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"Discussing the Undiscussable"

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This week marks the 20th anniversary of Arlene Croce's (in)famous essay, "Discussing the Undiscussable". Appearing in the December 26, 1994-January 2, 1995 issue of The New Yorker, Croce lambasted Bill T. Jones's Still/Here, in which Jones mixed dancing with, "a visual score made from edited interviews with people who were or are facing life-threatening illnesses." Croce's objection to Still/Here (which she did not see but wrote about anyway) is that it was a prime example of what she referred to in the essay as "victim art".

Rereading her essay again this week, I would say that Croce started from a logical premise: By incorporating people who were actually dying into his work, Jones had created something that was unreviewable. No critic was going to review the "visual score" by writing something like, "The actually dying people weren't very convincing as dying people." No dance critic would write something like that! As such, Jones had made and presented a work which neutralized the criticial function. You could describe it but the central element in the piece existed beyond criticism.

Where I think Croce went wrong with her essay (and she herself said subsequently that the essay as written needed more work) is that she used it as a launchpad for decrying everyone and everything she disliked about the mid-90s art world: AIDS-related dances, the arts bureaucracy (including the National Endowment for the Arts), Pina Bausch, Brooklyn Academy's Next Wave subscription list, Butoh, dance academics, Robert Mapplethorpe, minority-minded lobbies, Schindler's List, utilitarian art and "Warholism". At best, her carelessness when mentioning AIDS gave fuel to her detractors that she was living in an "art for art's sake" bubble in the middle of a devastating health care crisis and, at worst (given the indiscriminate nature of the charges she made), that she was homophobic and racist. (For the record, I think the latter charge is unfair but the former one is a fair one for debate.)

I do think Croce's essay did have its intended impact in that it ended the tremendous forward career progression Bill T. Jones had enjoyed up to that point. I no longer see him reviewed or treated in the lofty tones he enjoyed in the 90s. So, in that respect, Croce was successful. But it came at a cost to her. By attacking Still/Here much like a kamikaze pilot slamming his plane into an aircraft carrier, Croce ended up shattering her own "invincible" position as the doyenne of dance critics.

One more note: The January 30, 1995 issue of The New Yorker carried a selection of letters from prominent art/cultural persons such as bell hooks, Tony Kushner, Harvey Lichtenstein, Hilton Kramer, Midge Decter and Camille Paglia. The letters add next to nothing to the debate but come close to self-parody in every instance.

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hard to believe 1994 was 20+ years ago. But looking back, it was kind of a downer time after the cheeriness of the 1980's. I was in college at the time and remember Grunge music taking off (along with the copy cat fashions), how hopeless a diagnosis of HIV could be, and the job-less recovery of the early 90s' after the 1989 wall street crash. I first went to NYC in 1994 and tried to see ABT but couldn't afford tickets. I saw the Met Opera perform Madame Butterfly instead with a no-name matinee cast. Still a great experience seeing those chandeliers zip up before the music started.

I think pre-internet, the critics had a lot more power over box office. Now with blogs, social media, etc people trust their friends more than they trust critics. I'm not sure about Bill T Jones' career, he still creates, and many choreographers do well, and then fade as the new choreographer of the moment gets the spotlight. Not everyone will have a Mark Morris type of career.

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Croce's essay was uncharacteristically incoherent. Still feverish from spending time in the Jones swamps, I guess.

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When I look back at "Discussing the Undiscussable" now (with the benefit of two decades hindsight), I can see that it was the last gasp for Arlene Croce (or any other dance critic) being able to move the cultural needle in a deliberate way. (That's something different from Alastair Macaulay blundering his way into a cultural debate about body image in dance with his comments about Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle.) Croce more or less stopped writing her dance column just after publication of "Discussing the Undiscussable" and just before the Internet deluge hit.

In the Internet age, the ability for any critic to set the agenda the way Arlene Croce had for at least two decades evaporated. (It had already evaporated somewhat by the mid-90s. In one of her myriad digressions in "Discussing the Undiscussable," Croce carps about how certain choreographers -- William Forsythe, David Gordon, Bill T. Jones, Kenneth King -- had started anticipating or satirizing reviews in their work. Internet snark before the Internet existed!) Thanks to the development of social media, choreographers and, more particularly, dancers, could go over the heads of critics and appeal directly to the public. A Misty Copeland or a Mathilde Froustey or a David Hallberg could now build an audience without having to depend on critical approval.

Regarding the incoherence of "Discussing the Undiscussable," Croce participated in a "debriefing" of sorts with the writer Susie Linfield in the pages of the much-missed Dance Ink about a year after the publication of the original essay. It's hard to find -- I have a photocopy I made in my university library 20 years ago -- but it's so much better than what Croce actually wrote. In conversation with Linfield, she lays out her ideas about art in general (and dance art in particular) in a much more reasoned way than she did in "Discussing the Undiscussable". Not everything rings true to me, especially her insistence that the critic should never try to influence the artistic policy of a dance company. (That probably came as news to everyone at the New York City Ballet given how her slashing attacks on Peter Martins and his stewardship of the company in the 10 years after George Balanchine's death read like the grumblings of an armchair artistic director.) Nevertheless, the follow-up "debriefing" is much more compelling that the essay that precipitated it.

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I agree with much of what has been said about the gloom that hung over the city during that time period, and also the age of the influential critic coming to an end or at the very least lessening. At the same time I believe Croce made some valid points in that essay. Jones, in Still/Here, did place himself beyond criticism not only from critics but from audience members, by incorporating sick and dying people into the piece. It was impermissible to say you didn't like it. To me that doesn't mean the piece shouldn't have been done, but it couldn't be judged as a work or art. Jones was/is a serious artist but did remove himself from being criticized.

I have to say i have a copy of Croce's collection - Writing in the Dark. I still go back and read some pieces periodically. I love her, find her annoying, agree with her, disagree with her and more, but boy I wish we had more writers like her around now.

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Regardless of whether or not Croce's central point was valid, I've always thought that the best way for her to illustrate it would have been to go ahead and review the dance as dance theater" - to insist on her terms, and not what she saw as Jones'. The best way to say "this is not art" or "this is bad art" would have been to say that the specific work itself, not just the concept, failed as art.

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Regardless of whether or not Croce's central point was valid, I've always thought that the best way for her to illustrate it would have been to go ahead and review the dance as dance theater" - to insist on her terms, and not what she saw as Jones'. The best way to say "this is not art" or "this is bad art" would have been to say that the specific work itself, not just the concept, failed as art.

Maybe so, but that's not what she had to say and what she did say was thought provoking. To me her central point is more important that reviewing a specific piece.

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Regardless of whether or not Croce's central point was valid, I've always thought that the best way for her to illustrate it would have been to go ahead and review the dance as dance theater" - to insist on her terms, and not what she saw as Jones'. The best way to say "this is not art" or "this is bad art" would have been to say that the specific work itself, not just the concept, failed as art.

Maybe so, but that's not what she had to say and what she did say was thought provoking. To me her central point is more important that reviewing a specific piece.

I'm not sure we disagree, but I should have been more clear. I'm thinking of Croce talking about being manipulated and intimidated "into accepting what you saw as art."

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In the immediate aftermath of "Discussing the Undiscussable," the writer Laura Jacobs wrote about Still/Here as dance theatre rather than political theatre. While she alluded to "Discussing the Undiscussable" in her essay, she didn't dwell on it. Instead, she tried to put Bill T. Jones into context by comparing him (unfavorably) to Mark Morris and comparing Still/Here (unfavorably) to Frederic Ashton's Symphonic Variations, Neil Greenberg's Not-About-AIDS-Dance, and Paul Taylor's Company B. It's much more the essay Croce should have written rather than the one she did write. (To my mind, Jones is better compared to Anna Sokolow, in terms of the inflammatory content, and Alwin Nikolais, in terms of using multimedia spectacle to cover up the thinness of the dance element.)

My own feeling about "Discussing the Undiscussable" is that Croce, after she had made the valid point that Still/Here was unreviewable, should have then made the argument that the choreographers making "dances" in the 90s about various political and social ills were asking the art form to do something for which it was unsuited. Here was the juncture where she could have reinforced a point she had been making throughout her career; namely, that dance cannot convey complicated ideas or situations. She could have then linked this point back to the dance dramas of Kenneth MacMillan in ballet and the historical/literary/mythological modern dance of Martha Graham and Jose Limon, all three of whom sometimes asked the medium to do more than it was capable of doing. Alas, the road not taken!

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One of the things about Arlene Croce is that when she wrote "Discussing the Undiscussable" she didn't acknowledge her own background and the prejudices that might have seeped into her own views on the work. Croce started off writing in The National Review, and was/is her whole life a staunch conservative. She was also obviously a very intelligent dance critic and I still read her three volumes (Afterimages, Sights and Sounds, Going to the Dance) for some of the most intelligent, incisive dance commentary ever written.

But stepping into the heated culture-wars of that time while disguising it as a dance review was the wrong step. "Discussing the Undiscussable" belonged in the op-ed pages, not the dance column.

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If she was a staunch liberal, does that mean she would not have to acknowledge her background and prejudices that might have seeped into her views about the work?

When the Editor of the New Yorker feels that an essay belongs outside its fach, he or she puts it in the middle of the magazine.

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I think in general, if you're going to dip into a culture wars debate, especially about issues as volatile as AIDS, homosexuality, the Holocaust, and "victim art," the issues you raise are better received if you acknowledge your own political background/beliefs.

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She did within the piece itself through what she wrote, just like she showed her beliefs and values in every other piece on dance she wrote.

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Well as a follow-up, seems Croce still stands by her essay:

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/sep/28/dance.iraq

"Choreographers mix dance with politics because it is the only way to get attention. And get grants too, probably. The importance of a work is equated with the nobility of the sentiment it expresses. I've stopped attending dance attractions because the last thing I want to see is dancers wasting their time on some high-minded godawful piece of choreography. I don't want to be told about Iraq or Bush or Katrina by someone younger and dumber than I am."

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Well, Croce certainly didn't do herself any favors in the fax with her "Hey you kids -- get off my lawn" tone!

What I found telling about the fax was the statement that, "What we wanted was dancing about dance." A more accurate statement would be: "What I wanted was dancing about dance." And she wasn't shy about using her various high-profile forums -- Ballet Review (which she founded) and her New Yorker perch -- to push for the kind of dance she wanted to see. It was ironic that she went after "political" choreographers in "Discussing the Undiscussable" when she herself was perfectly willing to play politics of another sort throughout the length and breadth of her career. (And I say this as someone who enjoys reading Croce's work.)

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Well one of the things is that Croce throughout her long career was given the luxury of almost limitless print space and editorial support. But one of the things about reading "Writing in the Dark" was that her essays in the 90's became less about dance and there were more and more rants.

With that being said I'd love to see her write more, particularly that long-awaited book on Balanchine (is that ever going to happen?)

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I'm curious how she felt about Jooss' The Green Table. I found two brief mentions, both written in the late 70s, calling it a "propaganda piece" and "evocative of its time and place." Have others found more on that ballet? If she doesn't like ballets about wars, this should be near the top of her hit list.

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In a review she wrote:

"Jooss's attempt to give dance the expressive qualities of mime (as a substitute for "mime speech") had a certain influence in its day; in the Pavane one sees the roots of Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. But, unlike Tudor's, Jooss's method of classifying movement and assigning meanings to it has no delicacy of allusion, either psychologically or pictorally. Jooss can paint a propaganda mural like The Green Table, but his strokes are too broad for "exquisite" miniatures like The Pavane."

So basically, yeah, she responded to it exactly as I would have expected her to respond to it.

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One of the things about Arlene Croce is that when she wrote "Discussing the Undiscussable" she didn't acknowledge her own background and the prejudices that might have seeped into her own views on the work. Croce started off writing in The National Review, and was/is her whole life a staunch conservative. She was also obviously a very intelligent dance critic and I still read her three volumes (Afterimages, Sights and Sounds, Going to the Dance) for some of the most intelligent, incisive dance commentary ever written.

But stepping into the heated culture-wars of that time while disguising it as a dance review was the wrong step. "Discussing the Undiscussable" belonged in the op-ed pages, not the dance column.

Her prejudices were pretty clear in the article - no "seeping" required. I don't think she was called upon to say anything along the lines of "As a staunch conservative, I think...." I agree the article was essentially political, not aesthetic, in intent. Years ago I read Croce's long-form essay against the feminist movement and my hunch is if she had tried a straightforwardly political article it would have been even more confused.

Back when she was writing for NR its arts coverage was much better - Buckley recruited interesting young writers like John Leonard and Garry Wills along with Croce.

With that being said I'd love to see her write more, particularly that long-awaited book on Balanchine (is that ever going to happen?)

Not holding my breath for that one.

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If Croce’s politics were liberal, her political sympathy with Jones might have kept her from writing the piece . . . who knows. But I don’t think either her argument that victimhood by itself isn’t art, or her dislike of “utilitarian art,” depend on politics. The first strikes me as similar to what Milan Kundera said about definition of kitsch in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

How nice (how alive, how righteous) it feels to be moved by, and feel solidarity, with victims. And how hard it is to knock a dance that asks us to do so.

Jones’ you-gotta-be-kidding-me reaction to her charge that he just wanted attention was perfect, though. I think her unfortunate lack of empathy and imputation of bad faith are what most clearly show her politics.

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I think if she'd kept the discussion to "victim art" she might have been okay (although some people might have been offended). But she also took a swing at "the community and minority-funded lobbies," "the sixties," the "AIDS quilt," "Schindler's List," and finally lumped up the whole show as the "church service that sells out the Brooklyn Academy."

Also ironic that she said "with the righteous I cannot function at all." One of the most appealing things about Croce's own writing is her righteousness. She was so sure that her opinions were the only correct ones that it's easy to read them and get swept into her sharp, evocative language. If she said Swing Time was better than Top Hat, well, when you read that book, you do agree that Swing Time is better than Top Hat.

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I think if she'd kept the discussion to "victim art" she might have been okay (although some people might have been offended). But she also took a swing at "the community and minority-funded lobbies," "the sixties," the "AIDS quilt," "Schindler's List," and finally lumped up the whole show as the "church service that sells out the Brooklyn Academy."

Doesn't the Schindler's List reference lend some principle, right or wrong, to her argument, though? Everybody hates the Nazis. Everybody loved that guy.

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By chance I was reading Robert Gottlieb's latest review of the Alvin Ailey season. He's a dance critic with a similar "art for art's sake" aesthetic preference (although not the rigidly conservative credentials of Arlene Croce). The difference seems to be tone -- a lot of Croce's later reviews had the feel of a political soapbox rant ("Multicultural Theatre" is another in that vein).

Here's another one of Gottlieb's reviews about Bill T. Jones. Again, the verdict is similar, but the tone not abrasive.

As for the Schindler's List reference, I think IMO that kind of showed how rigidly didactic Croce was. I wonder what she'd say about Diary of Anne Frank? Or maybe I don't want to know.

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This happened at a tough time for the arts -- we were in middle of the fallout from the NEA and we were losing artists right and left to AIDS. It was also a time when the definition of dance was being stretched again. After the boom of the 1970s, the experimentation of the post-modernists really took off, and the idea that dance could indeed be made out of almost any kinetic material was being tested over and over again. Artists like Bill T pushed the edges with special zeal. Croce was increasingly frustrated with the work she was seeing, as I understand it, and the whole thing just boiled over.

Her essay raised a lot of hackles, yes, but it also resulted in some rigorous and much-needed discussion among critics about what we thought we were about. There was a small anthology published (The Crisis of Criticism, ed. by Maurice Berger) that included Croce's essay as well as several responses to it. It's been several years, but it's still relevant work -- I highly recommend it.

From the publisher's description:

"Almost more than artists, art critics today form an elite class that legislates cultural tastes. The Crisis of Criticism is a collection of brilliantly argued, provocative essays that address the problematic nature of the critic's authority and responsibilities. In it, today's leading critics, curators, and artists address the questions at the heart of criticism. Do critics grant cultural permission or is their work merely descriptive? Is there such a thing as critical activism? How can critics bridge the gap between a sometimes hermetic art community and the public? Are critics consumer advocates, sycophants, or artists in their own right? Maurice Berger assembles the top critics in each field to address the problematic nature of the critic's authority and responsibilities. Contributors include Richard Martin, bell hooks, Jim Hoberman, Arlene Croce, Wayne Koestenbaum, Joyce Carol Oates, and others."

For what it's worth, I didn't agree with Croce at the time, and I still don't. I saw Still/Here, and although I thought it was difficult to watch, it wasn't impossible to write about. I think it was eminently "discussable."

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