Doug: Slippery Slope (Or Is It Rocky Shore)

For the next week, critic John Rockwell will be joining me in a conversation on ArtsJournal. John started working at the New York Times as a critic in 1972, and is currently the paper’s chief dance critic. He was also the paper’s first pop music critic, wrote extensively about classical music, invented a “job” prowling the capitals of Europe and writing about what he found interesting, and edited the Sunday Arts & Leisure section. For a few years in the 90s away from the Times, he ran the Lincoln Center Festival. In a few weeks he’ll be retiring from the Times. His latest book, Outsider, is a collection of his writings on culture since 1969.
John: A few years ago, the artistic director of a presenting group here in Seattle got pissed off by the reviews the dance groups he was bringing to town were getting. He (brashly) wrote an open letter to the press in which he excoriated the critics for trying to impose their sense of the history of the field onto the experimental pieces he was bringing.
His contention was that the vocabulary his people were working in had changed (the whole does-this-theatre-piece-even-look-like dance thing) and that it was unfair to try to contextualize it with a set of criteria he thought didn’t apply anymore. While I was in sympathy with his judgment about the usefulness of the reviews he was getting, I thought he was off the mark in his analysis of the problem.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that the context and criteria problem is huge right now, and not just for critics. As it gets easier for artists to distribute their work, it becomes easier to attract niche audiences and build a constituency for your art. Consensus about what’s good or not seems more and more difficult to achieve. And even the definition of what constitutes consensus now seems problematic.
It seems to me that insisting on absolute standards is a long discredited notion. Beethoven was a blasphemer for some of the stunts he pulled, yet the standards grew to celebrate him. Robert Wilson is a self-indulgent infuriating poseur to some, yet he finds collaborators among blue-chip artists and audiences among many with sophisticated tastes.
So I guess I’m wondering about this whole notion of quality and by whose definition of same. Your approach to writing about dance, for example, is very different from that of your predecessor at the Times, Anna Kisselgoff. Hers was a more technical focus, and she honed in on specific parts of the performance she thought put it in context; what I mean is that that context always seemed to be drawn from within the artform. You, on the other hand, tend to take a broader view, and often make your points about a performance drawing on some outside context. I know this has been controversial among many in the dance community. I think that all critics find their audience, but I suspect you both appeal to different audiences. Each of those audiences has different expectations. The field of criticism has changed enormously since you started back in the 60s (another period that was challenging notions of quality). Do you think we expect different things from critics today?

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