8 minutes (2,228 words)

 

Born in Zimbabwe on August 28, 1972, Paula Hawkins’ family moved to London when she was a teenager. Although writing fiction interested her in her younger years, her stories generally remained unfinished. After graduating from Keble College, Oxford, she took the practical route and entered the newsroom at The Times of London, where she became a well-respected financial journalist.

In her thirties, she wrote romantic comedy novels with titles like Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista, All I Want for Christmas, One Minute to Midnight, and The Reunion under the pseudonym Amy Silver, but this never proved a perfect match for her talents. Increasingly tight on money and disenchanted with writing lighter fare, she sent a partial draft of a new novel to her agent. It was unlike anything she had ever published: dark, twisted, and page-turning. Her agent went gaga. The rest is literary history.

The Girl on the Train
has sold about twenty million copies worldwide since January 2015, according to her publisher, and last year’s film adaptation grossed $173 million. Into the Water (out from Riverhead on May 2, 2017), is already destined to be a bestseller and DreamWorks recently purchased the film rights.

Like The Girl on the Train, Into the Water also concerns memory, unreliable narrators, and an obsession with the dark and macabre, but the novel is more complex, with interweaving narratives, narrative perspective shifts, and a cast of characters so complicated it surely deserves a front-of-book family tree for clarity.

I recently spoke with Hawkins about faulty memory, her rise to fame, her desire to be more literary, and the way her novels reflect the contemporary political climate.

Read more…

The Taste of Emotion: A Conversation with Dominique Crenn

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | January 2017 | 8 minutes (2,327 words)

 

Dominique Crenn did not follow the typical path to chef stardom. Instead of going to culinary school or working in Paris kitchens, she earned a business degree from the Academy of International Commerce and moved to San Francisco.

She immediately fell in love with it. “It was home, and I knew it,” she said. There, she worked under the legendary Jeremiah Tower and Mark Franz at the now-defunct Stars, a restaurant-cum-training ground for great chefs. (Restaurateur and Food Network host Mario Batali spent time in the Stars kitchen.) Two years later, she went to Indonesia, where she was the first-ever female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel in Jakarta. There, she won her first Michelin star.

Crenn decided that she wanted to create a place that felt like a community, “that felt like a family,” so she moved back to San Francisco and opened Atelier Crenn in 2011.

Crenn’s food is highly inventive, mostly seafood, with combinations of traditional French ingredients mixed with American modernism. The menu — written entirely in poems — rotates constantly. A diner might receive a menu with a line of poetry that reads, “I touch the salted water, and hold the shell against my ear.” The corresponding dish is caviar, sea urchin, and oyster topped with cucumber “snow” (crème fraîche). A line like “and leaving a beautiful reflection” precedes a delicate Bluefin tuna belly. “There came a wave of oceanic delicateness,” is lobster in a yogurt broth with coconut.

In 2012, her culinary stardom took off. Atelier Crenn received a second Michelin star in its second year, making Crenn the first female chef at an American restaurant to earn two Michelin stars. Earlier this year, she was named “The World’s Best Female Chef.”

We discussed the role of memory and literature in food, the emotions of taste, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, fame, and how she, like Picasso, has created a fundamentally new style — where her canvas is a curious mix of ingredients and memory.

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‘We Have to Resist’: A Conversation with Rebecca Solnit

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | December 2016 | 10 minutes (2,632 words)

 

It is difficult to define Rebecca Solnit. Is she an historian, a cultural theorist, a journalist, an activist? She cites reserved intellectuals like John Berger and Lawrence Weschler as influences, and she is also on the front lines of protest: she was an outspoken proponent of Occupy Wall Street; she was in Standing Rock, at the Dakota Access Pipeline, where protestors recently gained an unexpected victory; and she co-founded the Stop Trump project, which ideologically resists the U.S. President-Elect while uncovering the potential malfeasance that led to his election in the first place.

Born in Connecticut and educated at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley, the 55-year-old has been an independent writer living in northern California since 1988. She’s authored seventeen books, ranging in topic from art to politics to geography to community to feminism. She won the Lannan Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she’s currently a contributing editor at Harper’s, where she writes the bimonthly Easy Chair column.

Her essay “Hope in the Dark,” which she gave away as a free ebook after Trump was elected, was written twelve years ago as an instructive piece on what went wrong with the Iraq War protests. Its relevance resurged after Trump was elected.

I spoke with Solnit about reclaiming the notion that political protest works, understanding the role of hope, the lessons of Hilary Clinton’s defeat, not ceding resistance, and whether Trump was even elected president at all.

Read more…

The Trick to It All: A Conversation with Photographer Henry Leutwyler

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | October 2016 | 12 minutes (3,326 words)

 

Born in Switzerland in 1961, the portrait photographer Henry Leutwyler was told he wouldn’t make it as a photographer. He was rejected from a top Swiss photography school, and when he opened his own photo studio in Lausanne — photographing watches and chocolates and cheeses — he went bankrupt in a swift year-and-a-half.

But at age 25, Leutwyler moved to Paris and began apprenticing with the French photographer Gilles Tapie, who helped him find his stride as an editorial photographer. A decade later, in 1995, Leutwyler moved to New York City, where his portrait photography began to appear in Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Time, among others.

Since then, Leutwyler has photographed the top-tier of global talent, including Martin Scorsese, Michelle Obama, Julia Roberts, Misty Copeland, Tom Wolfe, and Rihanna.

In 2010, Leutwyler published his first book with the German imprint Steidl called Neverland Lost: A Portrait of Michael Jackson, following it with two editions of Ballet: Photographs of the New York City Ballet. This year, he completed his most extensive project yet. After 12 years in the works, Document was released on October 25, 2016, by Steidl and will be accompanied by a show at the Foley Gallery in New York City, from November 3, 2016, to January 8, 2017.

The one-of-a-kind project is comprised of 124 photographs of seemingly ordinary items whose history renders them extraordinary: the gun that killed John Lennon, Bob Dylan’s harmonica, Andy Warhol’s paintbrush, Julia Child’s madeleine tray, Charlie Chaplin’s cane, Fred Astaire’s tap shoes, Janis Joplin’s guitar, Michael Jackson’s sequined glove, a hand-sewn Civil War-era flag, Mahatma Gandhi’s cracked leather sandal, among many others — all of which Leutwyler managed to round-up and photograph on his trademark white background.

Recently, while Leutwyler was in Palermo, Italy, I spoke with him about the trick to portrait photography, the magic of inanimate objects, his laughs with Julia Roberts, his awkwardness with Helmut Newton, and how he manages to stay creative after decades of universally adored photography.

Read more…

Dancing Naked in Public

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | September 2016 | 16 minutes (4,104 words)

 

If the contemporary art world seems like a place of pretension, status-seeking, and giant checks being paid through Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, then it’s the critic Jerry Saltz who may be the last hope of bringing us all back down to earth. As Saltz once wrote: although contemporary art may not be of everyone’s taste, it’s still for everyone.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Saltz went to the Chicago Art Institute wanting to be a painter but dropped out; he soon became a long-distance truck driver, but after a decade of driving, he decided life couldn’t get any worse and that he might as well go back to his truest passion. So in the early-1980s, with no formal degree, he moved to New York and entered the art criticism scene, writing mostly for the Village Voice. Fast-forward to today and he’s now the senior art critic at New York magazine and has twice been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.

Howard Halle, the chief art critic at Time Out New York, calls the 65-year-old “America’s art critic.” And yet, Saltz, although perhaps an American icon, has hardly become a universally beloved one.

A few years ago, Saltz was briefly banned from Facebook for posting what Zuckerberg and co. determined, initially, to be pornography (Saltz maintains that posting ancient and medieval artworks depicting fellatio, cunnilingus, and circumcisions hardly constitutes pornography, and he continues to post these images on his re-activated Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, all of which boast, on aggregate, hundreds of thousands of followers). He also recently tried to pull the veil on the economics of the art scene—not everyone is making the big bucks—by posting a photograph showing his Chase checking account balance to be $3,832.16.

Although one wonders how much of his “everyman” appearance is an act (he maintains that it’s not), Saltz’s lack of pretension has been a burst of fresh air in the often-stodgy art criticism scene. Who else but Jerry would compliment Morley Safer’s painting of a hotel room after Safer unconvincingly tried to tear apart the contemporary art scene in two 60 Minutes segments? Or, even more surprisingly, who might say of George W. Bush’s paintings—in which the former president depicted his view of himself in the bathtub and while taking a shower, his back turned, only his face reflected in a small mirror—“I love these two bather paintings. They are ‘simple’ and ‘awkward,’ but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways”?

Not everyone is on board with the Saltz movement. The Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr called Saltz “the class clown” in an interview with Yale Radio, adding, “the idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world… all of these things are about Jerry. And it’s too bad.” Storr even clumped in Saltz’s wife—Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic of The New York Times—saying, “They are punchy writers and again, they draw interest because of the contrariness but there are no principles, and they’re not fighting long term battles for anything and never have.”

But Saltz doesn’t mind it. He’s endlessly quotable and his optimism and energy for art has led to an engagement with the art world from the most surprising of sorts—irritable Twitter users, suburban teenagers, essentially anyone with an opinion. Saltz has, in effect, de-localized art criticism, taking it from students at the Courtauld, writers at Artforum, the galleries and museums in New York and London, and instead placing it online, where anyone with even a modicum of interest in art can share their thoughts with both Saltz and one another.

Saltz and I recently spoke over the telephone, and we discussed, among other topics, where the art world is heading, how it can reorient itself, the current trends (good and bad) in contemporary art, and what the roles of critic, artist, and viewer are and could one day be. Read more…