Big Van Gogh has emerged as a multi-million-dollar live event opportunity, perhaps one of the true entertainment industry success stories of the pandemic era. New players rushed to elbow their way into the few remaining cities that didn’t have a Van Gogh planned this year, as established Impressionism impresarios look ahead to the next big splash. And while some consumers have complained about copycats in cities such as Boston and New York, where dueling Van Gogh rooms have gone head-to-head, the producers of these shows have nevertheless sold millions of tickets, with prices ranging from $20 to $70 or more a pop.

“We just passed 3.2 million tickets sold, which, as I understand it, makes it the most successful attraction in the world on Ticketmaster,” says Corey Ross, president of Toronto-based Lighthouse Immersive and one of the producers behind “Immersive Van Gogh,” which has opened exhibits in New York, San Francisco, Houston and 16 other cities in the U.S. (plus Toronto and Dubai).

“Immersive Van Gogh” is not responsible for the show that opened in D.C. in August. That’s “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” which has also set up shop in New York, Houston and other cities. Not to be confused with “Imagine Van Gogh: The Immersive Exhibition,” coming soon to Seattle and Boston, or “Van Gogh Alive,” the version on view in Denver and Indianapolis and coming soon to Kansas City, Missouri. Got that?

It’s not hard to understand why vaccinated people might be drawn to these sad spectacles. They are righteously angry from spending the better part of two years confined, afraid, and on the wrong side of a deadly free-rider problem. But while tales of the unvaccinated repenting are narratively tidy, their moral significance—and what it really means for people to view them—is far less clear.

Many religions fixate on the notion of a “Good Death.” In the decades after a fourteenth-century bubonic plague killed at least 25 million in Europe alone, authors under the patronage of the Catholic Church began to publish great tomes on the matter of ars moriendi, or “the art of dying.” Over the centuries, the genre expanded, and certain themes emerged: For Christians, to die well required an awareness and acceptance of one’s impending death and, ideally, evidence of God’s favor. Certain artifacts of ars moriendi have persisted despite increasing secularization, such as our enduring emphasis on last words, famous or not: Our final utterances remain “the cornerstone of a romantic vision of death—one that falsely promises a final burst of lucidity and meaning before a person passes,” Michael Erard wrote in The Atlantic in 2019.

A peculiarly American notion of the Good Death developed in the Civil War, vestiges of which are still with us today. Separated from their families, soldiers carefully observed each others’ final moments and sent detailed condolence letters home, accounting for every scrap of evidence of a dead man’s salvation, according to historian Drew Gilpin Faust, author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the Civil War. But the Bad Death, as exemplified in executions of soldiers for rape, murder, and other crimes, had a “didactic function,” too. “The enactment of elements of the Good Death even at the foot of the gallows, sometimes even an address from the prisoner urging his fellow soldiers to ‘beware of his untimely fate’—all provided indelible messages about both good living and good dying, ones that witnesses took very much to heart,” Gilpin Faust writes.

Part of making emojis more consistent is in the naming conventions. Unicode now tends to opt for more descriptive names for emojis to avoid divergent interpretations by designers across platforms. In her newsletter about the Emoji 14.0 release, chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee Jennifer Daniel, explains: “If the existing ‘pregnant woman’ had been named ‘woman with swollen belly’ these new emoji would’ve followed suit.” Had 🤰 Pregnant Woman been approved in 2021 under a more descriptive name, we might’ve been talking about the addition of “Man with Swollen Belly” and “Person with Swollen Belly” today instead of Pregnant Man and Pregnant Person. This is all part of the messiness of standardizing a standard.

Naming conventions aside, men can be pregnant. This applies to the real world (e.g., trans men) and to fictional universes (e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior and Lil Nas X’s promotional materials for his album “Montero.”) People of any gender can be pregnant too. Now there are emojis to represent this.

Q: We just passed the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. There are adults in the United States who were not yet born when 9/11 happened. Joe Biden has now officially ended the War in Afghanistan by withdrawing all troops. Do you think we’ve arrived at the end of an era? Are we witnessing the end of American empire, or at least the beginning of a new stage?

A: I think the withdrawal will have practically no effect on US imperial policy. The current commentary on Afghanistan is almost entirely about what the war cost us. You find virtually nothing about what it cost Afghans.

There are a few interesting articles showing that what the press understood very well twenty years ago, but were ridiculing, was in fact correct: there was no reasonable basis for the war in the first place. Osama bin Laden was only a suspect when the United States started bombing Afghanistan. If there’s a suspect whom you want to apprehend, you carry out a small police operation. They could’ve apprehended him, then worked to discover if he was actually responsible, which they didn’t know.

In fact, that was conceded eight months later. Robert Muller, head of the FBI, gave his first extensive press conference in which he said — after probably the most intensive investigation in the world — that we assume al-Qaeda and Bin Laden were responsible for 9/11, but we haven’t been able to establish it yet. First you bomb, then you check to see if there was any reason.

We now know that the Taliban were willing to surrender in 2001. But defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld proudly announced, “We don’t negotiate surrenders.”

Critics have never been the world’s most beloved people. Almost exactly 100 years ago, the Czech author and sometime critic Karel Čapek wrote about the consequences of a harsh review: “I’m reconciled in advance to the fact that [the author] considers me unfair, cliquey and incompetent. It’s definitely his right. I, too, use this right when an unfair, cliquey and incompetent critic, who gives my book a bad press, hurts me. To cut a long story short, there’s an eternal conflict between artist and critic. ‘Praise me, or I’ll hate you.’”

Nonetheless, there used to be an understanding among readers that any worthwhile critic, whether it be William Hazlitt, Kenneth Tynan or Pauline Kael, would need to hate as well as to love. As the late Clive James (who was skilled on both counts) wrote in a 2013 defence of hatchet jobs: “You can’t eliminate the negative. It accentuates the positive.”

Now critics are often up against readers who resist the very notion of criticism. A few popular lines of attack pop up regularly. There’s faux-objectivity: You said this movie wasn’t funny but I laughed, ergo it is you are factually wrong and unprofessional. Taking offence: How dare you imply that everyone who likes this movie is a tasteless dolt? Assumption of bad faith: You’re only saying this for clicks and notoriety.

Like most publications, Eater has refrained from issuing stars during the pandemic. Using a rating system to score someone’s work often doesn’t jibe with the realities of an industry where simply staying in business and protecting one’s staffers are the chief goals. But the past year has also led me to wonder whether stars really jibe with good food criticism at all, and whether we’re better off permanently dropping this blunt instrument that doesn’t evolve as dynamically as our language or our values. 

Stars, of course, have tended to favor more expensive establishments at the highest levels. Every current four-star review from the Times or this critic — or three-star review from Michelin in New York — is a $150-per-person-plus European- or Japanese-leaning tasting-menu spot. And while local outlets have awarded two or three stars to more affordable spots like pizzerias and taco trucks, sometimes publications default to a fully non-starred format for those venues, be it the Bib Gourmands at Michelin, Hungry City at the Times(which has not been published since March 2020), or First Look and Buy Sell Hold at Eater. It’s all enough to make a reader legitimately ask whether there is a separate class of food reviews here, particularly for less stereotypically prestigious spots.

  • Is Peter Thiel a real life super villain? A new biography about him, The Contrarian, reveals just another rich guy who is desperate to keep his fortune. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Max Chafkin explains:

Years later, Trump’s advisers would point to this moment, crediting Thiel for convincing Silicon Valley that it could work with a president who’d spent the campaign treating them as a bunch of America-hating globalists. “They were supposed to be the biggest enemies we got, and they’re basically making a nationalistic case,” says Steve Bannon, who attended the meeting and served as chief adviser to the White House. “It was like they finally got invited to lunch with the quarterback of the football team.”

The Trump administration, of course, ended badly for many of the participants in the meeting. Bannon was fired the following year, indicted in 2020, and pardoned just hours before Trump himself left the White House, having become the 11th president in U.S. history to lose reelection. He would depart for Mar-a-Lago in disgrace, his legacy tarnished by a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands, his political future linked to a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

But Trump’s presidency would not end badly for Thiel, who didn’t comment for this article, adapted from my forthcoming book, The Contrarian. Thiel’s companies would win government contracts, and his net worth would soar—and it would, crucially, remain in the legal tax shelter that he’s spent half his career trying to protect. As a venture capitalist, Thiel had made it his business to find up-and-comers, invest in their success, and then sell his stock when it was financially advantageous to do so. Now he was doing the same with a U.S. president.

  • Matt Stromberg has a point about Dan Levy’s David Wojnarowicz-inspired 2021 Met Gala look and the famous Thomas Gainsborough “Blue Boy” protrait:

For the month of July 2021, the number of murders and shooting incidents in New York City declined compared with July 2020. Murder decreased by 49.1% (29 v. 57) while shooting incidents decreased by 35% (158 v. 243). The department made 383 gun arrests for the month of July, a 133.5 % increase compared with last July and a continuation of the 44.5% increase in gun arrests through the first seven months of 2021.

In July 2021, overall index crime in the city increased 0.2% compared with July 2020, driven by a 13.9 % increase in Grand Larceny Auto (1,007 v. 884), and a 8.6% increase in robbery (1,247 v. 1,148). For the month of July, the crime of burglary posted a 24% reduction (1,030 v. 1,355) compared to the previous year.

Required Reading is published every Friday, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.