A Choreography of Ideas

“Choreography for Blackboards” at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn. ( Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times)

“Why do we call Dante Alighieri by his first name? Because Dante is our friend.” – Attribution Unknown

The critic or artist who wants to be trusted must be willing to be vulnerable and flawed; she must be willing to be wrong. She must be willing to risk. And it is no less terrifying for the critic to reveal herself than the dancer, choreographer, actor, artist, or musician.

To begin, situate yourself in time, space and cultural context, reveal yourself — if elliptically — to the reader. This is important. If they don’t know the storyteller they won’t care about the story. If they can’t trust you, they can’t trust what you say. Reveal your bias, articulate your position mapped across multiple axes. Be friendly.

“Hello and welcome. I am nearing 50 years old. I am male, considered white, raised Jewish. I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore. I moved to Evanston, IL for college. I moved to Seattle, WA. I was once on a benefit album with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. I used to drink too much and do drugs. I suffer from depression and anxiety. I moved to New York City and I have the dubious distinction of being the first person on the planet to blog 9/11. I once ran for mayor of NYC. I started an arts website in 2003 that is still publishing. I worked at places like Performance Space 122 and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. I organized a grassroots research project into the economics of cultural production in the performing arts. I got an awesome arts writers grant for a really interesting project, but I kind of fucked it up. I got married which surprised some people, given my history, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I moved to San Diego and learned a lot about America. Now I live in Los Angeles and until recently I felt that I was vanishing, evaporating, disintegrating, unmoored — a stranger adrift in a strange land with nowhere to fasten a tether. Things have recently gotten better. The only absolute truth of which I remain convinced is the immovable fact of endless complexity. I believe in spooky action at a distance. I have been in proximity of performance for most of my life. Fifteen years ago, I would not have had those words available to me. Every day is as subsumed by terror as it is by hope, but I’m working on that. I think it is getting better.”

Now you know me. Enough for now, anyway.

* * *

“The antithesis between [artistic creation and art criticism] is entirely arbitrary. Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all, worthy of the name.” – Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist”

Not too long ago I was in conversation with a thoughtful, intelligent and accomplished interdisciplinary performance maker. They were telling me about a new project they were involved with — an online journal of artists writing about the work of other artists. I said that I would be happy to lead a workshop on criticism as creative practice and they recoiled in horror. “No!! No, we’re not writing criticism!! We don’t want to be critics!” they said. “We just want to see performance work and write our responses to it, offer some context and background, maybe start a conversation.”

“That, my friend, is called criticism,” I replied.

I have had this conversation dozens of times over the years and each time I’m taken aback by this cognitive disconnect. What is it that makes the artfulness of critical writing illegible to so many? Why do so many self-identified artists imagine that the creative practice of critical writing is so far removed from their own?

The cliché “everyone’s a critic” is a truism. There is criticism — judgment — implicit in every decision we make. When we express a preference for broccoli over Brussels sprouts, for Truffaut over Tarantino, poetry over prose, the Mets over the Yankees, hip-hop over Country & Western, Prince over Celine Dion, In-n-Out Burger over McDonald’s, Shakespeare over Neil Simon, plaid over pastels, V-necks over crewnecks, boxers vs. briefs, the list goes on. All of these choices, or predilections, consciously or not, reflect an act of critical discernment.

And so, artists are critics, if not explicitly then implicitly in the aesthetic and career choices they make. Why do some artists laud BAM and mock Broadway? Why does an artist venerate Miles Davis and dismiss Ramsey Lewis? Revere Merce Cunningham but revile Paul Taylor? Praise Webern but sneer at Beethoven? Celebrate John Ashbery but turn up their nose at Billy Collins? Why do so many white, male artists in all disciplines regularly neglect and dismiss the work of women artists, black artists, rural artists, community-based artists or self-trained artists? Often it is those artists who most loudly revile critics who are themselves the most vicious critics of other artists. Ask any arts administrator who has served on a grant panel with artists and they will attest to the fact that no critic, administrator or grant maker is more harshly judgmental of an artist than another artist.

At the same time, some artists — like critics, administrators and grant makers — champion other artists, mentor them, promote them, nurture and support them. Supporting or dismissing the work of an artist are both acts of either negative or affirmative criticism, advocacy or animosity that reflect what we call taste. These demonstrations of taste — I like this, I don’t like that — are part of the process of self-definition. Young artists are almost always the most passionate and vituperative critics because it is easier to define yourself by what you are against than what you are for. Over time you become who you are, despite yourself, until you no longer have to define yourself by what you’re not, because you are something wholly unto itself.

Few people start out their creative lives thinking they will become a critic. When I was young, growing up in a sterile and stereotypical suburb, all I wanted to do was escape; the most readily available escape was reading. Later it was music, theater, sex and drugs that drew me out into the world in search of “real” experience. And the way I made sense of those experiences was to write about them.

I aspired to be an artist, an actor, musician or at least a so-called creative writer. But it was this critical writing, this persistent, endless wrestling with the meaning of things, where I returned, every time. I was — and am — driven by a desperate hunger to examine, deconstruct and reconstruct the world in search of meaning. So, I am compelled to seek out artists making work that relieves my suffering and isolation, brings me joy, helps me feel whole and interconnected with the vast unknowable oneness. When I find those artists and that work, I want to share it with everyone. When I find myself disappointed, I want to understand why. This writing, this choreography of ideas, relieves my suffering, if only during the process of creation.

In his book of essays 39 Microlectures in Proximity of Performance, artist and critic Matthew Goulish writes, “Most critics would not contest the idea that criticism exists to cause a change. But to cause a change in what?” He continues:

“Criticism only consistently changes the critic […] If we accept this severe limitation — that in fact the first function of criticism is to cause a change in the critic — then we may begin to act accordingly […] If we look for problems, we will find them everywhere. Out of concern for ourselves and our psychic well-being, let us look instead for the aspects of wonder […] If we deepen our understanding might we increase our chances of locating these moments? How do we deepen our understanding? […] We may think of critical thought itself as a process through which we deepen our understanding.”

The first time I can recall my world being truly upended by a work of art was Kristen Kosmas’ debut solo show blah blah fuckin blah at Room 608 in Seattle in 1991 or 1992. I remember watching her and, more importantly, listening to her perform and literally feeling the world around me pivot. I had never heard anyone with such a distinct, unique, incisive, poetic voice that was also deeply embodied.

I didn’t have that language at the time, but I felt that Kristen had somehow tapped into some fathomless well of eternal truth and channeled that energy into the room. Her language was somehow simultaneously pedestrian and poetic, functional and lyrical, of this world and not of this world, mythic and prosaic. One woman, a chair and her words were all it took to upend my life. I walked out of the theater feeling as if the entire world had changed since I entered, as if I had changed, as if all my previous assumptions about myself, the world and my place in it were now in question. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever recovered; that performance transformed my understanding of what theater could be and what it could do. It changed my life.

The number of works that have somehow altered my reality and transformed my sense of being in the world is surprisingly high, maybe because I have spent so much time seeking it out. Els Comediants’ Dimonis at the Edinburgh Festival in 1989, also that summer David Glass and Peta Lily’s two-hander riff on Moby Dick, Whale. Nirvana, Mudhoney and Bikini Kill at the Paramount in Seattle on Halloween in 1991. Radiohole’s Fluke (another Moby Dick riff), Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, Trisha Brown’s watermotor, Verdensteatret’s Concert for Greenland, the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Company at the Park Avenue Armory, the Unrelated Solos program by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Steve Paxton, and David Neumann, 600 Highwaymen’s This Great Country. The list goes on.

Even longer is the list of works that have left me depleted and frustrated, disappointed and wondering what exactly went wrong.

* * *

“It is not the yes or no of a judgment that is valuable to other people, though one’s original yes or no about a certain kind of music may have determined a whole lifetime’s activity. What other people get profit from following is that activity itself, the spectacle of a mind at work.” – Virgil Thomson, “The Art of Judging Music”

Gesture. Phrase. Sequence. Movement Vocabulary. These are some of the words we use to describe the building blocks of dance; these are some of the tools of choreography. Choreography might be the problem of bodies situated in space over time, arguing the possibilities of movement and not moving, silence or sound, symmetry and asynchrony, the comfortable illusion of beginning, middle and end or the unsettling reality of time moving in all directions at once, no will, no control, no certainty — and still, always, the possibility of transcendent, revelatory beauty.

These are some other terms of dance: accumulation, alignment, beat, clarity of line, corporeality, counterpoint, dynamics, effort, economy, flow, form, inversion, levels, lyrical, minimization, mirroring, motif, musicality, opposition, percussive, retrograde, rhythm, shape, space, stance, style, sustained, technique, tempo, time, unison, variation, weight.

Within the vocabulary of choreography — gesture, phrase, sequence — resides the vocabulary of writing: word, sentence, paragraph. They exist within and beside each other; they are semantic siblings, hybrid lexicons, more alike than different. Both art forms depend on these tools to imagine, create and perform mediated encounters. The artist decides what is to be revealed when, in what order and to what extent, what is disclosed and what is hidden — in this way the artist is sculpting in time.

A choreographer’s medium is bodies in space over time, a writer’s medium is words in space over time. And if dance is the spectacle (or anti-spectacle, as the case may be) of bodies in motion (or not) over time, then criticism is, as Thomson says, “… the spectacle of a mind at work.” The writer sets out much like the choreographer with not much more than an idea, a set of questions and problems and a certain number of available tools.

The choreography of ideas is as embodied a practice as dance, or music, or performance, for it is the body through which we experience the world, and it is the body that performs the act of writing. The mind may be the site where meaning is made, but it is our eyes that see, our ears that hear, our nose that smells, skin that feels, eyes that cry, lungs that gasp, lips that kiss, bodies that touch, and hearts that thrill or break in the presence of another.

Gesture, phrase, sequence, word, sentence, paragraph — these are the tools shared by all choreographers whether they are working with bodies or words, in three dimensions or two, in public, private or somewhere in between. These are some of the tools used to capture the imagination, hold attention, withhold and reveal observations and insights in unpredictable sequences to catch us by surprise, to make the familiar unfamiliar and renew our wonder at being in the world.

* * *

“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make an object “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. In art, it is our experience of the process of construction that counts, not the finished product.” – Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”

Everything begins with the encounter.

The opening credits roll, the overture plays, our romantic hero and heroine meet each other and take an instant dislike. He is too callow, she too needy. He is too poor, she is too rich: a list of paired opposites … and yet. They are presented with an obstacle, a reluctantly and ambivalently shared quest whose successful completion requires our hero and heroine to collaborate, cooperate, accomplish and overcome. They succeed, wildly and beyond their expectations. By the end of the film — to their surprise and no one else’s — they have fallen into each other’s arms having found true love. Every cliché holds a kernel of truth. We are only human, we can only go as fast as we can go, learn as fast as we can learn, live and love as fast as we can love — our bodies move through space over time, natural time, as it unfolds and as we experience it. First impressions are often wrong, that from which we initially recoil can become the thing we love most, that which is pleasing upon first encounter becomes cloying, familiar, pat, mundane. It is mystery that endures; can we always be in the act of disclosing? Can we remain in wonder, open to discovering and being discovered?

Or perhaps we are dating online. We encounter a picture, a few seemingly salient facts written to entice, to sell, coax and provoke interest. These images, phrases and glimpses are shared, one imagines and hopes, as an offering — here is the best version of me, here are the many things you may love, here is my capacity to love, to fulfill, to complete, to share in laughter and tears. Or perhaps just to entertain, no strings attached, just a casual hook-up, friends with benefits at best. In any case, we have a limited amount of information and we fill in the rest, we imagine the best possible scenario, the best possible outcome and make a plan to meet in person, we invest time, energy and resources, we bring our best version of ourselves and sit down across from this person hoping they are the one, eager to give the benefit of the doubt. No one goes on a date hoping the other person is a disaster.

And, so it is with the work of art and its witness.

We enter optimistically, open, receptive. We endeavor to be self-aware, we breathe deeply and quiet the mind, we allow that which is before us to reveal itself in its own time, we engage in conversation. By necessity we start at the surface and, hopefully, move deeper and into complexity over time. We imagine this encounter as a locus of a series of mapped coordinates along the myriad axes of the space-time continuum, discovering real connections, imagining others yet to be, we intuit shared tendrils of experience spiraling out into the universe and back to ourselves, enveloping us in a state of grace and possibility, a moment where we see each other as we truly are and it is glorious.

And then we return to the quotidian present, ask ourselves what happened and assess the experience.

We imagine that we engage with performance in order to create a change in ourselves, or the artist imagines that she creates a work of art to change the audience, or perhaps the world; but the art cannot exist without the observer.

The Observer Effect tells us that the presence of an observer and the act of observation changes that which is being observed. The observer is changed by the act of observation. This is a matter of relationship and position, not métier, it holds true whenever there is an observer and an observed. The critic continues the conversation proposed by the work of art not so much with a judgment but a wrestling with their own response, a mapping of that relationship onto and within the sum total of her experience.

* * *

“Everyone is an artist.” – Joseph Beuys

Everyone is a critic in much the same way everyone is an artist, and just as there are very few good artists, very few people are good critics.

Maybe it is because so many everyday people write so many things every day — emails, texts, sales reports, purchase orders, employee reviews, greeting cards, Facebook posts — they often confuse the act of writing with the art of writing: text as utility rather than expressive matter.

But writing does, in fact, require labor, specialized tools and a great deal of practice to learn how to use them artfully. Critical writing is a generative art, born of examination and revelation, introspection and doubt; it is a performance, an intimate encounter demanding vulnerability and bravery, a choreography of ideas.

Few people are willing to do the work of the critic, to look both inward and outward and ask themselves why they feel positively or negatively towards a work of art, an essay, an idea, a philosophy or person. Even fewer have both the natural talent and the will to learn how to write artfully about their internal wrestling, to choreograph ideas on the page.

It is with criticism as it is with all art forms: one sets out on a journey with a vision, destination known, the road from here to there clearly marked and brightly delineated. “I will not be deterred from reaching that far-off place for which I’ve long yearned,” you say to yourself and to anyone who will listen. “For I have seen a magnificent hill on which I will build a glorious edifice.”

We imagine that once the work is completed, people will come and wonder at this extraordinary creation and wonder too at its remarkable creator. The world will gaze upon the work and some truth will be revealed about themselves, about others, about the world in which we live and the worlds beyond our knowing. They will gaze upon our creation and remark on it, as Rilke did on his infamous archaic torso of Apollo: “for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” Then we — the artist, the writer — take our first step onto the path of investigation only to discover that nothing is as we imagined it to be.

Artist and critic alike begin with a question and set out in search of answers only to discover that each so-called answer opens unto more questions, worlds into worlds into worlds, like Russian nesting dolls of intractable problems and unsolvable mysteries. An Escher-like landscape of existential doubt forever collapsing into itself.

But while an artist may occasionally inhabit a luxurious position of certainty, the most authentic critical position is one of doubtful optimism; the critic must be willing to lay their heart bare and to have their heart broken regularly. She must be willing to write about and share her love or heartbreak equally with the whole world.

And to do so she must be able to craft sentences that vividly describe her experience of the work of art while conveying the contours of her interiority. We, the reader/spectator, must be led down a path built from sentences without knowing where we’re going, yet never feeling lost; we must feel as the critic feels — joy, exhilaration, pain, disappointment, befuddlement, wonder, mystery, epiphany, desolation, despair, enlightenment, contentment and possibly even love.

The critic must be willing to embark on the project of sharing her experience even as she knows its written manifestation will inevitably fall short of the glittering perfection of pure thought.

All artists are in one way or another set to the task of bridging the chasm between isolated experiencing Selves, adrift and in terror of The Void, reaching across infinite time and space to connect, if only briefly, with others in an ephemeral community and asking each other, “Are you experiencing what I’m experiencing? Is all this really happening?”

* * *

“Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” – Chuck Todd, “Meet the Press”

“But what has all this to do with me?” you ask.

The site where live performance occurs is, usually, the three-dimensional world: a stage, a gallery, or public space. Writing is, usually, situated in two-dimensional space: a page, a screen, or wall, perhaps.

When we encounter a work of art in three-dimensional space a great deal of information is available to us to provide context. We are in a certain city, a certain neighborhood, a specific venue or public space with specific conditions — comfortable seats or folding chairs or a mat on the ground, or we are compelled to stand. We are surrounded by thousands of others, we are one of a handful of people; we paid a lot of money to be here, we were just walking down the street and stopped to watch — we paid nothing at all. We are in a gallery with white walls, we are in a garage, a field, an abandoned building; we are on Broadway. We can, mostly, trust our interpretation and understanding of where we are and calibrate our expectations accordingly.

When we encounter a work of writing in physical two-dimensional space — a book, journal, magazine or newspaper — we have also a certain amount of information available to us to provide context. This is a newspaper of great repute, this is an entertainment glossy, this is a photocopied ‘zine with clip art, this is an academic journal that I bought in the university bookstore. This is an art book, a mass-market book, maybe a magazine about wine, guns and hounds, or about aging, or aviation, or politics. It is glossy or matte, it is beautifully illustrated, it is dense with text, it is daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, quarterly.

In any case we can infer with some degree of certainty the provenance of the printed matter, the world from which it came and the likely social, cultural and economic context of the writer. When writing appears in print the writer appears in a fixed context that conveys authority. Moreover, that authority derives from the pretense that the publication — and by inference the writer — is objective, or at the very least its biases known.

But when writing appears on the Internet there is an inherent instability of context. Being immersed in a vast decentralized network of information means that we have literally lost perspective, because anything can be viewed from any angle at any time. On the Internet, the writer is floating in space, tracked to an unreliable guide-star ever in motion, changing shape. Often the writer cannot rely on the conferred authority of an established publication; of equal significance is that the publication can no longer depend on the myth of objectivity.

Neuroscientist Anil Seth proposes that we’re all hallucinating all the time; when we agree about our hallucinations, we call it “reality.” Live performance offers us the opportunity to do this work intentionally, collectively, in shared space over a fixed duration of time. An artist proposes a set of questions and conditions that represent, or purport to represent, “reality”, or an artifice of reality that aspires to reveal that which has been obscured or previously unseen, unnoticed, invisible. Since the early 20th Century many artists have created art that performs their idiosyncratic interiority, their phenomenological experience of Being in the World.

The critical response is not to question the essential truth of that phenomenological experience but to question whether that experience is meaningfully conveyed, whether it maps onto the critic’s own experience, or creates cognitive dissonance that de-familiarizes the known, whether there is a likelihood that it may do so for others.

“Are you experiencing what I’m experiencing? Is all this really happening?”

Democracy, by definition, requires consensus on matters as mundane as the color of traffic lights and profound as the philosophical basis for the inalienable human rights that form the foundations of civil society. Those who would undermine our democracy deploy confusion as a tool to destabilize our collective sense of reality; they would have us believe we live in a post-truth, post-fact society.

It is said that, for all practical purposes, Dante created Italian as a discrete literary language by amalgamating various regional dialects with some elements of Latin. Even though The Divine Comedy’s progression from Hell to Paradise reflects Dante’s belief in an ordered universe, his choice to write in the vernacular questioned the primacy of Latin and so can be imagined to have precipitated the demise of that selfsame order. His creation of Italian as a discrete language eliding regional differences eventually made it possible to imagine a discrete nation-state called Italy.

And so, history teaches us that the choreography of ideas has the capacity to shape and re-shape our experience of the world; that art can destroy worlds even as it creates new ones. Our democracy depends on the work of artist-critics to resist the diffusion of confusion, the dissemination of misinformation, the violent reduction of the imaginative capacity of our society by the short-fingered vulgarians at the gate. It is time to get to work.

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