Miscellaneous Files is a series of virtual studio visits that uses writers’ digital artifacts to understand their practice. Conceived by Mary Wang, each interview provides an intimate look into the artistic process.
I got to know Hilton Als as a writer through his 2013 book White Girls, a collective portrait of his cultural and affective lineage told through memoir, essay, criticism, and other forms of prose. Als made me understand that the task of a writer is to invent language, and his was one I learned as I read. A year later, I got to know Als as a teacher, through a course he led on James Baldwin at Columbia University when I was a graduate student. In class, Als made me feel like I had endless amounts yet to read, but that I could, despite that, find something to say. But it was only when I read Toni Morrison’s eulogy for Baldwin during the strange summer of 2020 that I found the words to describe Als himself, who, besides being a writer, is also an artist, playwright, curator, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning theater critic for The New Yorker. “Your life refuses summation,” Morrison writes about Baldwin, “…and invites contemplation instead.”
This fall, I met up with Als on Zoom for the inaugural live edition of this interview series, which was hosted by the Curatorial Practice department at New York’s School of Visual Art. As he talked me through the fragments of film, documentary, and performance that have shaped his life as an artist, he seemed moved by works he had seen over and over again, as if he was responding not just to the pieces themselves but to the patina of feeling that had accumulated over time. A lot has changed in the year since we started planning this interview, but it was clear the pieces Als selected continued to resonate deeply with him. Perhaps that’s a marker of mastery: the way a piece of art can remain unchanged, but still mold itself to the new meanings its viewers need it to carry.
Because this interview follows a live event, where relevant I have included time markers to indicate which sections we played during our conversation. And because any conversation about art is a collective one, this version concludes with two questions from members of the audience.
1. “I feel so ultimately blessed to know that I could connect to other people who were working out of isolation, or loneliness, or joy.”
Mary Wang: Before we start, I’d like to ask how you put this selection of fragments together. Are they part of your personal canon?
Hilton Als: Everything is very personal, for sure. There is this pre-existing world of culture, which is marvelous, because it’s a virtual museum you can visit at will, where you can stumble across things that matter to you. When I was your age, or a little bit older, these were very significant acts of creation for me. They spoke to me because they supplied a vocabulary about sensibility, gender, storytelling that I didn’t know how to do. These were great teachers to me about how to present a spectacle, or how to describe a spectacle, or how to talk about significant events in New York or in my cultural life. So I wanted to share the things that were helpful, not so much to my life as a critic, but to my life as a being.
Wang: The first fragment comes from Sidney Lumet’s 1966 film adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Group. It revolves around eight women who graduate from Vassar during the Depression. It’s about how they’re being formed in the world, willingly or unwillingly.
Als: The interesting thing about the film is the casting. I happen to know the man who did the casting, and he said that every role was filled by the most perfect performer, because their life stories all overlapped with the characters in some way, whether it’s from being raised in an upper class family or being emotionally fragile. It’s one of the ways in which film and performance can be hyper-realistic emotionally—they can condense and become metaphors for real life. In the fragment, one of the group has died and they’ve reconvened for her funeral, which takes place at St. Marks Church on St. Mark’s Place [in New York], where she was married a few years before. We see Candice Bergen here, at 19 years old, in her first role.
Wang: You also selected this film for the Queer Art film series. Is there anything you’d like to say about the queerness in this film, which is surrounded by mostly destructive straight relationships?
Als: I love Mary McCarthy’s classical narrative form here, and how queerness finds itself in between. It’s not a specifically queer novel, but within the parameters and limitations of a classical form, she’s able to tell the story of queerness as a way, for these women, of being together. The group itself has been formed by a queer woman, who we see in this fragment. She goes off to study art history in Europe and comes back with a foreign lover and disrupts the silence around queerness in the book and in their lives. It’s really an extraordinary thing for her to have done.
I’ve taught in women’s colleges, specifically Smith College, and I told my students at the beginning of each semester to treasure that moment, because they’re in the majority. When you go out into the world, women are not in the majority. And if you’re in the majority, you start to feel and think differently. So I treasured the book, and I treasure the movie deeply for McCarthy’s understanding of how power and queerness finds itself in the most heteronormative academic society.
Wang: I’m always struck by the quality of freedom I find in your work. When I read it, I feel free. It also makes me feel free to write, to create, to think. Was there a moment in your artistic life when you felt, I’m free?
Als: I’m a guilty person. I just go around the world feeling guilty. But when I’m working on something, I can feel the energy shift in a piece of writing, where I’m not in control of it anymore. You’re controlling the form, but you’re not controlling—for want of a better word—your subconsciousness. And those are the moments that you live for, because then the pages just happen. They’ve just been waiting for you to show up.
Wang: Are there things you do to nurture that subconsciousness?
Als: One of the more important things you can do is to do nothing. Because of personal issues, it took me some months since the pandemic to settle into this way of being. But once I did, I started to feel that it was a second chance, in that I was able to have the time I would’ve spent on socializing unnecessarily—or other things that eat time in New York—for reflection. So even when I’m not writing, I still know that something in there is happening. And it feels extraordinary, that we as artists have a second chance to really look at ourselves.
Wang: As an artist, you often have to protect yourself. You have to build a fort to keep out the things that want to eat up your time and energy. I had hoped that the pandemic would free me from having to protect myself. But as the months progress, I find that the fort is still necessary.
Als: That’s very true, because there will always be an excuse not to work, not to protect yourself. But I think of this wonderful line from Proust, who spent so many years going out. In the end, he said that the only thing that social life gives you is indigestion. And he got to work!
2. “One of the extraordinary gifts of performers is that when they tell the truth, they tell the truth for all of us.”
Als: This is Topsy Turvy, a great movie by Mike Leigh about cultural appropriation. The film is about Gilbert and Sullivan, who are making their opera The Mikado in Victorian England and find themselves being “inspired” by Japanese culture. But when the real Japanese people show up, they can’t stop laughing at how ridiculous the English look to them. At the end, there’s a kind of beautiful marriage of cultures.
This is a wonderful scene, because the performer is taking lines from the actual Gilbert and Sullivan opera and making it into a monologue. What she says is from one of the arias originally, but she makes it about her character. I find it so moving because as a performer, she is respecting the text without pretending to be something she’s not. She’s dressed in this costume, but she doesn’t marginalize the culture that inspired this scene, while also not lying about her Englishness. It is such a delicate balancing act, and no one leaves that space feeling condescended. One of the extraordinary gifts of performers is that when they tell the truth, they tell the truth for all of us. And that’s rare—believe me, I’ve seen a lot of plays. A lot of people don’t reach that point, but when they do, it’s utterly transformative.
Wang: What I find almost touching about some forms of Orientalism from a certain period is that, despite its obvious complexities, it’s also an act of imagination. There’s a scene in the film where you see the costume designer trying to recreate Japanese clothing based on tiny watercolors. These artists were really imagining as much as they were imitating.
Als: That’s the genius of Mike Leigh as a director. He improvises a great deal and the actors create the script during rehearsal. And I think all of them were aware of the fine line they were walking. And there’s something profound about their sensitivity to the fact that they’re cultural appropriators. What does that mean? Is it something that grows out of love? Why wouldn’t they have Japanese performers? The 19th-century was there, but they were able to make it real to the present day audience, because it’s something we still do.
Wang: You recently swapped roles. You wrote a play.
Als: Yes, it was a great experience. It was about the performer Sheryl Sutton, who had been Robert Wilson’s great muse in the ’70s. She is a Black woman from New Orleans, and one of the very, very few people of color working in the New York avant-garde in the ’70s. I made this piece for Okwui Okpokwasili and Helga Davis, and it was directed by Okwui’s husband, Peter Born. It was a great evening in North Carolina—I loved the experience of feeling vulnerable to the words and not being protected by my critical self, but by my artist self. You feel very exposed, which is a very good thing for any writer to feel in a public space. We have the safety of distance, but we need to put ourselves out there and understand how performers or visual artists feel when they exhibit themselves.
Wang: How would you describe your relationship to performers? When you were younger, you thought you were going to become one.
Als: I never had the thing all performers have, which is a real desire to get out there and do it. I had more the feeling of, “Wow, it’s amazing that you can do that.” I liked improvising—it was the most fun I ever had on stage. I had a great friend named Katherine Joyce and we were kind of the Nichols and May of this high school because we were very fast storytellers. I liked that, but that was really just an example of writing, because if you’re improvising, you’re making a story up. Why beleaguer people by having me up on stage, when I can just write this?
Wang: It’s interesting you say that, because when I read your writing on performers, whether it’s in your profiles or in your criticism, there’s this moment where you start to inhabit them. It’s like you enter from within and observe them from the inside. It’s a performative gesture.
Als: One of the things that interests me about them is: How do you get out there to tell that story? What’s in you that gives you the physicality and the presence of mind? Once when I was writing about Jane Fonda, for instance, she was talking about Roger Vadim, her first husband, and she said, “Oh, it’s heavy, he’s in that other room, typing something for you, and he’s thinking about you.” That’s a performer. The writer wonders how to make a story, while the performer wonders whether they’re thinking about them. It’s just a hair’s difference, but it’s a profound difference. We’re often very attracted to each other. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, for instance.
3. “If you grow up in a society where your queerness is reviled or criticized, you learn to save yourself by not speaking.” [00:10 – 01:11]
Als: Toni Morrison was a young woman here working at Random House as an editor. She was also a full-time single mother of two boys. She started writing out of loneliness, and it’s always so moving to see how art claims us out of a kind of loneliness. But the reason I love this clip is because it’s real life. It’s a wonderful evocation of the reality of making work.
Wang: You met her several times.
Als: One of the under-appreciated things about Toni was how very attractive she was as a woman. The way she was in her body, her ability to laugh. She was a person you would want to spend time with, because of all the levels of attractiveness that were available.
Wang: You profiled her for The New Yorker in 2003. In the piece, you retract an opinion you had written of her work earlier. I thought that was an incredibly brave thing to do,
Als: I was a very young writer, and I wrote something critical about her. I realized it was a way of claiming my own space. And so I went up to Nyack to visit her. She drove me to a restaurant, one of those big restaurants on the Hudson River that’s empty a lot. She said, “I didn’t like what you wrote about me in X thing.” And I swear to you, Mary, I turned around, and I said, “I’m sorry, who?” I was such a different person by then. She then said, “I can see that.” It all went away, and we became friends. She was a forgiving person—she could be bigger than you and understand that you were young.
Wang: When you interviewed her for The New Yorker festival in 2015, you wrote in your introduction, “Who was that Black man invisible to? Not to her. He was her brother, her father, her friend… Toni Morrison, through virtue of her work, has become the unqualified, authoritative voice when it comes to describing a world that makes and unmakes all those brothers, fathers, and friends.”
Als: God, who is that guy?
Wang: I thought it was very touching.
Als: I love that I was able to celebrate her in that way.
Wang: What did you learn from her about the Black American male?
Als: That we had a story that was not one story—it wasn’t Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it was complex and whole and fractured like anybody else’s—and that these stories need to be told. It gave me permission to tell mine. If you grow up in a society where your queerness is reviled or criticized, you learn to save yourself by not speaking. And it’s taken me a long time to get to the point of not not speaking. I’m a very well brought up child; there were a lot of things I learned that prohibit me from giving you my opinion at dinner or over drinks. But I can do it on the page, because that’s mine and not anyone else’s.
4. “To be ideological is not necessarily to be interesting.” [00:00 – 04:08]
Als: This is a piece George Balanchine finished in 1957. It was made for Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell, who was the first Black male dancer at the New York City Ballet. The music was by Stravinsky. The two artists in this rendition are the incredible Heather Watts—who, to me, was one of the most intelligent dancers; you could just feel her brainwaves—and Mel Tomlinson, who became a preacher later on and passed away recently. It was such a shock to see miscegenation on stage at the New York City Ballet when I was a kid. I never got over the power of what Balanchine was trying to do, which is to talk about bodies in New York. Agon is a Greek word for competition, and he’s using the form of these competitions to talk about dance itself. But I always felt he was also talking about New York.
Wang: It’s as if the fuzzy quality of this video makes their movements even more clear and geometrical.
Als: Exactly. You’re able to see the architecture of the piece, and how his great genius was to make it seem that the body was doing what was natural to itself and to ballet. I was 20 and started writing criticism because I was going to dance a lot with a friend. I loved a writer named Edwin Denby, who’s a great dance critic and poet. In his review, Three Sides of Agon—which I recommend to everyone—he mentions race only in one sentence. And he says that Mr. Mitchell is “Negro” and Miss Adams is white. Then he says that the fact that they are different “adds to the interest.” He doesn’t make a case for or against. He’s talking about what our eye sees and what we feel in the theater. It has always been a kind of benchmark for me about how to write about race, that to be ideological is not necessarily to be interesting. You have to find the ways in which our differences are human and humane, and that’s a much more explosive story. It’s like The Group, where the lesbianism isn’t the overriding narrative. But it actually becomes more powerful, because it finds its way to be clear.
Wang: I would like to bring up James Baldwin. You curated a show around him last year, God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin. In a New Yorker piece you wrote about him, you say, “No matter how much I tried to resist my identification with Baldwin, we were uneasy members of the same tribe.”
Als: A lot of people have claimed him unfairly, and that identification is a lot for someone to bear. We shouldn’t do that to him. We’re still learning about him, and he was a person who should have had more care in his life. We can help him still. By not saying we are like him—or using him—we can help him breathe a little bit better. That’s why it’s uneasy; I think it should be uneasy.
Wang: You talked about how, through the show, you tried to “give Baldwin back to himself.” How did you go about that?
Als: It was through giving him a contextual reason, but not an ideological reason, to be. I wanted to have a context for his film work that he always loved to do, and for his artwork, and I wanted him to have those moments of creation and artistry, and to welcome the artists who had indirectly spoken of him and about him. We shouldn’t feed on these talismans and fragments of a body, but we should feast on what he’s left as an artist and leave the body alone to grow and prosper.
Wang: It reminds me of something you wrote in the book accompanying the Alice Neel exhibition you curated at Zwirner the year before: “The essay is not about the empirical ‘I’ but about the collective—all the voices that made your ‘I.’” Is that a way to describe how you make exhibitions?
Als: We have the discipline of form, right? That’s the hard part. It’s about distilling information and importing information. Your job is to be as clear as possible, the way that Balanchine was deeply clear in his dance. We have to be clear, as curators and writers, about intention, while leaving mystery intact. I don’t have all the answers about what the show meant or what it was supposed to be. But I did have some beginnings, and it was to give Baldwin his body back.
Olakiitan Adeola: You talked about the truth of a performance. What is that truth? Is it the personal, the universal, or a hybrid of both?
Als: I think it’s a hybrid. If you’re going to be writing your own material to perform, then you know when you’re faking it, when you’re telling something that isn’t real. We’ll feel that, because you’re the storyteller. I think that if it’s true on the page, it’s going to be true in your body. When Shirley Henderson performed in Topsy Turvy, she took a piece of a song and made a little monologue, right? But it was true about her regard for herself as a performer, and we felt that. The best thing to do is to not lie to yourself.
Cheryl McCourtie: Do you have any tips for how to write about social justice without it coming across as performative?
Als: If you tell the truth about your experience, nobody can be mad at you. Because it’s true. What can get lost during terrible times is that people start speaking as if they’re speaking for a group of people, as opposed to themselves. If you speak for yourself, the group will follow. The group will find you.