Friday, December 12, 2014

12/12: Natalie Axton on "Discussing the Undiscussable," Arlene Croce, and Criticism

In the spring of 2011 I was invited to attend a breakfast at the home of the Norwegian Consul to the United Nations in New York City. The occasion was a press reception for Norway’s live art group, Verdensteatret, who were premiering a performance piece at a Dance Theater Workshop later in the month. At the time I received the invitation I was a dance writer with a few credits to my name. I wasn’t writing for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, the bigger venues for dance writing in New York, but I was writing regularly and apparently someone had noticed. I jumped at the chance to go to an exclusive meet-the-artist breakfast. The fact that it was at the consul’s residence didn’t hurt, either. I had never seen Verdensteatret before.

The breakfast was a slow-going affair. Administrators for the venue where the group would be performing were there and they welcomed us the best they could. Dance writers and critics and other artist types filed in. The apartment was spacious but tidy. Eastern exposure ensured it was bright. The consul’s dining room table was spread with pastry, bagels, and jams, and we writers milled around it pretending we were used to seeing one another in the daylight. The coffee was strong. The artists were late.

While I was helping myself to another piece of croissant I recognized a young choreographer. She was there because she worked at Dance Theater Workshop, the venue presenting Verdensteatret. Earlier in the year I had seen some of her choreographer’s work at a small but respectable performance space in Soho. I did not think much of it. Young women rolled on the floor between piles of analog technology like DVD machines and tape decks. There was a lot of projection on the walls; the implied narrative was nonlinear. On my blog I wrote up a description of the performance and summed it up as derivative of the films of Christopher Nolan, my way of suggesting she should try less pretension in the next go. It wasn’t a great review, but it was something. Emerging performers are keen on getting press, and this choreographer had linked to my review on her website.

This woman was the only person at the breakfast who wanted to talk to me. The other critics were either tired or hungover or too important. In this setting the choreographer and I were equals, both emerging, both low on the totem pole.

We started talking about a review in the Times that she and her colleagues had taken issue with. She was confused by it in the sense that she couldn’t understand how the critic had gotten from the work he had seen to the review that had been published. She asked me what motivates a critic. It’s a good question, but one I couldn’t answer. How can one critic speak for all? Perhaps because I felt responsible for her confusion or perhaps because I was taught to make polite conversation in awkward moments, I said to her this: “Once the writer sits down to write it’s no longer about you.” I went on: The review is about the piece, your piece, but the writing process is the writer’s. When writing criticism, a writer should be learning about herself as she writes. Why does she have these opinions? Are they fair? What’s the calculus between description, reporting, and argument? The writer becomes the artist, and all good critics should be engaging writers.

The choreographer still seemed puzzled, yet relieved. Then she said, “But what about Arlene Croce?”


Twenty years ago this December the venerable dance critic Arlene Croce, writing in the New Yorker, published an essay called “Discussing the Undiscussable” [pdf]. Croce in 1994 was the New Yorker’s critic at large. Because Croce is a critic, a very good and insightful critic, and because the piece was prompted by the upcoming premiere by Bill T. Jones’s troupe, many readers took her essay as a review. But “Discussing the Undiscussable” is not a review, and Croce says so up front. See for yourself:
I have not seen Bill T. Jones’s “Still/Here” and have no plans to review it. In this piece, which was given locally at the Brooklyn Academy, Jones presents people (as he has in the past) who are terminally ill and talk about it. I understand that there is dancing going on during the talking, but of course no one goes to “Still/Here” for the dancing. People are asking whether Jones’s type of theater is a new art form. Dying an art form? Why, yes, I suppose dying can be art in a screwily post-neo-Dada sense. (Dr. Kevorkian, now playing in Oregon . . . . ) But this is not the sense intended by Bill T. Jones, even though he had his origins as a choreographer in the Dada experimentation of the sixties. If I understand “Still/Here” correctly, and I think I do – the publicity has been deafening – it is a kind of messianic traveling medicine show, designed to do some good for sufferers of fatal illnesses, both those in the cast and those who may be in the audience. If we ask what a show does that no hospital, clinic, church, or other kind of relief agency has so far been able to do, I think the answer is obvious. If we consider that the experience, open to the public as it is, may also be intolerably voyeuristic, the remedy is also obvious: Don’t go. In not reviewing “Still/Here,” I’m sparing myself and my readers a bad time, and yet, I don’t see that I really have much choice. 
I first read this essay in 2009, only a little while before the conversation in the consul’s breakfast room. I admired the essay immediately. The precision in the first graf demonstrated everything I wanted to do as a critic and the temperature I loved reading great criticism for. The personal declaration, then the news lead – how I hate reviews that open with anything other than a news lede. The joke about Dr. Kevorkian – criticism should never be dull. The way Croce handily places Jones in an historical context, then cuts to a quick assertion that Still/Here is a concept piece and as such it can be handled metaphorically. What can the show do that no hospital can, etc? She does not answer her question. Instead: I think the answer is obvious. ‘Don’t go’ is a directive as well as a judgment that the show does not deserve patronage. The brilliant last sentence. Croce, as a critic, has a responsibility. But her claim is that she’s been put in a bind by Jones, and it’s one that boxes her in professionally.

Before we go on I should explain that “Discussing the Undiscussable” begat a tremendous controversy, especially in the New York arts world. In 1994 New York City, the era was Giuliani; the cultural setting, somewhere between the Mapplethorpe controversy and the coming Sensation! fiasco. The essay was a deep stab into the culture wars and was taken by many as Croce’s coming out as a conservative. Letters to the editor poured in to the New Yorker, and the controversy – some dubbed the piece an “anti-review” – was covered in other publications. Hilton Kramer, writing in New York Magazine, labeled the piece “the most definitive essay on the arts in the 1990s that any American critic has yet written.” Joyce Carol Oates, writing in the New York Times, accused Croce of having “sensibility unwilling to attribute full humanity to persons who have suffered injury, illness or injustice.”

Just what was so “undiscussable,” as Croce put it?

When the piece was published Croce was an established dance critic and Bill T. Jones was on his way to becoming the cultural institution he is today. He had won a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship and been on the cover of Time magazine. In 1990 his Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin was described as a “sprawling three hour discourse on freedom” by Anna Kisselgoff in the New York Times. It was known that he was HIV positive and that his professional and romantic partner, Arnie Zane, had died of AIDS.

Still/Here premiered in Lyon, France in 1993. By the time the piece had come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music it too was a well-known entity. As Croce puts it, the publicity was “deafening.” To create the piece Jones had crossed the United States, offering workshops for terminally ill patients. (A few of these workshops were captured in a PBS documentary made for the Bill Moyers program, which is available for viewing online. Still/Here is available for viewing, with permission, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.) Jones collected from these participants movement and vocabulary phrases that he set on his company of dancers. Video and audio recordings of the patients made during the workshops were incorporated into the dance theater piece.

Still/Here was something all right, but was it theater? Not according to Croce. Instead she insists it’s symptomatic of a broader problem -- the politicization of art. A good portion of her essay covers her experience with and the history of the National Endowment for the Arts. (“The arts bureaucracy in this country, which includes government and private funding agencies, has in recent years demonstrated a blatant bias for utilitarian art – art that justifies the bureaucracy’s existence by being socially useful.”) Additionally, Croce asserts there has been a trend in the broader culture towards what she calls “victim art.” (“There is no doubt that the public likes to see victims, if only to patronize them with applause.”) Jones’s personal story does not interest Croce. What does interest her is that his work sits at the confluence of these trends. He is a benefactor of the art-for-social-utility’s-sake funding mechanism and a chief exemplar of victim art. Going further, she implies that Jones’s work is a kind of manipulation, one designed to shut critics out of the artistic dialogue. (“By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable – the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs.”) You can see how this could have set off a firestorm in the arts world. NB: there is no mention of this controversy on Bill T. Jones’s Wikipedia page.

I agree with Croce that art need not serve a social purpose. (I cringe at the economic development rationales for culture that pop up these days.) I think the anti-utilitarian argument can also apply to criticism. There is a point at which criticism becomes art, and with “Discussing the Undiscussable” we might be at that point. Many critics I’ve spoken with wonder about the piece. ‘Wouldn’t Croce have been able to write a better piece had she seen the show?’ a critic recently asked me. (No.) Is it a good work of criticism, and can it be a work of criticism if it is not a review of Jones’s show? (Absolutely.) Was Croce not keeping an open mind? Should she have been more sensitive to viewing the work on its own terms? To this I think: no one should judge Croce as a critic. Critics, who should all be knowledgeable, have individual tastes. Croce should instead be judged as a writer. And anyone who can shake the publishing world with a highly intellectual work of criticism is a hell of a writer.


At the Norwegian breakfast my young choreographer friend was looking at me intently. And what could I tell her that I hadn’t already? A writer writes. A critic judges. The two should trust one another to do their jobs. Critics research, report, and maintain an open mind. Nevertheless they become advocates. They hold values; they call attention to what they think is important. Sometimes what is important is bad art. All serious artists, artists who want their work to be seen by critics, have a stake in the idea that there is bad art in the world. Let’s face it, in the macro sense most art is not very good. Some artists get better; it depends on how hard they are willing to work.

Artists must make art, but they must do so, I imagine Croce would say, responsibly. Croce’s essay, its urgent argument, makes the state of the arts a matter of life and death. (There is probably no other essay about Bill T. Jones that takes his work as seriously as does “Discussing the Undiscussable.”) I think this is what we critics all believe. It’s why we go to shows night after night and hunt down emerging artists at obscure venues. These things, this work, are important.

Artists and critics are in this thing together. Yes, great criticism can become art. But it’s still criticism, and it must conform to certain rules, certain responsibilities. This is where I take issue with Croce, despite my deep admiration for her work. Croce, in “Discussing the Undiscussable” goes a step beyond the traditional critic’s role of judging an artist’s work against his or her intentions. In the case of Bill T. Jones and other “victim artists” she judges those intentions as motives – that these artists deliberately chose to position their work beyond criticism for the betterment of their careers. In doing this they break that trust between artist and critic, this much is certainly true. But how can Croce know this is motive or strategy? She can’t.

I believe that “Discussing the Undiscussable” will remain the most important work of arts criticism that was written in the American popular press. This is due to Croce’s talent, the impact the piece had on the cultural and intellectual world, as well as the timing of the essay’s publication. “Discussing the Undiscussable” appeared in print on the eve of the digital revolution. Thanks in large part to the restructuring of journalism and the online media’s obedience to click-through rates, arts writing is an endangered species. “I do not remember a time when the critic has seemed more expendable than now,” she writes. Twenty years later that statement has been proven true in newsrooms across the country. And what does that mean for their partners in crime, the artists?


In Memoriam: Lisbeth J. Bodd, Founder of Verdensteatret. (1958 – 2014) 


Natalie Axton is the founder and editorial director of Critical Read, an online platform for original writing on the performing and fine arts launching in the summer of 2015. She is also a student in the low residency MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

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