Tag Archives: Criticism

The Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Ethical Enjoyment of Museums

Jacques-Louis David's 'Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, Crossing the Alps,' on loan from Versailles. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has over 300 pieces on loan from the Louvre. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

A great museum is a great catalog of plunder. Not just of objects stolen, bought, traded or loaned, but of entire civilizations, placed out of time and plundered of meaning. The Louvre itself was opened on August 10, 1793, a year after the arrest of Louis XIV. The royal collection became a national collection, and under Napoleon it became a symbol of empire, with entire new wings built just to house the plunder sent back during military campaigns.

Today, what can no longer be gotten through force can be rented. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a beautiful new building with a rented artwork and a borrowed name — the museum needs time to develop a collection of its own, preferably without several revolutions. But what will be the character of this new collection, the first of its kind in the Middle East? In his review of the Louvre Abu Dhabi for The New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter reflects on what the museum does — and what it should do.

In short, the Louvre Abu Dhabi fails where most, if not all, encyclopedic art museums do: in truth-telling. And the failure applies to the present as much as to the past. In news releases and public advertising, the institution promises to be “a museum for everyone”; to show “humanity in a new light”; to embody an “openness” and “harmony” reflecting the “tolerant and accepting environment” of Emirati society. But in the years since the building broke ground, international human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the Abu Dhabi government for mistreatment of immigrant laborers at work on Saadiyat Island projects.

During the museum’s inaugural week, two Swiss journalists, filming laborers as part of their coverage of the opening, were arrested by the police, grilled, forced to sign a “confession” and then expelled from the country. Over the past several years, people campaigning for workers’ rights have been barred from entering Abu Dhabi, or deported.

A walk through Mr. Nouvel’s domed museum complex, with its luminous shade and its breeze-channeling sea vistas, is an enchantment, almost enough to make you forget grim physical and social realities that went into creating it. And the manifold beauty of galleries filled with charismatic objects nearly persuades you not to remember that art is a record of crimes as well as of benign achievements. It takes an exercise in ethical balance to engage fully with our great museums, to walk the shaky bridge they construct between aesthetics and politics. A mindful visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi requires this balance. That may be what is most universal about it.

‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ Has Made Traditional TV Recaps Obsolete

Still from Showtime's Twin Peaks: The Return, episode 8.

It might be technically over, but it’s been hard to let go of Twin Peaks: The Return, whose final two episodes aired last Sunday. I’d worried about this 18-part work, and how the powerful waves of nostalgia its arrival sent across the web would alter my experience of it. In the end, it was breathtaking: horrific, funny, bold, and masterful — even at its most frustrating.

The middle stretch of the series coincided with the seventh — mostly mediocre — season of Game of Thrones. The juxtaposition was revelatory: I realized how limited my tolerance of narrative experimentation had become in this supposed golden age of prestige television. On the right side, flimsy, expensive, predictable storytelling. On the left, something beautiful and impossible to define, at once seductive and hermetic. The two shows also encouraged very different types of engagement. Sure, redditors have come up with outré theories about both Jon Snow’s parentage and Agent Dale Cooper’s tulpas. But where the former forced you to think in straight lines and pose questions about verisimilitude (“how did those ravens fly so fast?”), the latter invited lateral explorations, detours, and multilayered analyses.

Speaking of which, Sarah Nicole Prickett has written gorgeous, spiral-like reviews after each episode (or pair of episodes), which Artforum has since collected into one mammoth post (the final installment is still forthcoming). These essays take the (mostly dull) genre of the weekly recap and inject it with a sense of intrepid questioning. Here, for example, is Prickett responding to the show’s eighth episode, likely the best hour of television I’ve ever watched.

Imagine having been a child in the jaundiced dawn of the Atomic Age, anticipating the death of all you’d known, the reality at Hiroshima and Nagasaki transposed on your Manhattan, or your Missoula, Montana. Imagine seeing one photograph in particular, depicting the instant shared death of a hundred thousand people and thinking, “I have an idea.” Seeing a perfect image in . . . a mushroom cloud, and making it your own. Who is so outrageous? Sylvia Plath? Bruce Conner? I would kill someone to have that kind of brain, which is why God didn’t give it to me. He gave it to Lynch, who reappears on The Return as FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, now with a fancier office, and behind his wide desk, as we saw in the third hour, a wider black-and-white photograph of a nuclear blast. Five hours later, this completely inappropriate decorating choice is explained.

We go to the first detonation of an atomic bomb, in White Sands, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, at 5:45 AM (MWT). The date and time, with its stressed specificity, is like an evangelical’s save-the-date for this year’s doomsday. The Trinity Test we are about to see did in fact take place, but a shimmer of unlikelihood, like this is unbelievable, remains. The cloud mushrooms and swallows the camera, so it feels like we’re shrinking, like Alice in . . . Hell. The colors are too much for words: imperial purple, incarnadine orange, gold. (Lynch, in his wonderfully inadequate explanation for dissecting a stranger’s recently deceased cat in his basement, said that “when I opened up the inside, it was unbelievable—the organs inside the cat were brilliant colors, and as soon as the air got to them, all the color started draining out, right before your eyes.”) The rest of the episode is in lambent black-and-white, as in Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). There are quivering shots, almost stills, displaying staticky, patterned abstractions that look like Ross Bleckner’s paintings after AIDS. Bleckner has said that the disease, with its radioactive threat, was “a total paradigm shift in consciousness, a rupture.”

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Before Becoming an Art Critic, Jerry Saltz Wanted to Draw 10,000 Dante-Inspired Altarpieces

(AP Photo/Evan Agostini)

In a revealing memoir piece at New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz — the magazine’s art critic — retraces his early years as an artist in 1970s Chicago (spolier alert: it didn’t work out). It’s a gripping read not just for artists and art lovers, but for anyone who’s ever grappled with the tricky interplay of productivity, mediocrity, and coming to terms with one’s own limitations. Despite his failure to build a career as an artist, I loved how absurdly (admirably?) ambitious his plans were for his magnum opus: composing 100 illustrated altarpieces for each of Dante’s Divine Comedy cantos, for a total of 10,000:

I began my “Inferno” project just before dawn on the Thursday before Easter 1975, because Maundy Thursday is when Dante’s story begins in the poem — lost in “the dark wood of error,” having strayed from the “true way.” I planned to finish on Easter, the same day Dante finished his own journey, in 1300. I would finish in 2000, by which time I would have made 100 opening-and-closing altarpieces for each of the 100 cantos of The Divine Comedy. The 10,000 finished altarpieces were supposed to represent an idea of the infinite and a way to set myself free. Why Dante? Especially as I barely read at all and didn’t believe in God? I think because The Divine Comedy, which is a gigantic organized allegorical system where every evil deed is punished in accord with the law of equal retribution and divine love, supplied me with the formulated structure I craved. The highly established internal architectonics, the almost primitive definitiveness, what Beckett called the “neatness of identification,” were psychological shelter and weapons of revenge for me. A way to right my own world, to grasp an order like that in the Bible: “all things by measure and number and weight.” Most of all, it was a vision of justice — the good being rewarded and the bad getting their punishments.

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Longreads Best of 2016: Essays & Criticism

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in essays and criticism.

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Kiese Laymon
A Professor of English and Creative Writing at University of Mississippi, and author of forthcoming memoir, Heavy.

Chicago State of Mind (Derrick Harriell, LA Review of Books)

Derrick Harriell wrote a piece on Chicago State that challenged my understanding of what’s possible with form and content in the long lyric essay. The piece narrativizes educational place and the journey of learning in a beautiful black place that’s trying to survive.


Mira Ptacin
Writer whose work has appeared in NPR, New York Magazine, Guernica, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Tin House, The Rumpus, and more. Author of the memoir Poor Your Soul, and teacher of memoir to women at the Maine Correctional Center.

On Domestic Disobedience (A.N. Devers, The New Republic)

I nominate this sharp-eyed and insightful piece not only because it brilliantly gave us a taste of Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection, but it gives it its proper place in the family tree of nature-writers by blowing “nature-dude” writing out of the water. Devers shows readers how important and triumphantly Bennett’s penmanship is, even in its simplicity: how even writing about the goings-on in the microcosm of a kitchen can dip into great depths to the mind and soul.


Tobias Carroll
Freelance writer, managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and author of the books Reel and Transitory.

Advanced Search (Franceska Rouzard, Real Life Magazine)

The right essay can turn an object or memory that I’d previously found mundane into the stuff of gripping narrative. Such is the case here, as Rouzard’s essay opens with descriptions of AOL dial-up in the mid-1990s before segueing into a capsule history of social media, and then extending into broader questions of identity and the sacred. It neatly parallels its author’s life with broader societal questions, keeping the two in perfect balance, and leaving me with a greater sense of both–I can’t ask a great essay to do more than that.


Sara Benincasa
Screenwriter, comedian, and writer, whose books include Agorafabulous, Great, DC Trip, and Real Artists Have Day Jobs.

Southern Fried Pride: What Hattiesburg’s First Pride Means in the Deep South (Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Medium)

The Reverend Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of the United Church of Christ is a wife, a mother, a lesbian, a former college professor (I took her class at Warren Wilson College), and the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. In this piece, Jasmine takes a road trip across the Deep South to visit Hattiesburg, Mississippi on the occasion of its very first Pride parade. People like Jasmine do the work that all Americans need, whether they accept it or not. In her peaceful, dignified but impassioned manner, she fights for equality for all Americans. That she happens to be a damn fine storyteller is just icing on the deep-fried cake.

More Than Coffee: New York’s Vanishing Diner Culture (George Blecher, The New York Times)

George Blecher paints a wonderful portrait of the diner he loves the most. He also gives a great bit of history about the rise of the diner in New York City. I grew up in New Jersey, which has its own brilliant and thriving diner culture but I lived in New York for many years. The old diner joints there are just as important as George says. Here in my newer home in Los Angeles, a city I love, I’ve got a few diners I can depend on: in Silverlake, Sunset Junction Coffee Shop; in Los Feliz, House of Pies; and more scattered around town. And in Manhattan, at 100th and Broadway, George has the Metro – for now.


Emily Gould
Half of the Coffee House Press imprint and e-bookstore Emily Books, and the author, most recently, of the novel Friendship.

H.: On Heroin and Harm Reduction (Sarah Resnick, n+1)

This year I started teaching writing workshop classes for the first time, and a lot of students want to learn how to do exactly what Sarah Resnick does here–and so do I! Addressed to a relative with a longstanding heroin habit, as well as a host of other problems, Resnick’s essay goes down several different paths, ultimately illuminating a lot of what’s circuitous and maddening about addiction and recovery as they’re currently understood in America, and how harm reduction programs work. The essay’s idiosyncratic, personal approach makes it more convincing than a straightforward argument for a new understanding of addiction could be. Reading it is memorable the way an experience is.

Perhaps Having Kids Saves You From Mourning the Person you Might Have Been (Laura Hazard Owen, Medium and tinyletter)

Owen publishes her essays about parenthood via newsletter as well as on Medium. She’s a journalist with expertise in publishing, tech and the business of journalism, and she brings the same kind of skepticism about received wisdom and eye for detail to her observations about children and parenting culture as she does to her other work. In this one, she takes on the hardest question of all — whether having children could be a mistake, whether parents can allow themselves to think it might have been. She writes about ambition so well. I will always remember the line here about lying on a couch reading in a beautiful house.


Porochista Khakpour
Author of the forthcoming memoir, Sick (Harper Perennial, August 2017) and the novels The Last Illusion, and Sons & Other Flammable Objects, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bookforum, Elle, Spin, Slate, and many other publications around the world.

The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Buzzfeed)

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah has become my favorite writer of my generation since I first read her writing about Dave Chappelle in The Believer several years ago (it was a National Magazine Award finalist, collected in The Best American Nonrequired Reading as well as The Believer’s anthology Read Harder). Since then I’ve been a fan of every piece of hers and this chronicle of traveling to the home of James Baldwin in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France is no exception. (It’s a highlight of what I consider one of the best books of the year, the Jesmyn Ward-edited The First This Time). Ghansah writes about Baldwin from all different angles and with every emotion, braided with her own issues of identity. The result is a hard, rough, beautiful diamond of piece, pushed to brilliance from considerable pressure. Ghansah is perhaps one of the only writers we have today who can live up to Baldwin in so many shades of style and substance.

Who are All the Trump Supporters? (George Saunders, The New Yorker)

Saunders has always been one of my favorite writers–it’s physically impossible for me to not read a piece by him–but this classic from last summer will be surely studied for decades if not centuries in the future. Trump and his supporters are a perfect match for Saunders, who although a liberal, often sketches the America Trump supporters know well in his fiction. The trademark Saundersian dark absurdism is a perfect fit for taking to the campaign trail and interviewing Trump supporters at rallies in Arizona, Wisconsin and California. The result is as funny as it frightening. It’s doubly a punch in the gut to read it now that Trump is, somehow, our president-elect.”Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail,” Saunders writes, and ends almost prophetically: “But I imagine it that way now.”


Emily Perper
Emily Perper is a writer, bookseller and contributing editor at Longreads. In addition to word-work, they’re on the board of The Frederick Center, which provides resources for queer people in central Maryland.

My Son, the Prince of Fashion (Michael Chabon, GQ)

Both of my “best of” personal essay nominations concern the reaches and limits of parenthood. At GQ, novelist Michael Chabon writes about his trip to Paris Men’s Fashion Week, where his young son, 13-year-old Abe, catches a glimpse of his future and yearns after his tribe. I’d never presume to understand the intricacies of childrearing, but Chabon treats his son with a blend of kindness and respect we’d all do well to emulate with the young folks in our own lives–taking their desires, ideas and motivations seriously, and fostering their artistic instincts. And Chabon is simply an excellent writer, blending gentle self-deprecation with astute observation. He doesn’t need paragraphs of adjectives to transport the reader to the studios and runways of Paris. You are there, sweating in the French summer. You are there, checking out the throngs of stylish young men loitering outside shows. And you there, beaming (Guardedly! Be cool!) at your son, when he recognizes and is recognized.

Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid (Rufi Thorpe, Vela)

Novelist Rufi Thorpe upends traditional discourse around the ponderous/condescending/exhausting query, “Can women have it all?” Instead, she makes a distinction between the selfishness of the artist’s way and motherhood’s requisite selflessness. Beyond her powerful and honest observations, the energy behind her language is distinct and exciting; it’s why I’ll read anything she writes. When I read the line “Children are a hinge that only bends one way,” I gasped.


Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Story Wrangler, WordPress.com and Longreads

Champagne in the Cellar (John Temple, The Atlantic)

During the Second World War, John Temple’s parents hid in a basement in Budapest with a French doctor, underneath a home that German soldiers had made their headquarters. After they separated from the doctor, they never reconnected. For the next 70 years, they wondered what had happened to this man who saved their lives. After his parents’ death, Temple turns to the internet to search for this man, known to him only as Dr. Lanusse. This is a touching story about history, family, memory, and — ultimately — a lasting bond between two families, connected by extraordinary circumstances. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2015: Essays & Criticism

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in essays and criticism. Read more…

How Karina Longworth Is Reimagining Classic Hollywood—and the Podcast—in ‘You Must Remember This’

Scott Porch | Longreads | March 2015 | 14 minutes (3,624 words)

 

Almost a year ago, former LA Weekly film writer Karina Longworth began producing You Must Remember This, a podcast about the inner worlds of Hollywood icons of the past and present. The characters and stories range from familiar, to unknown, to just plain weird. (Episode 2 is about a Frank Sinatra space opera that you never knew existed.) Longworth, 34, has also written for publications including Grantland about everything from the history of the Super Mario Bros. movie to the stories of Harvey Weinstein’s ruthlessness in the editing room.

We recently talked by phone about her interest in the stories of classic Hollywood, the unique format of podcasting, and how her roles as a journalist, critic, and historian have informed her storytelling.


Read more…

The Future Is Dark: Uncertainty's Creative Power

Rebecca Solnit, writing in The New Yorker, offers a celebration of the imagination’s best ally: the ability to say “I don’t know.” Solnit looks at subtlety and subjectivity in her own writing, and in that of a hero of the art, Virginia Woolf:

During my years as an art critic I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.

A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether.

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective.

Read the story here.

More stories on creativity from the Longreads archive.

Photo via Smithsonian/Flickr