I wanted to include the letter on the next page, in part to acknowledge an artist’s response to current dance criticism generally, but also because the writing about Bill T. Jones’s work has a specific context that I think deserves more discussion than is usually granted. To address the first reason, I do feel compelled to defend Gia Kourlas, and dance critics at large, against complaints that expressing distaste for a production is “mean” and has no positive function, or that it is inappropriate to acknowledge personal taste when reviewing a show. Much as there may be no “right” way to make a dance, there is no magic formula for correct criticism—it is a creative act that succeeds more or less depending on many circumstances. Despite the dissatisfaction I have encountered from local dance artists regarding many of the reviews they read (and there is indeed a great deal of dissatisfaction, beyond just the bad reviews about their personal projects), no one has yet offered me a picture of what ideal dance criticism might look like. The value of “respect” seems apparent to all, yet even with reviews that some cite as disrespectful, one can often imagine their authors claiming that they are writing with respect for the greater field, which they feel has been disserviced by the performance in question.
The whole issue of what is appropriate and desirable in a review, what is good for dance and good for criticism, and who are the worst offenders of what critical wrong, is a much larger discussion than what is included in these pages. The fact that the discussion is happening so fervently and so frequently right now, I think, has as much to do with the disproportionate effect that reviews have on artist funding than with the actual levels of dissatisfaction. For practical reasons, this significant reality—that reviews play a tremendous role in funding decisions—is rarely addressed by critics. Thus I felt it important to give a platform for comment to a non-critic.
Regarding Jones and his work, I am always surprised by the way Arlene Croce’s notorious “Discussing the Undiscussable” essay of 1995 has shadowed his reception ever since. Writing for the New Yorker, Croce famously dismissed his work Still/Here, sight-unseen, as victimhood masquerading as art, a spectacle of suffering that could not be given the conventional critical analysis. I can’t comment on the live production Still/Here, but I have seen enough of his more recent work to know that its emotionally charged content is rigorously, formally organized. I have read successful critiques of it. It is possible to comment on the effectiveness of the work’s organization, to identify its elements, communicate its overall feeling, and speculate on the artist’s intent—which is not, to my eyes, mere shock value or pity. Yet I continue to read, alongside those reviews, claims by professional journalists and critics that Jones is a hack, not a real artist but a panderer to sentiment. I can’t think of a single other artist who gets this treatment as often—bad artist, perhaps, but non-artist? Many still use Croce’s term “victim art”; some cite her name when relieving themselves from the task of making or defending their own judgments of Jones’s work. I find this ludicrous. Kourlas’s recent review does not fit neatly into the “undiscussable” banner-wavers (but it does manage to identify Lincoln, whom Jones celebrates, as a “victim of commodification,”). Still, the view that Fondly’s theatrical elements overshadow the dancing to the point that the show cannot be fully reviewed as dance seems to me deeply entangled with the idea that it isn’t art and cannot be reviewed at all. To the extent that I have a personal, specific plea for the dance criticism community, it would be to look beyond Croce for models to discuss Bill T. Jones and his career.