Talking About Dance Criticism and the Changing World

At 9:30AM on a beautiful Sunday morning, June 24, 2012 to be exact, I headed over to the Alvin Ailey Center for a panel about “Snark & Praise” organized by Philip Sandstrom at the Dance Critics Association Conference. The other folks on the panel included Jennifer Edwards of the Edwards & Skybetter Change Agency LLC, Anna Drozdowski of, Robert Johnson, long time dance critic for the NJ Star-Ledger and fellow C-bot team member Maura Donohue.

It was an interesting conversation which I’m not going to re-cap here, for many reasons. The entire discussion was videotaped by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, with said documentation going directly into the archive, and no plan (that I know of) to make it available online. Which in many ways embodies why the panel, by its very nature and through no fault of the organizer or participants, was so frustrating.

Basically Philip put out the question, “Is there a role for snark in dance criticism and how do we handle doling out praise?” An interesting question about tone in writing about work. Personally, I don’t use snark so much in my writing. I’m just not generally a snarky person. Sometimes it manifests, but mostly I prefer to take my time and write a withering, well-considered and thoughtful take-down. I don’t have a word limit, I don’t have deadlines, I don’t have an editor pushing me to be more negative, controversial and boost my page views (see: the managed exit of Deborah Jowitt from The Village Voice), so I have the luxury of really reflecting on why I disliked something and putting it out there when I’ve really digested it and tweaked my writing. That being said, I have nothing against snark per se, certainly I have been delighted to read a reviewer’s bitchy takedown of an artist I think deserves it (as rare as that may be). But snark does not play a big part in my own writing practice.

And thus the panel, almost inevitably, began to open up the much wider question of what is a critic, how do we see our role and how do we express our opinions on (or responses to) the work we see? Who is our audience and what does that mean in terms of how we write? It was frustrating from my perspective because it feels as if those writers who have had the experience of having a steady job reviewing for the arts in a major newspaper find all the web-based writers threatening and hostile. I really don’t think most “bloggers” – which is a bit of a misnomer these days – think of themselves as actively opposing newspapers and “Big Journalism”. Although some web-based arts reviewers may see themselves and their work in correlation with Big Journalism, many more think of what we do as something distinctly different.

The panel opened, coincidentally, with Anna, Maura, Jennifer and myself all clearly stating that we did not see ourselves as “critics” in the traditional sense, that we shied away from “reviews” and focused more on interviews, points of view, profiles, thought pieces, etc. Here at Culturebot when we first started it was a conscious choice NOT to replicate the “review” model of MSM, but rather to only do interviews, previews and points of view. Over time artists (especially emerging artists) began to ask for reviews to get them started and fill out their press kits and we complied, but “reviewing” was never our main intention.

The panel kind of went downhill from there and we left a lot unsaid, so I want to articulate my position on the changing role of criticism and the way the medium shapes the message.

Let’s start with the newspaper as a platform. I’m not a historian (and please, historians, chime in!), but from what I understand the first big heyday of the newspaper was 18th & 19th century London. With the rise of the merchant class (bourgeoisie) came a rise in literacy and a widening group of consumers with disposable income. The newspaper, easy to produce and distribute, was the perfect medium to get information out to many people quickly and efficiently. I imagine that as more people took in entertainments of all kinds from books and broadsheets to theater, dance, music and other spectacles, there rose a parallel need for reviews to guide these consumers in their choices. In England – and everywhere else in the Western World – The Industrial Revolution brought more and more people into the cities who may have been literate but not educated, merchants were wealthy but not “refined” – there was a perceived need for an arbiter of quality and value. I’m certain that someone has traced the entire history from Gutenberg to yesterday, and I’ll leave that be, but the entire system is predicated on commerce and persists to this day.

So the conditions of the origins of print journalism define the nature of the writing it contains. Perhaps, for a few brief moments in the mid-20th Century at the New York Times and a few other places, “criticism” existed in newspapers. But mostly I would suggest – particularly since the 1980’s – arts writing in general interest newspapers is “reviewing”. To me, criticism as a practice rests on the assumption that the critic has a specific outlook, philosophy or framework that they apply to a work of art and, using historical, aesthetic, philosophical and formal precedents, analyze and (hopefully) amplify and illuminate the work in question. A value judgement can be made (good/bad) but is not required. “Reviewing” on the other hand, is the practice of assessing quality from a consumer-oriented perspective, serving as a kind of Consumer Protection Bureau for ticket-buyers. While some reviewers may be more informed than others, some better writers than others or more thoughtful, articulate and dedicated to the art itself, ultimately they are tasked with telling potential audience members whether a show is worth paying for. Their target audience is a general audience, your average newspaper reader of undetermined education and expertise. This is an incredibly important function but it is not criticism, which is targeted towards a knowledgeable audience, nor is it what is currently happening on the internet.

I can’t really speak for anybody else, but from what I heard from my colleagues on the panel and around town, I think I speak for a considerable cohort of contemporary arts writers. The conditions that informed the creation of Culturebot are considerably different than the conditions for the birth of print media. First and foremost, Culturebot originated from within an arts organization. From the outset we rejected the false premise of opposition and separation that undergirds traditional arts journalism. This is a false premise, because many writers from Big Journalism have close relationships with artists. They are constantly negotiating a very difficult line, but certainly there are controversial artists (or artists of dubious merit) who benefit from close friendships with reviewers.

Culturebot was, by definition, embedded. Our role was not to criticize from the outside, but to explicate an often opaque process, history & framework. We took as our mission a collegial relationship with artists, administrators and makers of all kinds, an obligation to make visible the workings of a hermetic world. We are not fundamentally in the business of advising consumers, we are in the business of engaging community and building informed audiences, empowering (“emancipating” [PDF, 4.5MB], even) citizens to engage with performance work from a place of knowledge and autonomy, not consumerist passivity. We believe this approach is concomitant with the artist’s process and desired outcomes. (Not to belabor the point, but you can read about these ideas in depth here.)

It just seems strange and counter-productive for newspaper arts journalists to feel under attack. Yes, some web-based arts writers aspire to your job and all of us would love to have such a wide platform for what we write, but most of us see what we do as very, very different. We are not reviewers and we’re not, particularly, “critics” in the traditional sense. We can be critical, it is not all lovey-dovey, nicey-nicey, but we are writing from within a community of art-makers, one where a writer might also be a curator or a maker or an administrator and where those roles can be changeable over time.

This situation, in the case of the dance world, leads to a discussion of the very different aesthetic propositions of contemporary dance vs. ballet, modern, jazz, etc. etc. I’m on the BESSIES Committee and we have spent a LOT of time discussing this, at least on my subcommittee.. The new BESSIES strives to be inclusive of all dance forms, suggesting an equivalency between classical, modern, contemporary and culturally-specific genres of the form. In some ways this is laudable, in others this is deeply problematic. And this manifests most clearly when it comes to writing about dance.

For instance, The Koch Brothers are huge supporters of ballet. Regardless of your feelings about the Koch Brother’s politics, this is a helpful demonstration of the economic differences between ballet and contemporary dance. Ballet is a well-funded (relatively speaking), classical form. Its modes of construction, production and distribution are not considerably different than Broadway, Opera or other large scale forms. It is not, usually, a collaborative proposition and Ballet dancers are not, usually, generative artists during the development process. There are very clear guidelines about what is “good” vs. what is “bad”. Whether you agree with these values or not, dancers are supposed to look a certain way (according to people more knowledgeable than myself), with certain lines, height, stature, bearing, etc. (apparently Wendy Whelan is misshapen and therefore fair game for criticism). Modern, jazz, tap, etc. – these are forms with very clear guidelines and, generally, hew closer to the “entertainment” model of performing arts than contemporary work. And it is as more inherently presentational form. Ballet is rarely, if ever, presented in any other format than on a proscenium, with distance from the audience. Contemporary work exists frequently in intimate venues and in 360 degrees. This difference is important.

So while the experience of attending these forms is somewhat similar (buy a ticket, take a seat, it lasts for a set amount of time, etc.) the aesthetic propositions are different and what is expect of an “audience” member are different. Same with “theater” – if you buy a ticket to Book Of Mormon, the outward experience is the same as attending a show at PS122 (buy a ticket, take a seat, it starts, it ends, go home) but the demand on the audience is different. Broadway, ballet, etc. – they just ask you to come and enjoy. Watch the show, listen to the music go home and you’re good. And this is a fine proposition. But it is different than going to PS122 or Danspace Project or The Kitchen. When one attends contemporary dance or performance it may be conventionally “entertaining” but the proposition is actually closer to what is, theoretically, attributable to visual art (see Gadamer). The time-based, body-based performance event asks the audience to do more than passively watch, but to engage, to pay attention, to reflect, to think. The performance event is a proscribed durational experience located at a specific nexus of space, time and embodiment, a philosophical/aesthetic field of inquiry. Or, maybe, in other words, just plain “weird” – in the sense of “unnatural” or subverting our expectations of common experience. So when we write about this form of expression it would be misguided to bring the frameworks of ballet to the table except as a point of reference when appropriate. The questions that the choreographer and dancers are proposing are fundamentally different and rooted in different conditions of origin.

As the dance world (finally!) starts to deeply question its existing models and frameworks, the way we write about dance and the role of writing in relation to dance is going to change. Big Traditional Dance is, for most communities, unsustainable. I imagine that Big Culture like symphonies, ballets, opera, etc. will be concentrated in 10 or so major markets that have sufficient civic and philanthropic infrastructures to support them. Secondary and tertiary markets will have access to Big Culture through HD broadcasts like what the Met in NYC and National Theatre in London do, and people will incorporate Big Culture into the tourist agenda. Reports suggest that the Met’s HD broadcast program is already profitable and the ticket revenues they’ve lost from audiences who might have before traveled from Vermont or New Hampshire have been more than offset by local ticket sales.

As Big Culture fades in those markets resources will be reallocated to create more scalable arts infrastructure (which I think we’re already seeing with the NEA’s ArtPlace initiative) on local levels. We’ll see more small and mid-sized arts organizations supporting artists in different ways, we’ll see more residencies and exchanges between arts groups from different cities and regions, we’ll see the rise of a production system  where artists from the Big Five cities will come to smaller cities to build work and support local artists, with the idea of touring and building a national collaborative network of cultural communities. We’ll see more networked projects using the internet and telepresence. And we will see the rise of a new type of arts writing that reflects this new landscape. If that means Big Arts Journalism becomes less and less sustainable, so be it.  Probably there will be a few coveted spots at a few major media outlets, the rest will be scaled to match the reality of the arts on the ground in communities. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because what we’re ultimately talking about is transforming audiences from passive watchers to active engagers, transforming the role of the artist and transforming cultural centers into spaces for meaningful public engagement in civic life. Which is pretty darn good.

2 thoughts on “Talking About Dance Criticism and the Changing World”

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