Commentary Magazine


Victim Art

The critic Paul Elmer More once described John Dos Passos’s novel Manhattan Transfer as “an explosion in a cesspool.” Much the same thing could be said of “Discussing the Undiscussable,” an essay by the New Yorker’s dance critic Arlene Croce which was published in that magazine’s December 26 issue. Croce’s piece provoked a collective howl of outrage from the Left-liberal cultural establishment comparable to the furor that erupted in 1989 when Washington’s Corcoran Gallery canceled an exhibition of photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe.

As it happens, homosexuality and AIDS figure prominently in both controversies. Croce’s essay was occasioned by the New York premiere of Still/Here, a full-evening dance by Bill T. Jones, a choreographer who is black, homosexual, and HIV-positive. Many of Jones’s earlier dances were strongly political in content (his last large-scale work, premiered in 1990, was called Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land). Still/Here, by contrast, is political only by implication. It is a multimedia spectacle about death and dying, based on videotaped statements by participants in a series of “survival workshops” Jones conducted for people suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other terminal illnesses.

Jones has lately overtaken Mark Morris as America’s most talked-about choreographer. He has appeared on the cover of Time, is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and, most recently, was the subject of a New Yorker profile by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the equally trendy black academic, that can best be described as fawning:

To all his projects he brings a searching intelligence. But the world does not love him only for his mind, . . . he’s become something of a poster boy for the Zeitgeist, a redoubtable achievement for someone working in the semi-sequestered, self-consciously avant-garde world of modern dance.

All this acclaim notwithstanding, opinions of Jones’s choreographic gifts vary widely. Critics who dislike overtly political art tend to shun his work; those who see dance as a suitable medium for the making of statements about the condition of the world dote on it. But given the increasing politicization of the dance community—and the undeniable fact that the AIDS epidemic has had a particularly devastating effect on dance in America—it was to be expected that Still/Here would attract mainly favorable critical attention. One typical review, by Laura Shapiro of Newsweek, called it “so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of 20th-century dance seems ensured.” Not surprisingly, all four performances given at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last December were sold out.

It thus came as a shock to many when Arlene Croce dismissed Still/Here in deliberately sensational terms:

I have not seen Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here and have no plans to review it. . . . 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. . . . People for whom art is too fine, too high, too educational, too complicated may find themselves turning with relief to the new tribe of victim artists parading their wounds. . . . What Jones represents is something new in victim art—new and raw and deadly in its power over the human conscience.

The sheer ferocity of Croce’s attack on “victim art” was startling enough. But what made “Discussing the Undiscussable” even more controversial was the fact that she placed the phenomenon in a larger political and historical context:

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. This bias is inherent in the nature of government . . . by the late 80’s, the ethos of community outreach had reached out and swallowed everything else; it was the only way the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] could survive. The private funders soon knuckled under to the community-and minority-minded lobbies—the whole dynamic of funding, which keeps the biggest government grants flowing on a matching-funds basis, made the knuckling under inevitable. But ideology had something to do with this. . . . The ideological boosters of utilitarian art hark back to the political crusades of the 60’s—against Vietnam, for civil rights. The 60’s, in turn, harked back to the proletarian 30’s, when big-government bureaucracy began. And now once again after a 30-year lapse we are condemned to repeat history.

Needless to say, Croce’s essay caused a convulsion in the New York dance community (especially among her gay fans). But “Discussing the Undiscussable” would probably have gone unremarked in the larger world of culture had it been published in, say, the New Criterion, and had it not been written by Arlene Croce, the most distinguished dance critic of our time. It was the combination of Croce, who had not previously immersed herself in the culture wars, and the New Yorker, a mass-circulation magazine of impeccably liberal credentials, that triggered an uproar so intense that even Time and Newsweek, two magazines whose interest in high culture is normally tenuous at best, deemed it worthy of coverage.

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The first and most vicious of Croce’s critics was Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice:

To condemn a work of art without even seeing it has a Helmsian, not to say Stalinist, stench. . . . The vast terrain of her argument is a clue to Croce’s real intention, which is to synthesize the arguments of the neocons into a primal scream against the values of contemporary art. . . . That this critic must be coerced into empathy may explain why her prose is threaded with racist and homophobic aperçus, mostly directed at Jones.

Several of Goldstein’s criticisms were echoed, albeit in more temperate language, in a column by Frank Rich on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Like Goldstein, Rich tagged Croce as a “neoconservative,” adding that “her side, not the counterculture, won the last election.” Also like Goldstein, Rich played the empathy card:

To the extent AIDS is responsible for yanking death out of the American closet, history may show that the epidemic has changed our culture . . . this is the story of our time. Amazingly, Croce has missed that story, just as surely as she has failed to see that dying is part of art because it is part of life.

The New Yorker solicited responses to “Discussing the Undiscussable” and published a carefully balanced selection in its January 30 letters section. Most were predictable, a few comically so. The cultural critic and self-styled pagan Camille Paglia, for example, contributed a short memoir: “I am a proud disciple of what Ms. Croce rejects as ‘Warholism,’ which melted the lines between high and low culture, artist and audience, art and life.” Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, called Croce a “reactionary” and claimed that the artists she dismissed as “victims” were in fact “politically engaged progressive people.” And bell hooks (sic—she favors the lower case), Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York and author of such books as Ain’t I A Woman, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, and Sisters of the Yam, laid down the politically-correct law in no uncertain terms:

To write so contemptuously about work one has not seen is an awesome flaunting of privilege—a testimony to the reality that there is no marginalized group or individual powerful enough to silence or suppress reactionary voices. . . . The publication of this piece alarms and threatens because it exposes the extent to which right-wing values, particularly censorship—the will to suppress dissenting voices, to limit artistic freedom and critical vision—are gaining cultural momentum. It is this dangerous trend that warrants critical vigilance and should provoke progressive resistance.

To be sure, Croce was not without her prominent defenders. The editor of the New Criterion, Hilton Kramer, writing in the New York Observer, called her piece “the most definitive essay on the arts in the 1990’s that any American critic has yet written.” He also had the best reply to Richard Goldstein:

It may not have been shrewd, however, for Mr. Goldstein to invoke the specter of Stalinism in this context, for his own attack . . . reads at times like a contemporary version of an old Pravda editorial. About the only thing missing was the charge of “bourgeois formalism.”

And John Leo, in his column in U.S. News & World Report, summarized “Discussing the Undiscussable” in terms no less admiring than Kramer’s.

Interestingly, much of what was written by other dance critics about “Discussing the Undiscussable,” while generally disapproving, was far milder in tone than the fulminations of Richard Goldstein and his ilk. Only Newsweek’s Laura Shapiro took the lowbrow road of outright anti-intellectual-ism (“[Croce’s] thinking is rigorous, her standards are sky-high, and her prose is so rich and dense that occasionally it borders on the unreadable”). And Dale Harris, dance critic of the Wall Street Journal, published a review that made no mention of Croce’s essay but blasted Still/Here as

cheap in conception and shoddy in realization. . . . [Jones] pleases those who ask for little beyond the chance to exercise their feelings. Though he offers them the conviction that they are confronting issues of significance, they are not. They are merely confirming their preconceptions about the primacy of sincerity.

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One of the more suggestive comments about “Discussing the Undiscussable” came from Deborah Jowitt, dance critic for the Village Voice:

It’s ironic . . . that Croce, so firmly opposed to the politicization of art, chose to turn her own critical essay into a political statement by declining to see the work at hand.

Yet several other dance critics, myself included, declined to see Still/Here, and with good reason. Those of us who write regularly about dance have learned to shudder every time we receive yet another press release inviting us to the premiere of an earnest new work “about” racism, sexism, or AIDS, the Unholy Trinity of dance in the 90’s. Still/Here is, to put it mildly, very much in this vein, and its subject matter had been so heavily publicized in advance of the New York premiere as to make it a largely known quantity. (The literary critic Hugh Kenner has defined “conceptual art” as art that, once described, need not be experienced, a notion of obvious relevance in this connection.) It was, of course, within the realm of possibility that Still/Here was “a landmark of 20th-century dance,” but the odds, in my judgment, were against it: I have never seen a work by Jones that struck me as of more than modest choreographic interest. So I stayed home—and did not write about Still/Here.

Arlene Croce also stayed home, but did write about it. An old hand at stirring up trouble, she may well have realized that to flaunt her not having seen Still/Here would make the maximum possible amount of journalistic noise, thus drawing further attention to the actual subject of “Discussing the Undiscussable”: the continuing politicization of American art. The hostile responses to Croce’s essay proved her point as comprehensively (if not so eloquently) as the essay itself. It is no coincidence that the angriest attacks on “Discussing the Undiscussable” came from people who normally write not about dance but about politics. For such people, merely to express public disapproval of victim art is to be both a “neocon” (a term roughly comparable to “fascist” in the latter-day lexicon of left-wing abuse) and a “homophobe” (the 90’s equivalent of “McCarthyite”).

In the case of Arlene Croce, both of these assertions are patently absurd. Whether or not she has any political affiliations cannot be deduced from her published writings, but to call her a neoconservative is to betray little more than ignorance of the meaning of the word.1 As for Richard Goldstein’s scurrilous accusation of homophobia, one need only point out that Croce is, among other things, a noted booster of such unabashedly homosexual choreographers as Mark Morris and Peter Anastos.

The real objection to Croce’s essay (beyond the fact that it sharply criticizes the funding practices of the arts bureaucracy-itself an unforgivable sin) is that it argues for the autonomy of art. This is an argument that Croce has been making aggressively from the very beginning of her career. “I never saw a good ballet that made me think,” she wrote in 1975, a statement presumably intended to evoke T. S. Eliot’s famous remark that Henry James had “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” It is also an implicit defense of the aesthetic position known in the crude shorthand of cultural journalism as “art for art’s sake.”

“Art for art’s sake” will always be a casus belli in times when the cultural establishment is committed to art as a means to purely utilitarian ends. Thus The Cradle Will Rock, Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 agitprop opera, contains a peppy number savaging the very idea of art for art’s sake (“It’s smart, for Art’s sake,/To part, for Art’s sake,/ With your mind, for Art’s sake”); and Rob Costin, who is HIV-positive and who had the last word in the New Yorker’s January 30 letters section, concluded by saying that “even art for art’s sake has to address AIDS if it is to survive.” History, as Croce points out, is repeating itself yet again; and, one might add, it is doing so yet again in the famous pattern—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

It is here that the irony alluded to by Deborah Jowitt is to be found. Anyone who has not kept up with the looking-glass world of high culture in the 90’s might well be astonished to learn that opposing the politicization of art is now taken to be a political act. But such is indeed the unhappy case. All the more reason, then, to praise Arlene Croce for speaking out against the poisonous amalgam of self-pity and self-righteousness that is victim art.


Footnotes

1 It can only be a matter of time before conspiracy-mongers at the Village Voice discover that Croce’s first job in New York was at National Review.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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