- Thinking and Writing about Bodies
Although I enjoyed Pam Tanowitz’s work at the Joyce Theater in New York City early in the year, reading Alastair Macaulay’s rave review, “Simplicity of Movement Translated Into Something Much Larger,” in the February 5, 2014 New York Times, made me want to write something about the role of critical discourse in dance today. Macaulay’s post/modern (read postmortem) reviews illustrate how dance discourse has been swinging its critical pendulum back towards a conservative stance whereby a reviewer’s individual taste is favored over a more detached and objective assessment of a dance work. While critics’ mood swings are nothing new, for the purpose of my argument here, I will use the sports metaphor of a swinging bat to capture reviewers’ force of opinion.
As critical trends swing back and forth, artists have witnessed a range of approaches when it comes to reviewers’ perspectives. At the end of 1994, time stood still when The New Yorker’s longtime dance critic, Arlene Croce, “reviewed” Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here in absentia for its December 26, 1993/January 2, 1994 issue. In a long essay entitled “Discussing the Undiscussable,” Croce defined the work as “victim art” for what she claimed to be an “undiscussable,” uncriticizable subject matter, the terminally ill. Much has been said and written about that critical moment, but ultimately it expressed the schism that divided the art world into opposing views on what art could and should do in the world. On one side stood the critics who claimed that some of the artwork produced and exhibited in museums, galleries, and theatres at that time functioned as “cultural reparation,” financed by government and private funding practices that showed, in Croce’s words, a “bias for utilitarian art—art that justifies the bureaucracy’s existence by being socially useful.” On the other side were artists like Bill T. Jones, Adrian Piper, Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, and Pepon Osorio, to mention a few, who were making work informed by what she referred to as “identity politics.”
Bill T. Jones premiered Still/Here at Brooklyn Academy of Music to sold-out audiences. The work, constructed as performance ethnography, combined Jones’s live choreography with footage of the patients projected on screens placed onstage in a video installation designed by Gretchen Bender. When “Discussing the Undiscussable” [End Page 34] appeared, New York was already embroiled in contentious cultural and social debates. The 1993 “multicultural” Whitney Biennal had already enraged most critics who came together in an almost unanimous panning of the exhibit with declarations like “I hate the show.” Rudolph Giuliani, the crime-combating New York City mayor, was at the helm, promising New Yorkers to clean up the city with as many policemen as necessary. In 1990, the artists known as the “NEA Four” (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, Holly Hughes) had their individual solo performer grants revoked by the institution’s Bush-appointed NEA chairman, John Frohnmayer. Their cause celebre made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, culminating in the 1998 decision that allowed the NEA to consider standards of decency in its funding decisions, with the upshot that Congress stopped the NEA from awarding grants to individual artists. A Christian coalition led by Reverend Pat Robertson fueled attacks against the NEA’s funding for photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, prompting the cancellation of his posthumous retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and the obscenity trial that had accompanied his show in Cincinnati, in 1990.
Croce was not the first reviewer to warn against the dangers of lowering the standards of high art she felt Still/Here posed if approached as a work of dance. She panicked that dance, hijacked by victim-obsessed populist bureaucrats salvaging the poor and by sixties-influenced postmodern artists who were replacing traditional choreography’s “pure dance-movement” with quotidian tasks, would lose its aesthetic purity and become community-outreach art work. Conservative critic Hilton Kramer, at The New Criterion, had articulated such a stance in the December 1991 edition of the publication:
There are also other, less theoretical reasons that popular culture is so dear to the...