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Not There: manipulating the myth of victim art.

Jasper Johns once created an image called The Critic Sees. It is a sculpture of a pair of eyeglasses. Behind each of the lenses, where eyes would normally reside, one finds instead two large (and no doubt, loud) mouths. His message is all too obvious: The critic sees with his mouth, not with his eyes. Johns later said that he created the piece after watching a critic spend less than 60 seconds glancing at one of his paintings before proceeding to write about it.

Arlene Croce has gone that critic one better. In her (already) infamous essay "Discussing the Undiscussable," which appeared in the Christmas week issue of the New Yorker, she formulates a daring new critical credo: Don't waste even a minute looking at works you fear you'll dislike. But feel free to write about them anyway.

Croce declares her strategy matter-of-factly, in the very first sentence: "I have not seen Bill T. Jones' Still/Here and have no plans to review it." She then elaborates:

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. A critic has three options: (1) to see and review; (2) to see and not review; (3) not to see. A fourth option - to write about what one has not seen - becomes possible on strange occasions like Still/Here, from which one feels excluded by reason of its express intentions, which are unintelligible as theatre.

(Exactly who "expressed" these intentions is never made clear.) A few paragraphs later Croce says of Jones, who is both black and H.I.V.-positive, "I think of him as literally undiscussable - the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists bat as victims and martyrs." One wonders how literally she intends the word "literally" to be taken. For she then proceeds to discuss Still/Here at great length.

ON WHAT DOES SHE BASE her account? Those unimpeachably reliable sources, media hype and hearsay: "If I understand Still/Here correctly, and I think I do - the publicity has been deafening...." Perhaps a little too deafening - and blinding as well. For the gap between Croce's preconceptions about Still/Here and what actually transpires on the stage is, shall we say, wide with a capital W. It's as if she had distantly overheard a conversation about Rimbaud, mistook it for an exchange about "Rambo" and then proceeded to expostulate at great length about Sylvester Stallone's performance. But that of course is the risk you run when you Aren't/There.

Now I should admit to the readers of American Theatre that I'm operating under a handicap in this debate. I've actually seen Still/Here; so, for better or for worse, I'm more or less confined to the facts. I'm also in the awkward position of not being able to side (at least not comfortably) with any of the parties to this brouhaha. I was thoroughly underwhelmed by Still/Here, but I am even more distressed by the "use" that Croce attempts to make of it.

Still/Here will be on tour for the next year or so; and one can only imagine how audiences will react to the work if they arrive under the influence of Croce's paranoid imaginings. She describes Jones's previous work as "politically provocative, accusatory, violent...a barely domesticated form of street theatre." And of Still/Here, the critic who Didn't/Go has this to say:

Jones presents people (as he has in the past) who are terminally ill....

People are asking whether Jones's type of theatre is not 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....)

By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism.

What Jones represents is something new in victim art - new and raw and deadly in its power over the human conscience.

They [the terminally ill] are the prime exhibits of a director-choreographer who has crossed the line between theatre and reality - who thinks that victimhood in and of itself is sufficient to the creation of an art spectacle.

All of which would lead you to expect...God knows what?...some taboo-violating, threshold-crossing, in-your-face act of naked aggression and emotional terrorism: Perhaps an updated version of the Living Theater, circa 1968, in the "Plague" section of Mysteries and Smaller Pieces palsied twitching bodies running through the aisles of the theatre and having convulsions in your lap. Only here, one assumes the performers are "really" in pain and really dying, perhaps from the tea plague - a nightmare from which ever Antonin Artaud might never awaken.

Dismissing Jones for flaunting "real" (rather than theatrically symbolic) suffering in our face, Croce calls instead for the artistic and spiritual transfiguration of disease that one finds in the greatest 19th-century Romantic art:

One's personal disease and impending death were unmentionable - Keats wrote no Ode to Consumption - but through art the individual spirit could override them both....The morbidity of such Romantic art is bearable because it has a spiritual dimension. The immolation of the body leaves something behind....

By contrast, she writes, "Personal despondency is not so easily sublimated today, nor do we look to sublimate it. Instead, it's disease and death that are now taking over and running the show."

The great irony is that in Still/Here Jones has attempted to do something very much along the lines of the Romantic art Croce celebrates. To begin with, Jones doesn't even dance in this piece (although we hear him asking questions on the soundtrack and briefly see his face on video). But if you didn't already know that he's H.I.V.-positive, you wouldn't discover it from anything that happens on stage. This piece is not about Bill T. Jones. (In fact, it lends no special pride of place to People With AIDS. It deals with a wide range of terminal illnesses.)

And the "actual" suffering - which we witness or hear about only intermittently on video - is soon distilled into artistic form. For example, the words of an "actual" cancer victim become absorbed and transformed into the lyrics of a song sung by Odetta. Descriptions of a real mastectomy are quickly abstracted into highly formalized dance gestures.

For my taste, a little too quickly. The sad fact of the matter is that the evening retains little of the raw documentary impact of the interviews with the unwell. But at the same time, the abstracted version of the interviews aren't very satisfying formally, as dance. And the abstracting process hasn't resulted in especially powerful images that might embody some deeper essence of suffering or survival. Jones has spoken eloquently of his desire to combine the resources of expressionism and formalism in this piece. But in my view, he winds up with a muddle in the middle. The result is Neither/Nor rather than Both/And.

So clearly, if nothing else, Croce has the wrong target, or victim. She's like a prosecutor so eager to see that someone is sent down the river for a particularly egregious crime that she doesn't care whether or not she's nabbed the right suspect. But what of the charge itself, the sins committed daily in the name of victim art?

Is there anything especially new here? Well, yes and no. In one sense, we're talking about one of the oldest crimes in the book, the original sin of bad art: sentimentality, or what Joyce liked to call "unearned emotion." You push the right hot buttons and the emotionally loaded content does all of the work for you. She more or less acknowledges this time-(dis)honored tradition when she notes that victim art is "a politicized version of the blackmail that certain performers resort to, even great performers, like Chaplin, in his more self-pitying moments. Instead of compassion, these performers induce, and even invite, a cozy kind of complicity."

AGAIN, NONE OF THIS COMES AS NEWS. It's been an open secret for many years now that the surest way to win an Oscar is to play a character who is terminally ill, physically or mentally challenged. Does anyone believe that Tom Hanks would have been named best actor for Philadelphia had he not been playing a "victimized" character who dies of AIDS? And when it comes to the way in which victim art has (presumably) upped the ante in the emotion-manipulation sweepstakes, is Croce saying anything that hasn't been said better (and years earlier) by writers like Robert Brustein and Robert Hughes? (Brustein, in his original review of Children of a Lesser God, called it a Disability Play, or Play You're Not Allowed to Hate. And Hughes in his recent book The Culture of Complaint explicitly addresses the subject of victim art in terms both wittier and more cogent than Croce. His comments about Karen Finley are especially devastating.)

But there is also a sense in which Croce is talking about something different from the mere exploitation of sentimental subjects that tug at the heart-strings in a surefire way. She's concerned about the introduction of "real" suffering into the space of fiction and make-believe. This strikes her as going too far, an intolerable confusion of art and life - and in the case of "real" victimhood, the ultimate form of emotional blackmail. But what she fails to acknowledge - perhaps fails to realize - is that the incursion of the "real" into the fictional is one of the great obsessions of 20th-century art in virtually every medium. Whether it's the tradition of collage or the "ready-made" in the visual arts, happenings (in which something presumably "really" happens), the plays of Pirandello, or the performance pieces of Squat Theater or the Wooster Group, the boundaries between art and life are in a constant state of re-negotiation. Jean Paul Sartre many years ago referred to "the crisis of the imaginary," the difficulty that fiction has competing with fact in a century of unprecedented horror (and unprecedented means of documenting those horrors).

But for Croce, an art work that actually acknowledges the "real life" suffering of its creators or its participants has placed itself beyond criticism. In a thoroughly preposterous juxtaposition, she links Bill T. Jones with Robert Mapplethorpe:

Actually I'm not sure who came first: Jones the AIDS victim or Mapplethorpe the AIDS victim, but Jones and Mapplethorpe, parallel self-declared cases of pathology in art, have effectively disarmed criticism. They're not so much above art as beyond it. The need for any further evaluation, formal or otherwise, has been discredited.

To which one can only respond: What, pray tell, is she talking about? Mapplethorpe's photographs have elicited some brilliant criticism as well as some bone-headed commentary. In much the same way, the subject of victimhood has generated some major art works as well as many minor (and shamelessly manipulative) works. In the past few years, I've seen a thoroughly dopey musical about that quintessential artist-as-victim, Frida Kahlo, and a brilliant dance theatre piece about her by Llory Wilson. I've seen literal-minded, self-pitying monologues about breast cancer and a haunting, poetically resonant dance by San Francisco choreographer Della Davidson that dealt with her own lymphoma.

Or is Croce only speaking for and about herself? ("I can't review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about," she whines.) I'm a college professor, and if I couldn't evaluate students who fall into either of those categories, I'd have many fewer papers to grade. Here the best advice comes not from Robert Brustein or Robert Hughes, but from Harry Truman: "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen."

E.M. Forster, toward the end of his career, wrote, "I think one of the reasons why I stopped writing novels is that the social aspect of the world changed so much...and though I can think about the new world I cannot put it into fiction." If this is the sort of admission that Croce is making, then her motives are basically honorable. We all have our comfort zones and our limitations.

But I think there's a fundamental disingenuousness to her argument. She wants us to believe that she's unable to write about certain artists, but her real complaint is that she has no power over certain phenomena - which is a very different thing. "I do not remember a time when the critic seemed more expendable than now," she laments.

"When a victim artist finds his or her public, a perfect, mutually manipulative union is formed which no critic may put asunder," complains Croce. What she says is undoubtedly true. But the same can be said of the union between Andrew Lloyd Weber and his audience or the Joffrey Ballet's execrable but wildly popular Billboards and its throbbing audiences. Since when does a critic throw in the towel because some phenomena seem critic-proof? My own (no doubt naive) view is that any discussion of power in relation to criticism is corrupting. At the risk of uttering some lofty platitudes, I would suggest that criticism at its best is simply about telling the truth, not enforcing what one believes to be the truth. (And as we know from the sorry state of theatre criticism at the New York Times, the more power the critic actually wields, the less likely he or she is to tell the truth.)

CROCE'S CREED HAS ELICITED responses from many superstars of the cultural Left and Right. But like Croce, few had actually seen Still/Here. Art criticism has given way to cultural combat. The most basic of critical imperatives - an obligation to see the work in question and describe it accurately - have become the true "victims" of the culture wars. (The public discussion last year of Ron Athey's work set a new standard for misinformation that both the KGB and the CIA would surely envy.)

It's worth noting that Hilton Kramer, the best known neo-conservative critic of the arts, has declared Croce's article to be "the most important thing the New Yorker has published since the essays by Rebecca West that were later collected in The New Meaning of Treason. It is certainly the most definitive essay on the arts in the 1990s that any American critic has yet written...." (Significantly, the February issue of Kramer's magazine, The New Criterion, contains a review of Still/Here by Laura Jacobs, who had no trouble whatsoever discussing the undiscussable Bill T. Jones. She disliked Still/Here, but in the course of her review, she praised Neil Greenberg's recent Not-About-AIDS-Dance in which the choreographer acknowledges that he's H.I.V.-positive and memorializes the "actual" deaths of many close friends.)

So it would appear that intellectual consistency has become another victim of this battle. But what matters most to Kramer is not the cogency of Croce's analysis, but the power he attributes to her argument, the practical effect he hopes it will have: "Overnight," he writes, "it has altered the terms of the debate, and placed the cultural Left on the defensive...its power to intimidate and coerce will now be much diminished." The real focus of the culture wars is power, not truth. As Aeschylus reminds us, the first casualty in every war is truth.

Roger Copeland, the author of What Is Dance? (Oxford), teaches at Oberlin College and has contributed to the New York Times, the New Republic and other publications.
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Author:Copeland, Roger
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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