Paperwork of Mundanity | Doreen St. Félix


Whereas I used to be getting ready for this interview, there was an issue with The New Yorker’s web site; once I searched “Doreen St. Felix,” I obtained what gave the impression to be each single article ever written within the historical past of the journal. This glitch struck me as an acceptable illustration of Doreen as a prolific critic with a variety and shocking topics. Listed here are a number of the artists I’ve discovered about by way of her work: the violinist Sudan Archives, who, Doreen writes, “does not stand still when she performs. She has used choreography inspired by video games: twirling her bow as if it were a sword or a snake, as if she were a charmer, or a warrior”; the cult astrologist Susan Miller, who offers readings perched on prime of a trunk “space-blue on the exterior, with a circular aperture that reveals the inside, where orbs representing Saturn and Pluto hang”; the photographer Alicia Rodriguez Alvisa, whose doubled pictures of girls Doreen compares to taking a selfie. “I think of how I sometimes turn my phone on myself,” she writes, “and am then confronted by dozens of antagonizing copies of me that curdle into an image nothing like the idea of what I want to look like.” She has written about public artwork and the historical past of Accomplice monuments, the Republican main debates, Danielle Deadwyler, the brand new Kesha album, anti-Black police violence, the pictures of Clifford Prince King, Jerry Springer, Alex Trebek, and, after all, tv. In case you’ve watched it, Doreen has written about it, in her gorgeously sinewy type, together with her sharp political acumen and her depraved humorousness. Her tv column from 2020 to 2022 is an archive of seminal paperwork in up to date tv criticism. I consider her as a John Berger for the display screen period. Doreen was named on the Forbes “30 Under 30” media checklist in 2016, and in 2017, she grew to become a employees author for The New Yorker and was a finalist for a Nationwide Journal Award for Columns and Commentary. In 2019, she gained in the identical class.

Merve Emre: I all the time begin these conversations with the identical immediate. The general public in our viewers are school college students. Are you able to narrate how you bought from the place they’re to the place you might be in the present day?

Doreen St. Felix: I’ve observed the way you begin the conversations. I studied up earlier than I obtained right here as a result of I needed to be considered one of your favourite friends. The truth that you might be all at an occasion on the Shapiro Heart means that you’re light-years forward of the place I used to be at your age. I began off in school learning neuroscience. I used to be burdened by the concept I used to be meant to be a medical physician. I grew up in a really Catholic residence deep in South Brooklyn. Each of my mother and father labored in medication. I used to be surrounded by artwork, they usually actually beloved and cared about artwork, however there was a way that on your life to have significance, it needed to be a lifetime of service.

After I obtained to Brown, I entered the pre-medicine monitor and located that I used to be genuinely horrible, not at science, however at math. I had an advisor inform me, “I don’t know why you think that you have to be this kind of person in life.” She gave me the liberty to discover different areas of research, and I meandered loads. I did a bit of bit in French literature, however I believed, I don’t need to go to grad faculty, so I gained’t try this.

There have been two newspapers on my campus, the each day newspaper, which lined solely information on campus, and the choice, attractive, weekly newspaper, which tried very arduous to be like The New Yorker. In fact, that was the newspaper I gravitated towards. Initially I did native information tales, metro reporting, after which I discovered myself turning into desirous about a type of writing that I didn’t know on the time was criticism. I grew to become the Options Editor and began writing essays that I didn’t know had been essays. I had no concept of any historical past or custom once I began writing for the newspaper, partly as a result of it wasn’t an educational setting. There was nobody main or guiding us and telling us, “This is what you’re doing.” We had been simply dicking round. I ran the newspaper, and we had a very good product. We put it out as soon as every week. I wasn’t conscious that might result in something like a employees job.

In the course of the yr after faculty, I discovered a neighborhood of like-minded proto-critics who tended to be girls or nonbinary and queer individuals. We had been compulsively performing criticism for one another with respect to the pop-culture merchandise we had been consuming. I nonetheless hadn’t grasped that this was work I might publish wherever, as a result of numerous the magazines that are actually publishing this work weren’t publishing it once I graduated, which was ten years in the past this previous Might. I feel the primary piece I ever revealed was on a Rihanna music known as “Bitch Better Have My Money.”

Why that music?

I studied music for a few years, in a spiritual context. I performed piano and sang in a church choir. I knew that I wasn’t essentially a proficient musician, however I had an actual starvation for doing the actual exegesis you do as a musician. I needed to switch that to a different a part of my life.

I gravitated to that music as a result of I noticed the historical past behind it. I noticed Rihanna cosplaying as Lil’ Kim within the nineties. There’s this superb interview of bell hooks speaking to Lil’ Kim in Paper journal. It got here out in 1997. I used to be completely obsessive about the cross part of popular culture and Black feminism. In some ways, I feel that is what critics do: we take a topic and we acceptable it for our personal functions.

I knew that music, its message, was going to be the right floor on which I might engrave my concepts about how younger girls like me had been eager about cash, had been eager about heterosexual romance. That was the primary piece I ever revealed after faculty. I revealed it in Pitchfork. I used to be paid fifty {dollars}. It modified my life, principally as a result of I used to be by no means going to be a author if I wasn’t going to receives a commission for doing it. With the way in which that I used to be raised, I felt it was vital for me to really feel like my work was invaluable. Clearly, fifty {dollars} will not be that a lot cash, nevertheless it made clear to me that I didn’t need to self-ghettoize or self-segregate myself simply because I didn’t have the sure pedigree that a few of my friends at Brown had.

You stated you and your mates, your neighborhood of proto-critics, had been consistently performing criticism for each other on objects that weren’t being paid consideration to by mainstream media. What had been these performances of criticism had been like? What objects did you give attention to? Recreate that scene for us a bit of bit.

As a lot as I used to be dwelling in New York Metropolis within the mid-2010s, I used to be additionally dwelling on the Web. I feel we had been drawn to things that readily transferred their sense of energy or being through picture. The music video was one thing that we had been all hooked up to, and vogue; though I wasn’t somebody who essentially preferred to eat numerous it, I grew to become obsessive about watching how vogue allowed individuals to current themselves to the world, current themselves on the Web. I feel we had been additionally within the ingénue determine. I’m pondering of Vashtie, a deejay who was all the time on the Decrease East Aspect wanting attractive and inaccessible. Her pictures would go completely feral on-line.

We had been desirous about seeing how girls offered themselves at this juncture within the 2010s. The journal was fading, and Instagram wasn’t {the marketplace} that it’s now. It was a interval when individuals had been capable of management their picture and management the revenue that they constructed from their picture. I wouldn’t have used this language again once I was twenty, however I understood that one thing was altering basically. After we talked in regards to the historical past of the picture, that’s usually what we talked about, whether or not on blogs like Tumblr or in intimate areas like emails or DMs. I might have these lengthy, circuitous tribunals on principle about picture with my associates over e-mail. That was the tradition on the time.

I don’t know that it’s the identical now. I’ve developed a way more cautious relationship to the Web previously decade, as a result of I’m recovering from what it was wish to be a critic who primarily wrote on-line. Now I’m writing extra in print. I additionally suppose the Web is much more hostile now than it was again then.

How did you get from Pitchfork to The New Yorker?

I had an odd sequence of jobs. I labored for about eight months as an editor-at-large for Lenny Letter, a defunct e-newsletter that was run by Lena Dunham. This was the time when numerous feminist celebrities had been desirous about publishing. Lena had simply revealed her memoir, which had executed extremely effectively, and she or he had an actual knack and style for the private essay. There have been many diatribes that argue the private essay doesn’t exist anymore, or when it did exist on this means, within the Web period, we overly valorized it, which prompted lots of people to publish issues about themselves that they shouldn’t have. I don’t have that viewpoint. The e-newsletter was severe. Generally it was foolish. I principally labored on books. I ran a column the place I wrote about books that I felt extra individuals ought to learn. I feel the primary one we did was on June Jordan.

That’s such a micro technology, isn’t it? I bear in mind it, nevertheless it feels very, very distant, as does the optimism of that second.

I felt distance from that optimism. I feel I used to be introduced in to be the youthful cynic on employees, however I additionally was not going to let that type of alternative move me by. I’m not a purist. I’m very keen and capable of be in areas which can be formed by capital, are formed round promoting issues. I feel that the patron is the first id of many, many individuals in our technology. I began off working for these firms that had been about being profitable.

Bitch higher have my cash.

Precisely. I labored at Lenny Letter for eight months. After, I moved on to MTV Information, which was additionally doing one thing very attention-grabbing in 2015. MTV Information was absorbing numerous the individuals who had been fired from Grantland, which was a longform essay shelter within the late 2000s, early 2010s. We had this playground that we knew was by no means going to final. There was no means Viacom was going to permit us to proceed to publish looking out, meandering, long-form criticism on music and tradition, however we did for eleven months. Proper earlier than the operation was shuttered, I obtained a message from an editor at The New Yorker that stated, “You should come into our office.” I went, and I didn’t need to take the job as a result of at first I felt like, That is every thing that I don’t do. I’m an Web lady, I’m a weblog lady, I don’t do print magazines. I don’t suppose I’d ever been revealed in print at that time.

It strikes me what number of media journeys have began from these fringe areas that felt experimental, that got here with these sturdy emotions of neighborhood however with out an excessive amount of institutional backing. Then, if you happen to had been good at it, you bought absorbed by the legacy establishments. How did your voice change, if it modified in any respect, from being a weblog lady to writing for {a magazine}?

The nice irony is that we had been working in a mode that’s conventional to the newspaper type, which is that you just produce a bit fairly shortly. However there was a way of playfulness, a way of willingness to be unsuitable that was essential to our means to provide this work as shortly as we had been doing it. After I began writing for the New Yorker web site, I used to be nervous that the institutional type employed at locations like Lenny Letter or MTV Information wouldn’t work throughout the tradition there, that the items would grate in opposition to what readers had been anticipating.

However I used to be unsuitable. Readers had been excited to see tales that might come out 5 hours after no matter phenomenon we had been analyzing. The concept that I needed to placed on a go well with and stiffen up completely got here from myself. The writers I gravitate to on the journal probably the most, together with you, together with Hilton, are individuals who determine to not take up these guidelines and determine to play with type. There’s a means you could enable your voice to freeze into one’s concept of what a New Yorker author ought to sound like, however there’s a means you could give your self permission and do no matter you need.

I need to return to what you stated about your mother and father, that you just grew up pondering the one life or the one profession price pursuing can be one devoted to service. Do you consider what you do as offering a service? It’s not the identical sort of service {that a} medical physician gives, however it’s a service for shoppers of tradition.  

In criticism, service is a foul phrase. It’s a phrase that we apply to publications whose evaluations are simply telling us whether or not we must always purchase one thing. However as I’m getting into my second decade of doing this work, I don’t bristle at the concept I’m doing one thing for individuals who is perhaps deciding to have a look at that work primarily as shoppers. Clearly, I need to stay in a world the place the criticism stands by itself, the place the exegesis is typically even higher than the work. I personally love studying criticism and by no means seeing the film, or by no means studying the guide, as a result of the entire level is to see the exegesis being executed. However as I become older, I feel we should face the fact of the factor, which is when somebody messages me and tells me, “I wasn’t going to watch this television show, and I decided to continue to not watch that television show because of your review.” That’s a type of energy that I feel is fleeting in our cultural area. It’s an influence that I feel is vital.

There is perhaps no type extra compromised proper now than the tv present, so far as capital goes. You had been the tv critic for the journal for a bit of underneath three years. Inform us about that course of. It’s one other step in a profession, to go from writing items that you just select your self or negotiate along with your editor to having a column that should be revealed regularly. It’s one thing that you just steward.

I used to be rather more of a roving critic earlier than I began the column. I didn’t actually consider myself as having a accountability, or as having a house or a shelter. I took over the column from somebody who had completely redefined it on her personal phrases, Emily Nussbaum. All of the sudden, the stakes felt loads increased. One factor that was thrilling was realizing, sure, I’m going to have these particular person columns, however what I’m actually doing is creating an prolonged argument in regards to the state of tv all through all of them. I couldn’t have gotten that job at a greater time. I began the column in February of 2020, which is to say {that a} month later the one artwork you would eat was tv.

You may learn novels.

You may learn novels, it’s true.

However everybody was additionally watching tv. Or Netflix.

In a particularly impassioned means. It was a considerably disconcerting time to be a tv critic. I felt numerous want from individuals who learn the column, like, “Can you please watch this television show and tell me how I feel about it?” I used to be turned on by that ask, as a result of tv critics don’t have the Cahiers du Cinéma. We’re not related to a severe mission. We’re related to one thing extra like TV Information. I like previous TV Information evaluations, however there wasn’t a guiding ethic for tv criticism within the twentieth century.

Now, within the twenty-first century, there’s an actual effort to make it as severe as movie criticism. I used that as my compass. I didn’t need to neglect actuality tv, for instance. You may make an argument that every thing is actuality tv at this second—I don’t imply within the Trumpian sense, however that we’re all the time filming ourselves. We’re all the time making paperwork of mundanity. To behave like that’s undeserving of the strain of a vital eye is, I feel, delusional. That was one factor I needed to convey to the forefront of the column. I typically additionally wrote about social media, which at this level constitutes a type of tv. For me, it was about redefining what tv is greater than masking sure reveals or sure genres. I attempted to mood our obsession with so-called status tv. Clearly, there are some reveals you may’t keep away from. You need to write about them.

What had been the unavoidable reveals from 2020 to 2023?

Succession. An incredible tv present, however on stability, not watched by many individuals in America. I discovered once I was wanting on the numbers that individuals do nonetheless actually watch community tv. Generally I must write about Legislation & Order. That was thrilling, to have a look at this factor that in some methods rested in a vital dormancy however was a magnet for many tv viewers.

Oh, I like Legislation & Order. It’s so comforting. It’s so formulaic.

Additionally, sport reveals. I wrote about The Masked Singer. Every time I might typically really feel down on myself—like, rattling, is that this what I’m doing with my life—I might take into consideration writing as wrestling. We’ve to wrestle with the truth that common leisure is the place numerous our needs get carried out. Writing the TV column helped me shed numerous my very own preciousness, my very own snobbery, but in addition construct new sorts of snobbery. Personally, I feel snobbery is nice.

What are you a snob about? You’ve been resolutely anti-snobbish on this dialog.

As a lot as I do love unhealthy, trash tradition, I’m nonetheless a snob about it. I feel that there’s a half-submerged method to creating that tradition, and once you see it, that it’s being executed with intention, and when it’s not there I’m very a lot keen to dismiss the hassle. I’m not going to sit down and apply a Black feminist evaluation to some meme that has gone radically viral throughout the previous week or two, which is one thing that occurs in fashionable common criticism that I’ve an actual bone to choose with. Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks didn’t do their work in order that you would say this social media rapper is a genius. There are some actual stakes that need to be redrawn, particularly once we speak about Black tradition in a capitalist context.

I need to provide you with an object that brings collectively the threads of what we’ve been discussing: excessive and low tradition, the way in which one attends to pictures, the appliance of a Black feminist lens to artworks. May I ask you to flip over the piece of paper subsequent to you? Do you acknowledge this?

Awol Erizku: Woman with a Bamboo Earring, 2009

I do acknowledge this.

What are we taking a look at right here?

We’re taking a look at {a photograph} based mostly on a really well-known portray. This {photograph} is titled Woman with a Bamboo Earring. It was made by a younger Ethiopian American photographer known as Awol Erizku.

One factor that I haven’t executed to this point on this sequence is give anybody a piece of visible artwork. The explanation I haven’t executed that’s as a result of it’s difficult to explain visible artwork on the spot to individuals who don’t have the picture in entrance of them. What does this {photograph} appear to be? What strikes you about its colours, its composition, its topic, its viewpoint? Take it wherever you need to go.

We would go to some bizarre locations. The truth that we’re taking a look at {a photograph} based mostly on a picture I feel individuals can recall—Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Earring—is admittedly fascinating. Often once we take a look at pictures, that picture is being birthed in entrance of our eyes, in that very second. We’re not essentially eager about reference. Whereas this {photograph} by Erizku is drowned in reference.

We’ve this black background. It’s so black, it’s almost Vantablack. We’re taking a look at a younger girl. Her pores and skin is brown. She appears to be Black. She is giving us three quarters of her physique. She is wearing what appears to be like like a gown. It’s blue. The blue of the gown begins to recede into that black, black, black background. She has her hair wrapped in a selected type. It type of jogs my memory of the way in which that hijabis wrap their hair. The highest of the wrap is identical blue because the gown, after which there’s this yellow strand, virtually like a ponytail, coming from her head wrap.

She appears to be like up to date. A part of that’s the means her lips are half open. Individuals who take selfies that should seduce individuals know what I imply by this half-open look. You let your backside lip come almost to your chin, and also you expose your enamel a bit of bit. She additionally has lined her eyes with kohl, and the kohl is overdone. It’s a bit of smudged, virtually like a body round her eye, and her eyebrows are stuffed in. She’s carrying make-up in the way in which that girls wore make-up within the 2010s.

Then there’s that earring. It’s the one facet of her gown that doesn’t appear to be a dressing up. The way in which that she’s carrying the gown and head wrap makes it look like a stylist or a photographer got here in and put her on this outfit. There’s a sense of disruption in time. The lady who appears to be like like this sometimes wouldn’t gown this fashion, however the earring appears to be like like an earring she may sometimes put on. It’s a bamboo earring you will get at a magnificence provide retailer. It’s doubtless constructed from plastic. It doesn’t appear to have weight to it. It’s type of waving within the air as she turns and provides us her three-quarter profile. It’s formed in a coronary heart and since the background is so black, due to the lighting of the {photograph}, it appears to virtually float.

We are able to’t actually see her ear, however we are able to see this earring. There’s a humorousness about that, as a result of once you consider Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Earring,a lot of its enchantment all through the centuries is that we’re seeing an idealized lady pierced. The thought of that jewellery going by way of her physique has all the time been the enchantment of that portray for me. On this {photograph}, we don’t get to see the ear in any respect, and so it feels just like the photographer is desirous about making a really totally different level than Vermeer was.

Can I ask you to say yet one more descriptive factor earlier than we get to the distinction between what Vermeer is attempting to do and what the photographer is attempting to do? Are you able to say one thing about the way in which the hand on the backside appears to be like like it’s resting on one thing—as if it’s arrested in midair?

It’s superb that you just requested me that, as a result of the way in which the {photograph} consists, you virtually miss the hand. The hand is correct on the edge, virtually being eaten by the body. The hand is perhaps on her hip. It is perhaps dangling. There’s one thing a bit of bit naughty in regards to the hand, as a result of normally once we see a portrait that provides us a torso up, we’re not essentially eager about the underside half of the physique, however the hand suggests it. It additionally makes you marvel what her nails are like. If she’s carrying a bamboo earring, it permits you to speculate how she may adorn the remainder of her physique.

Additionally, there’s a bit of little bit of kinetic movement with the pinnacle wrap. I ponder whether she tied her personal head wrap, or somebody tied it for her, or she swept it round her again and didn’t know what to do with the hand that had simply executed that sweeping, so determined to provide us a parody of a pose.

That raises the query of style. What’s the relationship between this {photograph} and the portray that it’s based mostly on. Is that this parody? Is it satire? Is it merely a reference? How can we learn the connection between the previous and the current, and between portray and images?

Or is it Mad Libs? I’ve encountered this {photograph} so many instances in my life. The primary time I ever encountered it was on Tumblr, and that’s as a result of it went bonkers viral. In case you had been a cute Black lady within the 2010s and also you noticed somebody had redone the Vermeer with a brown pores and skin lady and she or he was carrying a bamboo earring, you went berserk. However there wasn’t essentially a language for that feeling. There was an acceptance that it was evident why individuals can be interested in Erizku’s {photograph}, however I don’t suppose it’s truly evident. I feel there are numerous confused emotions and confused messaging on this work.

Black up to date artwork now has very a lot solidified the concept we’re getting into the nice halls of the museum, of the gallery. There are such a lot of reveals now the place they’ll put Religion Ringgold subsequent to Picasso. I feel MoMA did that a few years in the past. This {photograph} to me is an emblem of that change in New York Metropolis’s artwork world, extra so than it’s a touch upon the Vermeer. Many Black up to date artists have realized that an effective way to get into the museum system is to satirize the museum system. However on the similar time, is there a weak spot to this concept that we are able to blackface pictures which can be traditional in our Western imaginations? I feel that’s one thing that we’ve got to contemplate once we take a look at this picture.

I take into consideration the background, and I need it to do extra. I need it to recommend its setting in time. The Vermeer isn’t simply the lady; that she’s carrying a turban throughout that interval suggests a type of proto-internationalism. The bamboo earring can’t do all that work, as a result of the bamboo earring has a type of flippancy. It’s so apparent, it should be a bit of little bit of a joke.

I need to return to one thing you stated in your description, which is that the posture of the mouth, the kohl-ringed eyes and the way in which that they’re smudged, and the hyper-saturation of shade appears to reference a recent aesthetic that solicits want by way of a selected medium and style: the filtered Instagram selfie. I ponder if there may be historical past baked into the aesthetic in a unique type of means.

That’s an effective way of wanting on the {photograph}, too. There’s one thing about this {photograph} that makes me take into consideration, unusually sufficient, the black-and-white portraits that Malick Sidibé would absorb his studio, partly as a result of this {photograph} is doing the other work. These pictures had been very washed-out. We obtained the sitter from head to toes, all of their physique. Whereas this {photograph} is a lot about eradicating the sitter from any sense of the world. We’ve a sign of the up to date together with her eyes, her mouth, and the earring—there’s a actual power. Not a violence, however an depth on the a part of the photographer, who virtually desires to deal with her like she is a painted object, who takes her physique and decides to place her by way of these virtually alchemical digital processes, which is what we do once we take our pictures and put them by way of a filter. We determine to crop them, we determine to make them match a pre-existing utility, however different instances an concept. After I determine to submit a selfie on Instagram, typically I need to simply appear to be my sultry face lower off from the neck as a result of I need to convey a sure concept. What’s so humorous about this {photograph} is that Erizku is making use of strategies of selfie images, which after all means a sitter being her personal portraitist. However this isn’t a selfie. That is him coming in—he is essential right here—and deciding to supply his personal criticism of how it’s that younger Black girls suppose that they need to be seen.

Two gazes are operative right here: the gaze of the male photographer and the sitter’s gaze, which focuses on us. How are we purported to learn our personal relationship to this topic? To place an asterisk on the tip of that query, you talked about seeing this for the primary time when it went viral. I sense a distance between your attraction to it then and the way you’re perceiving it now.

The factor a few {photograph} like this—which was displayed in bodily area, however its house is primarily in digital area—is that it’s the type of work that individuals all really feel like they personal. In case you determine to repost this in your Tumblr, in your Instagram, it’s yours, and it turns into part of the grand vista you have got determined to create on the picture gallery all of us have on our numerous social media web sites. Her gaze, which ought to be piercing, feels as if it has been divested of that feeling of confrontation, provided that she doesn’t exist in a rarefied area the place we must go to pilgrimage to seek out her. She is in all places.

It jogs my memory of this nice ambivalence that developed in me as a Black girl in my thirties. I’m nonetheless younger, however I don’t really feel the joy of transgression that I felt once I was in my twenties seeing a picture like this. I’m beginning to really feel like transgression has turn into superficial moderately than an actual substantive vessel by which we are attempting to alter issues. Woman with a Bamboo Earring in the end is fatally tethered to her reference, and it causes us to think about up to date Blackness because the factor that must be smuggled into the previous, versus one thing that has its personal previous. That’s the dilemma with a picture like this, the way it ages.

Anybody who takes pictures of themselves is aware of it would age poorly—or moderately, that you’ll age, so it would not be a devoted illustration of you. We’ve a deadly relationship to images that feels important to the medium. Do you suppose any of that logic is being self-consciously evoked right here? Or do you suppose the picture is kind of unaware of its relationship to its personal gimmickry?

I feel this {photograph} is totally harmless. This {photograph} was made with the very unconscious concept that the world would finish after it was created. There’s no sense of the longer term in it, which is an incredible type of optimism to have. I feel that in a life longer lived, perhaps that individual wouldn’t create this {photograph} as a result of they’d be an grownup with the data that it will age, sarcastically, provided that it primarily lives on the Web and pictures on the Web don’t age. I’m desirous about it as a capsule greater than as a piece that I might apply an energetic vital evaluation to in the present day. It’s a lot extra highly effective and totemic to me as a type of message from the mid-2010s, when there have been younger Black artists who felt indignant and entitled to do this type of work, even when that work couldn’t all the time bear the burden of the concepts that it meant to sign.

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