January 2006

CRITIQUING THE CRITICS

Critique. To critically examine a thing with respect esp. to its conformity to standards--
of logic, for example, or common sense.


"The Meaning of Life," "Life-Enhancing Ripples," and Other Inanities

by Louis Torres

Joan Acocella, who writes on dance for the New Yorker, is one of our best critics--far better than most. Yet she serves up more than a few inanities in "Loners," a profile of two contemporary choreographers of a decidedly avant-garde bent (only one of whom I concern myself with here). Sally Silvers is a "straight-out modernist," Acocella begins, claiming that Silvers is "an abstractionist, a collagist," who sees modernism as a way to "'willfully not remember' the way things are." (Not "ignore," mind you, but "willfully not remember"--as if such a feat were possible.)

Acocella's implied analogy between Silvers's choreography and abstract painting and collage is inapt, however. Dance is never abstract in the same sense that "abstract" painting is. It conveys meaning, often subconsciously, because it presents real people moving expressively to music, which can suggest an infinitely nuanced range of emotions familiar to viewers--unlike mere color, texture, and form, which can only evoke the broadest of moods. And collage? That comparison, too, is misleading, especially so with respect to collages consisting exclusively of abstract elements.

Acocella further notes that people call Silvers "odd" or "quirky" or "eccentric." She certainly is. As described in "Loners," Wearable (a trio for Silvers and two other dancers) featured "a huge glob of crumpled paper hanging from the flies (the concealed space over that stage that is used to store scenery). One dancer "grabbed a handful of the paper and rode it like a pony." The second dancer "took another handful [just one?], made a fort of it, and hid inside." What did Silvers do? Why, she "wrapped herself in the paper and spooked around, like a visitor to your door on Halloween." (Not my door, please!) To what end? Acocella does not say. She simply describes the action on stage matter-of-factly, as if it were perfectly reasonable for grown women in a public performance to make paper forts and hide in them, or wrap themselves in paper and spook around.

Then there is Silvers's "music," often consisting of "sound mixes," which Acocella assures the reader are "more sophisticated" than her sets, costumes, and choreography. (We should be thankful for small things, I suppose.) "These scores," she notes, "if bewildering--a beep here, crash there, then a line of verse--at least don't seem like they were made by a third grader." What a relief! As the astutely admiring biographer of choreographer Mark Morris (about whose profound musicality she has eloquently remarked: "[T]he whole pattern of his mind--his intelligence, his emotions, his worldview--[ is] woven on the web of music"), Acocella should know better. Surely she must realize that "sound mixes" of any sort, including those consisting of combinations of beeps and crashes, are not music in the sense that applies, for example, to the Baroque scores that Morris often uses.

In Acocella's view, it is mainly Silvers's movement that is really weird, or "eccentric," however. After quoting Silvers's own description of a "combination" she made up--"'On all fours, lift one arm and the opposite leg, swing leg through to land in crab position, one arm and leg still up. . . . Legs tucked to back, mermaidish jump to land with legs spread'"--Acocella comments:

Try that [is she serious?], and you'll get some sense of what Silvers's dancing is like. It is executed, furthermore, with a blithe unselfconsciousness, as if she were a happy little animal, or perhaps a harmless lunatic, going about her business. She knows exactly what she's doing, though. In [her] essay, she said that her aim was to "unknow" the body: "Nothing leads--the body parts become equal. . . . Force the point of awkwardness." This is the choreographic equivalent of her refusal to remember "the way things are."

Of course. Silvers "knows exactly what she's doing." So do a whole host of other lunatics, harmless or otherwise (on this point, see Louis Sass's Madness and Modernism).In one of her pieces, Silvers did a "huge back bend--a big effort, to no clear end," Acocella notes. When the words of the country song she moved to described the morning star as shedding its beams on the singer, Silvers "doggedly walked the entire periphery of a circle of light on the stage."

Elsewhere, she grabbed her foot in one hand and, with the other hand pointing urgently forward, hopped toward the wings. (You thought, How is she going to get out of this? Is she going to fall?) The effect, though witty, wasn't satirical. It was a story about how hard things are. Unlike . . . most modern dance, Silvers refuses to bleed in attractive ways, but she, too, is a confused person, in a tacky getup. Life itself, she seems to say, is tacky, but it's still our life.

"You thought?"--wondered if Silvers would make it off the stage without falling? Who is this "you" Acocella refers to? Everyone in the audience--as well as you and me, had we been there to see Silvers hopping towards the wings? Or might some of us have thought instead, How bizarre! What on earth is she doing?

At the end of her two-part profile (the other avant-gardist she discusses is Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Belgium's "foremost modern-dance choreographer"), Acocella leaves us with this weighty conclusion to ponder: "As [Silvers] grabs her foot with her hand and pogoes into the wings, she is telling you what, in her experience, is the meaning of life." That image of Silvers--one foot in hand, pogoing into the wings (and, lest we forget, her other hand pointing urgently forward)--does have a "witty" aspect to it (as Acocella herself suggested), at least in the telling, but to claim that Silvers is "telling you [you and me, that is]" what she considers to be the meaning of life is a bit of a stretcher.

Where is the dance critic today who will dare to say what needs to be said--Not dance!--about spectacles such as those Silvers concocts? Nowhere, as far as I know. Arlene Croce, the New Yorker's former dance critic, once went so far as to characterize the German avant-gardist Pina Bausch's work as the "pornography of pain." An apt, gutsy phrase that. On another occasion she alone had the courage to say that she had to regard Bill T. Jones's Still/Here as not dance, but "theatre"--and not even that, because Jones had "crossed the line between theatre and reality" in using taped interviews with real individuals afflicted with real terminal illnesses. Not art! Croce implied.[*] Certainly that is true of work by Silvers [seen here in Storming Heaven, 2000] [more--scroll down] (or by De Keersmaeker [in Once, which Acocella cites in her review]). But what dance critic active today would have both the acumen and the courage to say so?

* * *

Life-Enhancing Ripples

Time was when the Wall Street Journal's reputation was based on its comprehensive coverage of business and the economy. Now it aims to track the arts as well, and not just from a monetary perspective. No doubt, there are pieces dealing with auctions and collecting, but there are also reviews of music, theater, dance, and art (the visual arts).

David Littlejohn (an emeritus professor of journalism at the University of California , Berkeley) covers the arts for the Journal from the West Coast. Like his East Coast counterparts, he often does so from a decidedly postmodernist perspective, as is revealed by the conclusion to his review last year of The Art of Richard Tuttle, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [now at New York's Whitney Museum]:

Thirty to 40 years on [Tuttle has exhibited since 1965, mostly abroad], there are no rules left to break. Most of the critical naysayers have retired from the field, conceding victory to anything that calls itself art, as long as it can compel our attention and create life-enhancing ripples in the pools of our consciousness.

No rules left to break? Littlejohn ought to know. For him, as for most critics today, rule breakers are a specialty.

As for those "critical naysayers" who have "conced[ed] victory to anything that calls itself art"--who are they? Not ordinary people, most of whom still say nay to the proposition that virtually anything can be art, and who would no doubt reject the notion that something merely claimed to be art can force them to pay attention, much less create "life-enhancing ripples in the pools of [their] consciousness."

What kinds of things create such ripples in Littlejohn's psyche? Pretty much anything by Tuttle, whose retrospective is making the rounds of major museums (see schedule link below): 3rd Rope Piece, for example--a three-inch slice of clothesline rope nailed to a wall; or 1st Wire Bridge--florist's wire nailed to a wall in the crude shape of a square; or small "junk collages," such as Two or More IV and Two or More XII, which "float midway between painting and sculpture." "I love [them]," Littlejohn declares. In his view, Tuttle is "elusive, protean, radically purist"--one of today's "dedicated searchers for artistic truth," who is interested only in making art that bypasses the "'self,'" who tries to "vacate his intelligence"--a feat which contemporary art critics seem to pull off with ease.

For readers who might want to experience "life-enhancing ripples" while gazing at Tuttle's pieces, Littlejohn offers this suggestion:

The best way to respond to his work, I think, is to try to cultivate something like his own selfless, open, anti-intellectual stance, and then see what happens.

What happened to Littlejohn is that he found himself overwhelmed--"powerfully affected"--by a half-dozen series of Tuttle's wire "drawings" (all similar to Two or More IV and XII , and to Wire Piece), "in part because of their very multiplicity." "One feels taken over by them, lifted out of thought into wordless contemplation," he writes. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Littlejohn should know that "one"--meaning "everyone"--does not necessarily feel possessed by Tuttle's pathetic little concoctions. In fact, very few are likely to share his strange reaction. What I find most troubling about his account is not what it reveals about his own psyche, however, but his presumptuousness, his assumption that all the rest of us would want to will ourselves into a state of selflessness, even if it were possible to do so, while viewing work in a museum or gallery.


Further reading and viewing: