fbpx
Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Victimhood Puts Art Beyond Criticism

Thirty years ago, a dance critic got herself into hot water for critiquing an AIDS-themed performance. But she was right.

Bill T. Jones [Misc.]

How can you critique, contend with, or question a work of art centered on the ill or the dying? Thirty years ago, the great American dance critic Arlene Croce had the temerity to answer the question honestly: You can’t.

In the end-of-year double issue of The New Yorker in December 1994, Croce published a blistering broadside against what was then a still-novel trend, the valorization of victimhood in contemporary art. Croce’s piece, titled “Discussing the Undiscussable,” was occasioned by her decision to skip the celebrated dance piece Still/Here by African-American choreographer Bill T. Jones, a work that was inspired by, and made direct use of, the sentiments of real people grappling with terminal illnesses. That category included Jones himself, an HIV-positive homosexual man. (The much-lauded Jones is now 72.) Professional dancers performed the piece, but first-person accounts of ill patients informed it and were spliced in through audio and video.

Advertisement

“If I understand ‘Still/Here’ correctly, and I think I do—the publicity has been deafening—it is a kind of messianic travelling medicine show, designed to do some good for sufferers of fatal illnesses, both those in the cast and those thousands more who may be in the audience,” wrote Croce, who successfully encapsulated the aims and methods of the dance before stating her reasons for saying “thanks, but no thanks.”

For Croce, choosing to steer clear of Still/Here was a way of conceding her own paralysis in the face of art dependent on victimization and making the essential point that audience paralysis is what such works intend. This dance does not exist to stir debate, let alone to invite argument, but to elicit sympathy for the victims it allegedly speaks for. 

“By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism,” wrote Croce, who had been contributing dance reviews to The New Yorker for decades. “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.”

Croce called victimhood “a kind of mass delusion that has taken hold of previously responsible sectors of our culture.” She wrote that, in her career reviewing dance, she had learned to avoid writing about overweight, aging, or otherwise physically imperfect professional dancers. Still/Here was something else altogether, a work that, through its marshalling of the experiences of actual sick people, featured “dancers I’m forced to feel sorry for because of the way they present themselves.” She added: “I can live with the flabby, the feeble, the scoliotic. But with the righteous I cannot function at all.” 

In other words, the people whose stories were told in Still/Here were not asking to be ignored. They were insisting, through Jones and his troupe, on being supported and understood. To ignore them, as Croce did, was to invite a firestorm. And it did. “Discussing the Undiscussable” was a sensation. As Camille Paglia noted in a letter to the editor that The New Yorker published several issues later, Croce’s piece and its attendant controversy “has successfully flushed from the shrubbery an angry herd of P.C. dinosaurs who believe that defending art and aesthetics is ‘neoconservative’—a dated epithet of ritual abuse employed only by the puerile.” The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The New Criterion each covered the L’Affair Croce (no prizes for guessing who lined up where).

Advertisement

Perhaps America’s finest dance critic, Croce might have acquired some of her boldness through her early association with National Review. Croce was one of many young writers who were broken in at William F. Buckley’s magazine. Joan Didion counted herself among them: “NR started the writing careers of many people, like me, Renata Adler, John Leonard, Arlene Croce,” she said in Dan Wakefield’s terrific little book New York in the ’50s. Writing pieces, even nonpolitical pieces, for a magazine widely despised in polite society has a way of inuring a writer to criticism. Croce carried with her a boldness throughout her life as a reviewer.

If Croce had filed something like “Discussing the Undiscussable” with National Review, she might have expected the magazine to back her. By the time that her piece appeared in The New Yorker, however, that formerly great magazine was already on its way to its present state of limousine-liberal pietism. Though the editorial regime is to be applauded for running Croce’s piece in the first place, it did not hesitate to print numerous hostile letters to the editor in a follow-up issue. Many of the missives are nasty; most are entirely predictable. 

“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,” opined feminist writer bell hooks, who ended her letter by noting that the publication of Croce’s piece, with its implicit “right-wing values,” must “provoke progressive resistance.” 

Playwright Tony Kushner was offended by Croce’s implied lumping of his play Angels in America in with “those AIDS epics” and insisted that Jones had got the better of Croce: “Bill T. Jones can make the claim ‘Still/Here.’ Of Ms. Croce’s essay, only this can be said: she ‘Never/Arrived.’” Ha, ha. Meanwhile, a publicist working for Jones wrote to “correct the errors in [Croce’s] fictitious account,” clarifying certain details about Still/Here but inadvertently confirming Croce’s impression that the merits of the dance were not up for debate. Asserting that Still/Here is “a work about living,” the publicist states: “This is not a matter of opinion but a fact that could be witnessed onstage.” “Not a matter of opinion”—the quiet part said out loud!

To its credit, The New Yorker also ran letters sympathetic to Croce’s position, including those by Paglia, Hilton Kramer, and Midge Decter—the last of whom put things even more bluntly than Croce had when it came to the spiritual sickness evident in contemporary art: “Who, for instance, can with a steady mind find aesthetic merit in the performance of a man carving up the flesh of another man onstage and then gesturing with a bloody towel toward the audience? The answer is: in truth, no one.”

Undeniably, Croce was asking for trouble by not seeing Still/Here, but even if she had seen it and expressed her views of it with any degree of candor, would the response have been substantially different? Croce understood that the fix was in: When a work of art involves a community that buys into its own victimhood, the work is no longer subject to opinions. “If an artist paints a picture in his own blood, what does it matter if I think it’s not a very good picture?” Croce asked, sensibly. “If he mixes the blood with Day-Glo colors, who will criticize him? The artist is going to bleed to death, and that’s it.” 

I have never seen Still/Here—I can find no complete version online—but I have seen, probably, more of it than Croce has. (She is still living and will turn 90 this year.) There exists, in the online archive of journalist Bill Moyers, a video of Moyers’ 1997 public television program Bill T. Jones: Still/Here, which chronicles the making of the dance. It features sufficiently lengthy excerpts from it to make it possible for me to say what Croce did not: Still/Here is not only a bad idea for art but it is, quite simply, Bad Art.

The Moyers program spends a great deal of time showing the so-called “survival workshops” that Jones convened across the country while preparing Still/Here. These workshops consisted of ordinary folks with nothing in common except that each had a terminal illness: cancer, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, and other unnamed maladies. “I said, ‘Let’s go out and deal with the people who know, who are frontline,’” the choreographer says confidently at the outset.

During the workshops, the choreographer sought to extract both testimony and interpretative dance from his subjects—a painful process on both counts. The testimony is painful because, of course, it is awful to hear someone speak about their suffering, their woe, their fears; the dancing is painful because it is, generally speaking, about as cringe-inducing as one would expect from ill, stressed-out non-performers being put on the spot (and on camera) by a big-shot New York dance impresario. “People step truthfully, people step weakly, people step bravely,” Jones says of his participants, but, alas, mostly step rather lamely. There is a great deal of arms reaching out, hearts being clutched, and heads being held. Later, Jones foists these unoriginal choreographic concepts on his roster of actual dancers, who perform the final piece based on the workshops.

Somewhat to my surprise, Jones comes across as kindly and charitable in interacting with these sick people, and at some point one starts to wonder who is exploiting whom. Yes, Jones asks intrusive questions—cajoling members of the group to, at one point, imagine the last hours of their lives—but look at it this way: These unfortunate souls found approbation for their illness by being invited to collaborate with an artist interested in them strictly, exclusively, for their suffering. As therapeutic as it may have seemed at the time for the people who participated, this experience does not seem altogether salutary. 

These individuals were encouraged to wallow in their unwellness. Jones was making their diagnoses the centerpiece of their lives, just as he made his homosexuality and his HIV-positive status the centerpiece of his life in an unintentionally hilarious moment when Moyers asked him to dance his life story (which turns out to be more monologue than dance). Whatever ecstasy these individuals felt during the creation of Still/Here—and it is obvious that some of them got quite carried away by it—amounts to a kind of alternate, almost completely narcissistic quasi-theology: if these people had devoted themselves to prayer, devotion, and repentance rather than dancing and soul-baring, they might have gained a deeper understanding of their plight. Unfortunately, there is a certain prideful quality being expressed when one ill man states in the Moyers program: “When I became sick, pain overcame me. I overcame the pain and stand up straight to face the world.” Egged on by Jones’s own self-involvement, the workshop participants speak as though they are the only human beings to have health problems or face death. 

One of the difficulties with works of art focusing on particular patients is that it understates the degree to which we are all, in our common fallen humanity, patients. Even if we are fortunate enough to be in good health in a given moment, the world is a vale of tears. All of us will be felled by something, and God have mercy on our souls when we are. In her piece, Croce sensed the way in which mortality was being untethered from the divine in works like Still/Here: “Only the narcissism of the nineties could put Self in place of Spirit and come up with a church service that sells out the Brooklyn Academy.”

In the end, Arlene Croce’s refusal to see Still/Here was akin to a Republican voter in a blue state declining to vote in the next election. Her opinion would have had no effect on the dance’s reception, so why expend the energy? The three decades since Croce’s invigorating piece have only confirmed her impression that works centered on the victimhood of their subjects are not meant for critics’ eyes. Would any art critic today dare question the artistic merits of, or rationale behind, the countless murals painted of George Floyd during and after the summer of 2020? Some questions answer themselves.