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The Internet Is Exploding: 10 Must-Read Articles This Week 8/16

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Dear You: Monique Crabb

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Material Scientist: Annet Couwenberg

The internet was kind of amazing this week! Highlights: Janelle Monáe and Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris for V.P., Kimberly Drew and Janet Mock, Tessa Thompson, Zadie Smith on Toyin Ojih Odutola, the visual chaos of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, “WAP” reviewed, The Verzuz Effect, the shelved black-ish episode, and what MasterClass really sells. 

 

1. Harper’s Bazaar: Stacey Abrams and Janelle Monáe on the Fight for Democracy in an Election Season for the Ages

Janelle Monáe is a brilliant interviewer and listener, and this conversation with Stacey Abrams is beautiful. The two Atlantans met over Zoom to talk about Abrams’ new book, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America, the coming election, and how “you can’t give up the power you have trying to get the power you want.” The two women exchange so much warmth and touch upon so many ideas in this complex yet accessible conversation about the pandemic, the current state of American democracy, and “how to get shit done” in “systems that are built primarily for Christian, cis, heterosexual, white men, and remain authentically yourself.” 

 

2. New York Times: Kamala Harris, Biden’s V.P. Pick, Is First Woman of Color on Major Party Ticket

Joe Biden predictably picked Kamala Harris as his running mate for the 2020 presidential election. I have a lot of feelings about this that I am still working through, but yes, I will vote for them, and it cannot be understated how massive it is that a Black woman is the Vice Presidential nominee for a major political party. I think Biden and Harris’ policies and histories can rightfully be critiqued—although most critiques of Harris, especially since the announcement, have exhibited thinly veiled racism and misogyny. But, as Angela Davis said about the announcement, “we have to get rid of the person who is in office at this moment, whose name I will not pronounce. But I think that it’s really a question of who we will be able to pressure.” Right now, energy should be focused on getting Biden and Harris elected. 

 

3. Marie Claire: Janet Mock: Up-Front and Unafraid

The longer I write this weekly list, and the more profiles and interviews I read, the starker the relationship between the writer and subject becomes. Of course, I always knew this relationship was important, but the more I read, I learn how it is important. 

Kimberly Drew wrote a profile of Janet Mock for Marie Claire this month in a way I find quite stunning. Drew laments how “it feels nearly impossible to write a celebrity profile right now” but that to write about Black life right now is to write in equal measure about trauma and triumph,” remarking that “the struggle to find language for this moment has never felt so real. How can we make language that speaks at once of mourning, joy, and fear?” And, for Mock, “one of the most visible and accomplished Black, trans, and indigenous women of our time … language has always been a revolutionary, liberatory tool.” 

This piece follows Mock’s career as she reflects on her coming out story in 2011 and how it “was really the marker of me going from private citizen to then in a way—even though this wasn’t the intention—becoming a public person who was representative of a community that was rarely seen.” The profile also covers Mock’s work a contributing editor at Marie Claire, a public speaker, an advocate for trans rights, and her transition to working in film and TV. Here, Mock speaks to imaginative, fanciful thinking, “instead of just turning the lens only on the murder, the violence, the abuse, and the space of lack.” She is “aiming to use art as a vehicle to support and amplify emerging Black artists who engage politically with art as a location of change.”

This is such a rich profile because of both the writer and the subject. 

 

4. Porter Magazine: Women of Action

I’m always gushing over Tessa Thompson, and this profile of her by Lynette Nylander with BEAUTIFUL PHOTOS by Shaniqwa Jarvis and styling by Shibon Kennedy just about made my little heart explode! The profile flickers between Thompson’s on-screen work and activism in the film industry and at large—something that Thompson herself doesn’t separate much. When asked if “the risk of losing out on jobs has ever deterred her from taking a stance,” Thompson retorts, “Anyone who wouldn’t want to work with me because I’m a person at this time fighting [that] the value and dignity of Black lives need to be protected… I really don’t want to work with them. It’s my life and it’s important that my core values line up with my creative ecosystem.” 

I mean, it is kinda hard not to love her!

 

5. New Yorker: Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Visions of Power

The first time I saw the work of Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s was in To Wander Determined at the Whitney Museum in 2018. The exhibition was in the museum’s Foundation Gallery, which is on the first floor and free and open to the public. The series explores “wealth through the lens of color and race, to see how we can move a very contested history of Black bodies being capital to Black bodies owning themselves and their selfhood and owning the spaces that they’re in and what that would look like,” according to the artist’s statement about the series. 

Zadie Smith reviews Ojih Odutola’s recent series, A Countervailing Theory, which questions “What would it look like if women were the only imperialists in known histories across the globe?” This leads Smith to ask, “If the powerful women she was drawing were the masters, over whom did they have mastery?” The story grew from there, Ojih Odutola says:

“My initial aim was to tell a tale of two beings, one born, another made/manufactured, who exist within a system that enterprises and stratifies war, imperialism and hierarchies—and how these two mitigate their respective lives within it to, ultimately, cross over and come together to bring the whole system down. But they fail.”

I spent hours in the gallery with To Wander Determined asking all sorts of questions to myself and to the work. Ojih Odutola’s art always forces me to do that, to interrogate the world around me and investigate my role in everything. A Countervailing Theory “lead[s] us deep into the wilderness of our present ideas about power—who should have it, how it should be wielded—and then out again, a journey as much philosophical as visual,” writes Smith. “What are the possibilities and the limits of countervailing, as a political or an aesthetic project? Is it sufficient merely to counter? Or might a higher synthesis be conceivable?”

Ojih Odutola and Smith are both brilliant, and their intellectual acuity is on full display here. 

 

6. Lit Hub: The Intentional Visual Chaos of Beyoncé and Jay-Z in the Louvre

In my last year of undergrad, I became obsessed with visual culture and celebrity, making a fake tabloid about Kim Kardashian for my senior capstone project. The first year or so of this column largely revels in celebrity rivalries and pop culture. For a few years, I became more and more dismissive of art and interested in pop and visual culture as a lot of people don’t care about art. My thinking has grown since then and at the time I generally used art to mean “fine art” or “high art” or some other elitist form of art, dismissing a lot of other work along the way. I somewhat separated art from visual culture, even though they both are “implicated in this fear of not getting it, not seeing what you are supposed to, not being included: visual culture as #fomo,” writes Alexis L. Boylan. 

Using the example of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “APES**T” music video, shot in the Louvre, Boylan explores “the urgent questions of visual culture: what is real, what is lasting, what do we deem precious, what are our obligations to see each other, can we ever understand the world around us and the spaces we share?” Boylan writes about how the power of images lies in their context, that “visual culture only has its full meaning if the context is clear, if the symbols reach the viewer.” 

Even if there is a fear of “not seeing what you are supposed to” or not knowing, “even if you don’t ‘know’ who Beyoncé and Jay-Z are and why they are in the Louvre, we can start thinking about visual culture by asking why those particular images were made in a particular way.” Asking the questions is maybe more important than the thing itself. 

Over the past few years, I’ve thought less and less about how I define visual culture or delineate its different forms. I’ve tried to allow for more slippages, focusing less on definitions. Reading this excerpt from Boylan’s book, Visual Culture, made me realize that perhaps I was focusing too much on the thing when I was in undergrad, and not enough on the question.

 

7. BuzzFeed: How Cardi B And Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” Flipped The Script

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released “WAP” and its associated music video last Friday and the internet has been ablaze ever since. “WAP,” which stands for wet ass pussy, “is like a peep show curtain, which hides its performers and titillates viewers at the same time.” Cardi B and Megan go “beyond merely adding to [the] canon of sex rap and absurd, boundary-melting visuals; they’re now commenting on it, too,” something they have been both praised and criticized for. The video is “part art gallery, museum, estate, and Willy Wonka factory, the video’s setting showcases Black and brown women (with the notable exception of Kylie Jenner, who makes a conspicuous and controversial cameo).” 

However, as Niela Orr argues here, Jenner’s cameo is one of the reasons the video is so subversive. Not only does “WAP” ask viewers “to conjure a different kind of museum” than our current imperialistic ones based on white supremacy, but in “accessorizing their video with Kylie Jenner, the rappers have done another thing, beyond curating, or showing themselves (and viewers) around their museum: They’ve pulled off a subtle form of theft. Like any good art heist, they’ve done a switcheroo. Cardi and Meg have used Jenner, their bait, to switch the discourse, from the lyrical bawdiness of two Black women to a real-life, white, scion of the ‘sex sells’ business.”

 

8. Billboard: The Verzuz Effect

Verzuz is maybe the best and most exciting thing for music that has come from the pandemic. Created by Timbaland and SwizzBeats and hosted on Instagram, in Verzuz “two legacy artists, producers or songwriters face off against one another by each taking turns playing their hits, often while performing along with them or telling the stories behind them. Each installment of Verzuz is positioned as a round-by-round competition to prove who has the better, deeper catalog, though no score is kept and no champion is declared.” 

After battles, online streaming for the artists soars, and “since April, Verzuz itself has become a cultural institution — one with its own characters, lexicon and community — and its ability to both revive and spark new interest in the Black legacy artists who take its virtual stage has become known as ‘the Verzuz effect.’” The battle between “T-Pain and Lil Jon first demonstrated what Verzuz could be in its purest form: two slightly lit talents playing their greatest hits, telling stories and occasionally gassing one another up with mutual appreciation, howling and cursing with mock-anguish at how good the other’s selected songs are.” Pulling from a long history of different kinds of head-to-head competitions in Black music, “Verzuz has grown into what Timbaland calls a ‘museum,’ showcasing Black musical greatness with songwriters and producers, rappers (Nelly vs. Ludacris, Snoop Dogg vs. DMX), R&B singers (Jill Scott vs. Erykah Badu, John Legend vs. Alicia Keys) and even dancehall DJs (Bounty Killer vs. Beenie Man).”  

 

9. Los Angeles Times: Review: This ‘black-ish’ episode was hidden for years. Here’s why it still works

I never watched or followed the show black-ish until April when #BlackAF premiered on Netflix. Created by and starring Kenya Barris, who also created black-ish, #BlackAF is embroiled in a critical debate about colorism on all of Barris’ shows (which also include black-ish spinoffs grown-ish and mixed-ish) and whether the show is too close to Barris’ actual life. I binged all of #BlackAF, generally enjoying the show, and when I read reviews of the show I learned about this black-ish episode that was shelved in 2018. 

On Tuesday, ABC released the shelved episode, “Please, Baby, Please,” (S4 E99 on the streaming service). The episode, which takes place a year after Trump’s inauguration, centers around how “family patriarch Dre (Anthony Anderson) feels the pressure to calm his restless brood, starting with fussy baby Devante. Dre can’t help but pepper the innocent bedtime story he reads his son with his own fears about all that’s gone wrong in America over the past year. No wonder the infant can’t sleep.” The episode is “a greatest hits of that year’s tragedies — floods, mass shootings, hatred toward immigrants, Russian election-meddling, gay bashing,” and explores “the idea that Trump, the rise of white nationalist movements and the deep divisions among many Americans are a form of backlash — against the fact that a Black man won the presidency for two terms — led by enraged citizens whose political zeal is in fact an attempt to turn back the clock.”

“Please, Baby, Please” was the first episode of black-ish I watched in full, and it still works today because we haven’t solved or moved past the issues it explores—they have only been exacerbated. 

 

10. The Atlantic: What Is MasterClass Actually Selling?

The director of my graduate program is OBSESSED with MasterClass. He has never taken a class, but brings it up, or at least its ads, in seemingly every department meeting (okay, I might be exaggerating but it comes up at least half the time). 

MasterClass is an online platform where subscribers can take classes by experts in a field: “You can take writing classes with Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Joyce Carol Oates, David Sedaris, Shonda Rhimes, Malcolm Gladwell, or Aaron Sorkin. You can take photography with Annie Leibovitz; acting with Natalie Portman; comedy with Judd Apatow or Steve Martin; and cooking with Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, or Alice Waters.” It started with just three classes in 2015, “Dustin Hoffman on acting, Serena Williams on tennis, and Patterson on writing,” and has grown to host “more than 85 classes across nine categories.” It is a “brand built on other people’s impeccable brands.” But what exactly does MasterClass actually sell? 

Technically, “a master class is a small class for very advanced students taught by a master in their field.” However, “MasterClass courses are not really designed for a specific skill level, but instead are aimed at the most general of general audiences,” and “lately, MasterClass has started presenting itself as a platform for dispensing assorted self-help and personal-development bonbons.”

I may receive the ads until the end of time, but I don’t think I’ll ever take a MasterClass. 

 

Images taken from referenced articles. Have a suggestion for next week? Email afoehmke@bmoreart.com with the subject line “The Internet is Exploding.”

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