foot in mouth: December 2006 Archives
[When it rains, it pours: After a slow month here at Foot in Mouth, my contributors have both sent me posts. So, after reading this one, keep reading!
You know how I've been harping on the need for context in criticism--that without it we confine dance to specialists and fanatics? Well, here--this present from my friend and colleague Paul Parish, of Berkeley, about "The Nutcracker's" place in the holidays.]
I seem to be in a phase of trying to deal with tradition rather than chuck it -- it makes me sound like a conservative..... but there's no harm in that, I don't think...
I've been mulling over the strange triumph of "The Nutcracker" in the United States, and it's made me think about the idea of being home for Christmas. Big deal in "Little Women," big deal still today.
Main thing is, Christmas has been a meeting ground for Jew and Christian; Easter had no common ground (and look how it's faded to nothing -- "ski week"), but Christmas had possibilities, many of them. The cynical will advocate the commercial side, and of course it's true that gifts have to be bought and Jewish interests will prosper by going along. But, on the other hand, Christmas harmonizes with some of the deepest values of Jewish culture, especially the importance of the family circle.
Ever since the Babylonian captivity, the importance of family rituals, domestic traditions, which sacramentalizes (it looks like, from a sympathetic Christian point of view) the cooking and serving of dinner, the cleansing of the utensils, the lighting of the candles -- everything that CAN be thought about has been thought about -- has been a hallmark of a culture where only those within the household could be trusted, and the young had to be protected from even the idea of oppressive outsiders.
Similarly, in the Europe of ETA Hoffman's era, when the old monarchies had been returned to their thrones and the Prussian and Austrian secret police made life dangerous for liberals, home culture suddenly became extremely important -- and artists like Schubert, whose sympathies were as large as Beethoven's but whose circumstances were suddenly much more constricted, began composing for domestic consumption rather than the vast public. "Seid umschlungen, Millionen" might be inscribed on the piano, but the music of people of large sympathies was nevertheless written for small groups within the safe confines of home. And stories grew up like "The Nutcracker" and "A Christmas Carol" about the Familienkreis.
I've had the experience, in the mid-90s, when I taught in Poland at the Silesian Dance Festival, of being invited into homes where the tradition of staying up all night and talking to the only people you could trust was still alive: among people who'd been jailed under the Communists for no more than playing banjo in a bluegrass band. I think the quality of such hospitality makes one understand how Biedermeyer culture worked, and how deeply it resonates with the culture I grew up in in Mississippi, where my father was in favor of civil rights and his closest friends were black, but they weren't welcome in our house because my mother did not feel that way, so Daddy went out a lot and didn't talk about it much, but I grew up feeling there was a lot of iceberg under the surface.... and also how it would harmonize with the Jewish culture of old, where only family and very close friends could be trusted, but how powerfully they were cherished.
"The Nutcracker" is about a very tight family circle, with no obvious source of danger but with nevertheless many intrusions of unaccountable terrors -- clocks "warning," sudden transmogrifications -- most of them orbiting around the dangerous but necessary infusion of energy from outside, as personified by Drosselmeyer, who's only a godfather, not consanguineous. And furthermore he's a man of ideas, a white-wigged quasi-philosophe who smacks of the 18th century, a rationalist who's paradoxically fascinated by the genius within the machine, and in Balanchine's production, which is the only great one, the extended family has room for an artist who can introduce a liberal disturbance without fundamentally disrupting the traditions of the family.
Both Jews and Christians can accept this -- indeed, both can espouse this. The family circle may be the only safe place, but it must not be a prison; indeed, if happy days are to come again, it must be the place where enlightenment is kept alive and fomented, from which it can go forth into the world and realize the Utopia that the liberals had dreamed of in the days of the great revolutions. This is how the middle class comes to power and comes to deserve the burden of decision-making that had formerly belonged to the prince; we must become princely, through enlightenment.
or something like that.......
Wonder what you'll think.
Apollinaire responds: I think this is brilliant and fascinating, Paul, and that I'm lucky to have it. Drosselmeyer as an Enlightenment witch--that's brilliant, him fiddling with the clock, the central figure of Deism, and widening the family circle so it includes principles once reserved for the prince. Now that the middle class is shrinking--here in America, anyway-- we may end up with the old, tribal kind of circle again....eek.
Also: It is too bad your mama didn't let your daddy make a princely thing of your home by welcoming his black friends in, though don't you think the comparison mainly works the other way, with the black families most confined to too tiny a sphere? Or maybe there are spheres within spheres--the liberal whites not nearly as confined as blacks, whatever the blacks' beliefs, though more confined than their reactionary peers, and the liberal 19th century Germans not as confined as their Jewish contemporaries, whatever the Jews' beliefs. That's the real danger, as you said: so much iceberg below the surface.
On another note: When, in the last year of his life, Balanchine discussed "The Nutcracker" with fellow Petersburger Solomon Volkov, he confirmed that the ballet was not incidentally about Christmas, but essentially. And for him, as for people across the millenia you succinctly lay out, it was an inside-outside affair. Christmas was as much about the eerie, mystic silence that surrounds the family circle--Balanchine enjoyed a family only briefly--as the circle itself:
"The Nutcracker" is a ballet about Christmas. We used to have a fantastic Christmas in Petersburg--all dark and somehow strange. It wasn't the way it is now, with everyone shouting, running around panting as if it's a fire instead of Christmas. Back in Petersburg there was a stillness, a waiting: Who's being born? Christ is born! On Christmas night, we had only the family at home: mother, auntie, and the children.
Clare Byrne's November 29 letter to this blog deeply resonates with me, and I look forward to partaking of the sacraments and rituals she and other dance artists will be creating in the coming years. She asserts a number of things that I know in my gut to be true: that dance "plucks our very flesh-and-spirit lifestrings" and that on a cellular--and I believe, spiritual--level, observers dance with the dancers. Herein lies the power of this art to create change--and the potential for lasting change--within an individual and beyond the individual. The ancients knew this, and other cultures retain this wisdom and technology. We are invited by Byrne to remember. This is profound generosity, beckoning us past the pettiness of grading and ranking critics.
What critics write is personal sensibility and subjectivity shot through with, on a good day, silver threads of knowledge and gold threads of insight. Acknowledge those critics whose contributions instruct and delight you. Absolutely. I'm grateful to see the Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz recognized and praised, even as the result of such a weirdly conceived and executed process. But turning this into some kind of horse race feels silly and demeaning. It represents the worst of what New York City has become.
Byrne is proposing a way of being with art and within art that requires us to shed the identities we so fiercely and fearfully cling to in this brittle, competitive culture. How terrifying! How exhilarating! To not have one's customary prescribed and inflexible relationship to the art of dance. Oh, whatever will we do without our status, our plump egos, our self-importance?
Byrne is giving voice to something that has quietly--sometimes, not so quietly--nagged me for the past couple of years, and it helps to explain my dissatisfaction with the role of observer/critic as well as the sharp alienation I feel from the world of criticism as it is practiced in this art, this city, and this culture. I take seriously her challenge to not just consume and pass judgment on what's given but to dream up and agitate for what could be, to serve as an agent of change and a channel for something that wants to be born, a guide for something that is passing away, and a celebrant of every dimension of pleasure in the current moment.
Like Byrne, I do not claim to know where this is all going and what the landscape will look like when we arrive. I can only tell you that whenever I have allowed myself to be in that space of not knowing-without anxiously trying to control it-I have been given a deeper gift of understanding and have moved on to a better place in my life. Dance has been with me for a very long time, as long as writing, and has been a steady agent of personal change. I trust it to take me to the next step...and the next.
Apollinaire responds: Hi, Eva, I'm glad of your critic's response to Clare Byrne's eloquent letter. I do have a question. Can you elaborate on your "dissatisfaction with the role of observer/critic as well as the sharp alienation I feel from the world of criticism as it is practiced in this art [and] this city"? I probably know what you mean, but want to make sure.
Also, I very much like this notion of a critic: "to serve as an agent of change and a channel for something that wants to be born, a guide for something that is passing away, and a celebrant of every dimension of pleasure in the current moment." I like the way you see the critic navigating past, present, and future.
Critic as "agent of change" is tricky, though, isn't it? We don't want to prescribe the art to come because then we've abandoned "the space of not knowing," as you say. So, hmm.... How do you avoid that pitfall?
Eva responds:Hello, Apollinaire! I think we're primarily talking about the juggling act between not taking yourself all that seriously as The Authority (based on what I think are cultural and experiential limitations) and allowing yourself to be affected, actually experiencing something, actually feeling something, actually feeling yourself moved and changed by powerful art and taking a significant part in opening the door and opening people's senses to new art.
What I took away from Clare Byrne's statement was an encouragement to critics to be more like midwives, and that might sound weird and even contradictory but I'm listening to it with another set of ears that operate in a different field, my metaphysical work, and I understand it from that perspective. Does that mean I'm beginning to feel myself slipping out of the role of critic as it is usually defined? Perhaps.
Remember, too, that Clare predicted that we'd be shedding the names of our roles--even "artist" and "critic" might be released--as something as yet unnamed emerges. What I meant about the "not knowing" is that I suspect I don't have a clue where I will be on the spectrum tomorrow, and I'm not worried about the not knowing.
The idea of standing over something and passing judgment on it from that erudite, supposed superior distance has never resonated with me. I feel that I already do what I do by immersing myself in a work and engaging with it in the best and most honest way I can, given my own cultural-experiential limitations and my willingness to try to see and imagine past those limitations. The result of that is very much like what I do in my metaphysical work: When I find something extraordinary or even simply useful, I immediately want to give it away. I want you to have it. I don't want to keep it to myself. As critics, there are a lot of things that we are expected to do, but this is the one thing that most fits who I am as a person.
What is dance criticism, as it is practiced today in New York, doing to remedy the absence of the art of dance from the awareness of most Americans, or the limited awareness of a limited aspect of it? How is criticism remedying the fact that black dance companies draw primarily black audiences, that white dance troupes draw primarily white audiences, and that, at least when it comes to dance, Americans seem unaware of how much we have learned from one another in the past and how much we have yet to learn and share? Criticism is largely helping people-in-the-know to keep the treasure to themselves, and I can't figure out how that will benefit dance, its creators and practitioners, those who profess to love it, and certainly those who could come to love it and learn from it.
It is ironic that the art that employs the body--the one thing we all have in common--has become marginalized and insular when it should be, as in early traditions, central to our understanding, celebration, healing and advancement of ourselves as humans. I am open to an art that is useful to us in our condition, and I am open to a way to be useful to that art.
Finally I understand why we call it a blogosphere. Because it goes around and around. When, a few days ago, I searched the Internet for other responses to the Time Out critics survey, what did I find but a bunch of posts that linked back to me. I could have cut my search time in half by just googling myself.
That said, my Artsjournal neighbor Douglas McLennan has been raising all sorts of interesting issues for criticism over at his new blog, Diacritical.
In this bit, directed to the guest blogger, John Rockwell, the Times' about-to-retire chief dance critic, Doug addresses the "huge context and criteria problem" for criticism today:
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.
For the full entry, click here. Then read the other entries.
The arts consultant who goes by the alias "August Savage" wanted to know whether others have complained about the Time Out New York issue Judgement Day, in which artists, arts publicists, and artistic directors rated New York arts critics.
So I went a-googling.
August will be happy to learn that though people may not agree over whether there's any point to the exercise in the first place, they are unanimous in their skepticism over the results.
Among these people are fellow AJ bloggers Terry Teachout (scroll down to Tuesday Dec. 7 entry, "Turnabout") and Lee Rosenbaum, a.k.a. Culturegrrl, and dance critics Rachel Howard and Leigh Witchel. Witchel's DIY guide to critiquing critics is worth checking out.
Theatre blogger Playgoer's readers raise more objections to the judging criteria--and do a little experiment, where they eliminate "Influence" from the five criteria and see where that lands critics in the numbers game. [Update: One of the readers, Isaac Butler, has his own interesting post. In case you want to go there directly, here it is.]
Wicked Stage blogger Rob Kendt finds all this tableturning a dubious and guilty pleasure. But should we believe him when he also finds my name "preposterous"? Could people kindly lay off my name? It's not, in case you were wondering, a nomme de plume. It was my parents' idea--and one of their better ones. (But I should be charitable. If I'd been damned with a name as dull as mud--I mean, as Rob-- I'd probably be going around insulting people right and left too!)
Pop (music?) critic Jason Gross is uncomfortable with the whole premise that critics are out to nail artists and are now getting their comeuppance. He points out that many critics "care deeply about the artists."
Alright. That's the only substantive commentary I found. (There were complaints about the results for the food critics, too, but this being an Artsjournal blog, I think I'll leave those be.)
If anyone finds additional critics of the critics of the critics, please send the links my way. And, of course, I'm always happy to receive homegrown comments.
I read your blog on the recent TONY article rating critics. I want to say congratulations on writing about the survey and am surprised others have not done so. What a sham of a poll!
Though I agree with some of the comments on the critics who made the list, there seems a clear agenda, with results skewed towards TONY readership. For example, the person designated top food critic writes the Times' $25 and under column.
Also, it seems to me that those who participated in the survey have something to gain by a negative response. A critic doesn't pocket any extra dough for a positive or negative review (well, at least I hope not), but a survey participant--not only artists but curators, gallerists, producers, restaurant owners, directors--has something to gain by dumping on a critic.
I felt particularly frustrated with the results in dance: Gia Kourlas gets top honors in her own publication? That just discredits her efforts and takes all the dance critics down with her.
I realize that whether they're on the list or not, most cultural observers aren't going to write negatively about the survey's high potential for misinterpretation, misrepresentation, misuse, etc. Why? Could it be that critics are that starved for praise, and fear reprisal from their employers and peers? Yes!
The editors of TONY could have made the survey more real by not including their own and by offering specifics on the participants (any demographic explanations would have been helpful).
As it is, the survey's purpose seems to be to supply a cheesy opportunity for the TONY advertising club to vent their frustration with NYC cultural critics. It really doesn't matter that the top spot went to a Village Voice critic -- TONY's got the market cornered for advertising culture-dollars anyway. With these results, it means artists, presenters of art, art patrons are only interested in reviews that are popular and positive.
Don't we want to thank the critics for negative opinions that save us all a lot of wasted effort, time and money? That critical negativity can often add up to something positive, even transforming.
I don't know if saying congrats on making this survey is something anyone included is going to want to hear, but congratulations to you. Still, there should be an independent body to bestow recognition (e.g., awards) on cultural critics.
If you happen on any more feedback on the survey, please let me know.
Okay, this has been a little more than two cents' worth, but I think what TONY did, including a grading system that can only stunt intellectual discourse, is deplorable.
Anyway, thanks for stepping up to the plate and taking a swing at this shit.
Apollinaire responds: Thank you for your considered and impassioned response, August. As soon as I'm off deadline (some time tomorrow), I'll dig up other blog responses to the Time Out survey and offer links.
Time Out New York's current issue is devoted to critiquing the critics. Artists, curators, and publicists weigh in on reviewers in all fields: books, theater, dance, art, etc.
I think the idea is GREAT, its execution less so.
First, though, this full disclosure: they included ME! [Insert jig around the apartment here.] And no one said anything mean about me! So, seriously, how much can I object?
Well, a little, maybe.
Here are a few things that make the project less useful than it might have been --or could be in the future. (I hope there's another edition.)
Judging panelists too much of a mixed bag
A publicist is not the same as an artist. The job of a publicist is to get her clients the best coverage--the widest and the most positive. Her opinions of critics are necessarily skewed. Artists (dancers, choreographers) can also be self-serving, but they're not required to be. With publicists included among the curators and artists, the Time Out project is trying to do too many divergent things at once. If you want to know how "nice" we are, that's one thing; how well we write, what we know, another.
Not clear how critics made the list
Why am I on there but not the New York Observer's Robert Gottlieb, who wields a lot more influence, at least among critics? And shouldn't it matter how often you publish? In which case, why the Wall Street Journal's Robert Greskovic, with three pieces in as many months, and not Bloomberg.com's Tobi Tobias, with one or two articles a week, or--if only print publications count--Joel Lobenthal or Joy Goodwin of the New York Sun, or Robert Johnson of New Jersey's Star-Ledger?
Panelists too small a pool
There are only about a dozen panelists for dance. (I say "about" because some of the artists and publicists may be answering to dance, theater, or both: the list doesn't specify.) There's little representation among the judges of big companies and ballet. A downtown bias may be nice for a change, but it doesn't accurately reflect the field.
Categories are dubious; "average," silly
Each critic was graded (yep, assigned a number) according to these five criteria: knowledge; style; taste; accessibility; influence. The scores were then combined and averaged to figure out each of our places on the list. (I'm not on the bottom! YAY!)
First, to knock off the obvious: What's this "accessibility"? How promptly you answer your email? Whether you have nice phone manners? Please. Too close to personality contest for comfort.
Second, "influence" certainly matters. What you say at The New Yorker or the Times counts for a good deal more than what I say at Newsday. (Have I told you how many well-meaning people can't remember which paper I write for, try as they might? "Is it the Daily News?" they ask timidly. "Newsweek? O Apollinaire, just tell me.")
But influence and the quality of the writing (here, "taste," "style," and "knowledge") aren't simply different categories, but dynamically and unpredictably yoked. For example, a writer for a prestigious publication may actually have more influence--more effect on the health of the art--when he's a moron: Dance sounds so petty that people who don't know any better decide to stay away. A different calculation than averaging is necessary here.
If that's all there is...
What counts in criticism according to Time Out is "taste," "style," and "knowledge."
I don't have a problem with "style"--it basically means people enjoy reading you. But "knowledge" without "insight"? There are plenty of critics who see everything and know their history, but have absolutely no insight into their experience, which is where art lies.
"Taste" is worst of all. "Taste" is about values and aesthetic sensitivities: if you have "taste" (as if there were only one), you have made the grade, can join the club, whichever club you're after. If I thought that that's what art was about, I'd quit right now. The point of art is not to reinforce values we already have, but to create new ones, make you experience something you haven't yet, so you return not quite the same person. To say that a critic's got "good taste" is just saying, "She's like me!" How small it makes the venture of art.
Still, I'm really glad Time Out is taking on this topic. [Insert a few twirls around the apartment here.] And next year, they'll probably do better.
... to tell you about a program: choreographer Mark Morris interviewed about his "Mozart Dances," which premiered this August at the Mostly Mozart Festival, on the BBC program Close-Up.
They interviewed me and the wonderful dance critic Nancy Dalva (me, her, me--about 5 minutes into the 30-minute radio piece, for a couple of minutes; it was interesting, and nervewracking, to be in the interviewee's chair for once). But the real treat is Morris himself.
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Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
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Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
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Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
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