The internet had some good art and cultural criticism this week (but maybe I’m also just getting back into it)! Highlights: Miss Majors, teaching in a red state, Tina Turner, ‘The Little Mermaid’, hiring a pop star, ‘Succession’, seeing Vermeer, public art, waking up after 20 years, and SCOTUS really doesn’t care about labor (in addition to historical precedent).
Happy Pride!! There is no better way to begin Pride month than celebrating Miss Major, a trans icon, activist and elder who “has persevered over six inspiring decades on the frontlines of the queer and trans liberation movement.” Published earlier this year by Verso, Miss Major Speaks: Conversations with a Black Trans Revolutionary is just that, a recount of her story and legacy as told through conversations with journalist Toshio Meronek.
In this conversation with Caitlin Wood Meronek, they discuss the importance of Miss Majors’ life and work on queer and trans liberation movements, and the impact she has had personally on their life. Miss Major “lived through Dannemora prison, time at Bellevue psychiatric hospital, the HIV/AIDS crisis, sex work. Yet she’s ‘still fucking here,’ as she’s so fond of saying. There is real power behind this pithy expression. There are lessons to be learned from her. When hope fails us, it’s important to recognize the work and wisdom of community elders who have lived through hell and found ways to survive.”
Anne P. Beatty is a mother and English teacher living and working in North Carolina, one of the many states facing a litany of anti-trans legislation and restrictions on what can and can’t be taught in schools. Greensboro, where Beatty lives, “is a Southern city, where some things bloom, and others are buried.”
Every day, Beatty navigates “the silences I have been handed, and the silences I hand off, as a parent or teacher.” The silences of histories and half truths we are taught about our past, wonder—but also knowing— “who or what were these silences meant to protect?”
When Tina Turner died last week, articles, essays, and obituaries quickly saturated the internet. Most of those pieces felt more factual, more reactive, than reflective. In her tribute “to the late, great queen of rock and roll,” Harmony Holiday writes that Turner’s “departure from this lifetime feels like a claiming of justice.” Turner is no longer asked to relive the most difficult parts of her life. Holiday looks at how Turner “did” her life, how she escaped Ike yet “is the eternal fugitive, whom horror or grace chased out of stasis again and again because she belonged in the spotlight, because she needed to run toward it, because we needed to run alongside her.”
I saw The Little Mermaid last weekend and, overall, really enjoyed the film. Halle Bailey, who plays Ariel, is divine. The changes to the story as a whole generally made (save scuttle’s rap) the film is by far the best live action remake. But it is generically—and colorblind-ly—diverse, something that intentionally or not plays a central role in the film and how it is perceived.
In this article, D. Watkins admits he chanted to himself, “Don’t make this about race, don’t make this about race, please don’t make this about race” when seeing the film with his baby girl and other family members, but “the attempt is easier said than done because America, business and especially Hollywood continues to make everything about race.” Ariel is Black, and “trades her beautiful voice and displays the willingness to abandon her sea royalty, ability to breathe underwater, beautiful tail, culture, family and all of her friends in an effort to pursue” a white prince she saved from drowning. “The prince doesn’t have to give up anything, like he doesn’t even have to learn how to swim underwater, so you know all of the holiday dinners will take place with his side of the family. How fair is that?”
It isn’t, we know that. And Watkins “settled for my daughter having the opportunity to feel represented in a world where there’s no such thing as a regular Black Disney prince and will try to push that conversation off until she’s old enough to understand why Hollywood still has the need to shy away from Blackness, even in diversity efforts.”
A pop star performing a private gig used to have the potential to ruin their career. It was viewed as selling out and “bands could be shunned for any perceived transgression.” Now, “most big-name musicians are available these days, under the right conditions.” Even some of the staunchest critics of selling out—Bob Dylan, the Who, Pearl Jam—have “sold out” partnered with a brand or two.
Evan Osnos delves deep into NDA riddled the world of private concerts, and how their rise coincided with the introduction of streaming, severe decline in album sales, and “the birth of a new aristocracy, which since 2000 has tripled the number of American billionaires and produced legions of the merely very rich.”
HBO’s (or-MAX’s? eyeroll) Succession concluded last Sunday after four seasons over five years. Although the show was masterfully written and produced, its beauty, its existence is in its writing. As Jeremy Strong, who plays Kendall Roy, one of the lead characters, said in an interview: “the writing is everything.”
Over its run, “Succession has been a reliable bubbler of memorable language, a bracing and refreshing font of quips and barbs and total twists of the heart.” That this show and its finale were so successful in the midst of a writer’s strike isn’t lost on anyone—and this show couldn’t have been written with AI. The Roys, who the show centers, are indisputably bad, and “to successfully portray bad people, it takes that human touch.”
Many people, myself included, were sad when creator Jesse Armstrong announced Succession would be ending after four seasons. It “was a deliberately limiting choice, which is what makes it such a compelling one. As Armstrong has explained it, the thing Succession is most interested in is right there in the title. Logan built Waystar Royco; who gets it next? With that question now answered, the show has served its purpose.”
I don’t remember the first time I ever saw a reproduction of a Johannes Vermeer painting, but I remember my astonishment when I saw one at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The painting was every bit as beautiful as Teju Cole’s review of the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. The monumental and much praised exhibition brings together “the largest number of paintings by Vermeer ever assembled, 28 of the surviving 35 or so generally agreed to be by him.”
Cole has enjoyed Vermeer’s work since boyhood, but “breathless critical acclaim” of the exhibition began to grate on him as “the idea that the images were wonderful had somehow gotten mixed up with the dogma that the images were nothing but wonderful. Amid all this rapturous consensus, critical dissent was hard to come by.”
Where once Cole found “a Vermeer painting simply ‘foreign and alluring,’” he now seeks trouble. Vermeers, as with all paintings, are “artifact[s] inescapably involved in the world’s messiness — the world when the painting was made and the world now. Looking at paintings this way doesn’t spoil them. On the contrary, it opens them up, and what used to be mere surface becomes a portal, divulging all kinds of other things I need to know.” For Cole, to negate either the context of the viewer or the painting is to not see the piece, not see its fullness, at all.
Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time looking at—or thinking about—public art since undergraduate art history classes. I do, however, spend a lot of time thinking about the role morality plays in the current art market, wondering if collectors purchase absolution when they buy artworks made by artists of marginalized identities that address any number of structural oppressions.
Although the artwork that I think about isn’t public art, its discourse can “often [confuse] art’s soft power with the power to wield public sentiment and direct public action,” (or institutional action) in a similar way to public art. The general public might venerate the work, its morality and the artist, but the artwork’s collectors, the ultra rich who do have the power to change the status quo, end their reconciliation with the purchase. They support the artwork enough to buy it, but not enough to surrender their privilege that allowed them to amass enough wealth to purchase it in the first place.
There is often a desire for public artwork to work, and impose social justice on its community—but, as Seph Rodney writes, “I’m unaware of any art object or historical movement that has changed the status quo.” After all, “the action of questioning in a focused, rigorous, probing, and relentless manner is something that humans do, not inanimate objects.” So, as Rodney questions, when we ask artworks to do this work, what are we actually asking?
If “all these objects exist primarily in the realm of visual metaphor, of inspirational signs, how do we judge the supposed authenticity of one object in comparison to the next?” And, moreover, when an artist misses the mark, such as many (and I) feel Hank Wills Thomas’s ‘Embrace’ did, “the artist’s intention” no matter how virtuous it may be, “does not really matter, and has not mattered for a long time, particularly since we entered the age of mechanical reproduction. Every artwork, in addition to existing corporeally in the world, becomes a discursive object once it is seen by others.” If “public art often reflects our values, [it] also demonstrates the limits of our civic imagination.” I am deep in the weeds on this.
In 2020 April Burell woke up after being catatonic for 20 years. April had “suddenly developed psychosis and became lost in a constant state of visual and auditory hallucinations,” after a traumatic incident in 1995 (although its connection to her disease is unknown). She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and in 2000 entered a long term care facility. In 2000 Sander Markx, a promising medical student, met April. At the time, “Markx was not in a position to help her. He moved on with his career, but always remembered the young woman frozen at the nurses’ station.”
Then, at the end of 2017, Markx had his own lab, and in an odd coincidence, one of his trainees “encountered a catatonic patient, standing at the nurse’s desk,” and it was April. Markx got consent from her family for a work up, and discovered April had lupus, an underlying autoimmune disease. He began an aggressive treatment to treat the lupus and she woke up.
While the full extent of the connections between psychotic disorders and underlying autoimmune conditions is unknown “Markx and other doctors believe there are likely many more patients whose psychiatric conditions are caused or exacerbated by autoimmune issues.” This new research is promising, and hopefully more people like April can get the treatment they need.
Well DAMN! In an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court sided with Glacier Northwest Inc, a cement company, over Teamsters Local 174 union. Ketanji Brown Jackson was the only Justice to dissent. The case, Glacier Northwest Inc v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, centered a 2017 strike wherein “the teamsters showed up for work like on a normal workday, loaded their trucks with wet cement, and set out to make deliveries. But when labor negotiations with Glacier broke down, the teamsters returned the trucks to the company and walked off the job. The workers left the cement mixers running, but some of the product hardened, rendering it useless.
After the strike was over, Glacier sued the teamsters union in a Washington state court for damages caused by the strike.” Glacier and the SCOTUS ruling claim the teamsters caused extra economic damage to the company “beyond their refusal to work” in damaging some of the equipment.
The real travesty of the case and how it guts labor law is that the Supreme Court shouldn’t have even heard the case before the National Labor Relations Board ruled. “The right to strike is protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and to support that right, the government created a panel of experts to determine what is and is not allowed under that act. It’s called the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The NLRB—not Glacier, not a state court, and not the US Supreme Court—is supposed to get first crack at determining whether a union’s activities are protected under the NLRA.” That did not happen and “the practical effect of this opinion will be to give every employer an incentive to sue in state court for damages that they would not have been able to get through the NLRB.”