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Hilton Als, chief theater critic at The New Yorker, speaks at ArtCenter as part of the Graduate Art Department's Graduate Art Seminar lecture series. Photos by Juan Posada

features / events / art
April 26, 2017
By Mike Winder

Words, words, words: The New Yorker's Pulitizer Prize-winning Hilton Als describes "that which cannot be described"

“I hope that the evening will end in eloquence and that we’ll remain friends,” said Hilton Als, chief theater critic at The New Yorkerand, most recently, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Criticismto the audience assembled at ArtCenter’s Ahmanson Auditorium during the third week of the Spring 2017 Term. 

Als, who spoke at Hillside Campus as part of Graduate Seminar, a lecture series presented by the College’s Graduate Art Department, added that he was about to “attempt to describe that which cannot be described”—his writing life.

Als is the latest of several writers that Jack Bankowsky, Graduate Art faculty member and curator of the lecture series, has invited to speak at ArtCenter over the past several terms. Previous writers included John Kelsey, Wayne Kostenbaum and T.J. Clark—all individuals Bankowsky describes as “inhabiting writing and the world through writing that exceeds the normative protocols of criticism.”

Als’s prose and personal digressions in his pieces in The New Yorker, whether a review of the latest Broadway play, or a dispatch filed for the magazine’s “The Culture Desk” or “A Critic at Large” sections, are just as likely to elicit awe as the subjects he’s covering.

Take, for example, Als’s memorial to the recently departed Derek Walcott, and his description of the first time he heard the poet read in the late ‘70s:

Even if I didn’t understand what I read on a literal level, I felt Derek’s lines crawling through my flesh as smooth as silver river snakes gliding along a watery surface: his lines slithered and stood straight up, first in your eyes, then in your mind. 

Or how he breaks down the racial tensions artist Kara Walker confronts with her The Sugar Sphinx

Americans live, still, in an atmosphere of phantasmagorical genocide—we kill each other with looks, judgments, the fantasies that white is better than black and that blackness is bestial while being somehow more “humane”—read mentally inferior—than whiteness. 

Or the way the 56-year-old writer forgoes a more traditional tone, and instead opens his review of 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight  with an unexpected (at least for those not already familiar with Als's work) vulnerability: 

Did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I’d live long enough to see a movie like Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s brilliant, achingly alive new work about black queerness? 

For his evening at ArtCenter, the author of 1996’s The Women and 2013’s White Girls, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, shared his thoughts on writers and writing. “I think that no matter how personable writers may come across, they’re inherently withdrawn, critical people, which is one reason they write,” he said. “They feel no one invited them to the prom, even if they were invited to the prom.

“I don’t think writers ever stop writing in the way that actors never stop acting,” he continued, describing a dilemma that no doubt resonated with many in the audience. “We’re preoccupied by dreams and making those dreams real to other people.” 

Als also shared his personal history, from writing as a way of getting attention from his mother in a family full of women, to his early days at The Village Voice, to the individuals who have influenced and inspired him during his 23 years atThe New Yorker. He also read an excerpt from a work in progress, Richard Pryor: A Novel (which, as might be expected, is not a straightforward narrative about the comedian) and engaged the audience in a Q&A session.  

ArtCenter’s Graduate Seminar lecture series is a forum for graduate students, members of the ArtCenter community and the general public to enter into dialogue with internationally recognized artists, critics, and art historians. For information on upcoming events, visit the series website.