Art and criticism: Siamese twins

Poetics by Pieter T'Jonck

Sarma 1 Mar 2003English

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Writing about theatre and dance is a way of reflecting on art, which in its turn is a way of reflecting on what may be at stake in a society at any particular moment. As an activity, art occupies a special place in this, which distinguishes it from other activities with an artistic element. One might say that art is an aimless activity, but one which, in all its futility, develops its importance as a place of reflection. Out of this arises a form of dialogue between the viewer and performer, which can ripple out into broad circles. By the nature of the thing itself, many dance performances are of course concerned with physicality, but not necessarily from the art angle. After all, the individual work of art assumes an understanding of what art in general is. This has several consequences. Every work of art is related more or less explicitly to its artistic environment and its history, even if it is by its opposition to it or by making this context its subject or, the opposite, by ignoring it. At the same time every new work of art moves the boundaries of what art is or does, and in this way generates an endless debate. So every work of art is by definition involved in the dialectic or a web of meanings which essentially goes beyond the comprehension of the viewer and the artist himself. The work of art looks back at its creator and the spectator, and asks questions. Any work of art that does not do this, and especially a dance performance, may well claim the 'artistic' label but cannot be called 'art'. This has never been clearer to me than in the case of Emilio Vargas' performance Oraculos. He takes the spectator on a solitary journey past a variety of incidents. During this journey your senses, and even your whole body, are very subtly manipulated. In this respect, the piece is structurally similar to therapeutic scenarios which work towards 'mental liberation' by means of 'body work'. However enjoyable this may be, it is an illusory and narcissistic form of liberation. The performance plays on the greatest myth of the late 20th-century, that the final truth we have is our body and our true self. It is thereby a representation of a last, non-historical truth, external to any dialogue on art, let alone any claim to truth. It flatters the spectator because he can identify with what he is experiencing, instead of presenting an idea or a suggestion that is greater than or different from what he can comprehend.

So, in my experience art usually, but not always, has a powerful conceptual streak that is the result of a keen intuition. In other words there is an almost direct connection between conceptual strength and intuition. Let us just assume that reality, as we see it, is more like a chaotic mess than a comprehensible, let alone rationally ordered whole. If you want to get a grip on his reality, in an artistic way or in an essay for example, it is not so clear where or how you would start on it. It requires a sort of intuition to arrange things in such a way, to highlight precisely those facets that enable a particular figure to appear, and a particular possibility to show itself. This intuition, which is almost by definition 'unprovable', and which to the average man may also seemed 'far-fetched', then has to be made concrete. And one might describe the degree to which one succeeds in this by using the term 'conceptual strength'.

The whole history of theatre has been a constant demonstration of such intuitive actions which are then made hard and clear. When the house lights first went down for a piece by Wagner, people probably considered this a strange fad, but it suddenly opened up the possibility of an 'other' world on the stage, which would ultimately prepare the way for 'cinema'. When Steve Paxton took what was almost the opposite path, and used his body as a coathanger or put on walking people onstage, he, entirely alone, revealed a particular way of looking at the human body which had previously been unthinkable. These are just two examples of artistic practices in which intuition and conceptual thinking formed a duality. And on each occasion they touched an exposed nerve in the world in which they operated. Everyone could have seen this nerve, but they all overlooked it.

What can criticism add to this? Isn't the work itself sufficient? The above shows implicitly that I think this is not and cannot be the case, unless one is talking about the eccentric who makes art for himself somewhere in an attic. The idea that we should be uncritically grateful for what artists give us seems to me to be a misconception. When I write articles about theatre and dance, it is largely, if not entirely, a matter of passionate pleasure in watching theatre. To put it crudely, I prefer not to write anything about pieces I didn't like. Writing about theatre and dance is always an attempt to grasp what moved or intrigued you in a piece, or to convert your admiration for what someone has done into a sort of 'comprehension' or clarification for yourself. I believe that uncritical admiration for an artist is just about the worst insult you can subject him to. The theatre, and especially dance in the theatre, is an extremely sensory experience. But there is at the very least something strange going on in these senses. We all know that certain sensory perceptions 'affect' us, move us or are able to set something in motion inside us. Music can move us to tears, whereas strictly speaking all that is happening is a complicated wave-shaped displacement of air produced by vibrating objects. Some images can bring about much more powerful affects: if you watch Pasolini's Salo you have to be very hard not to feel your stomach turning occasionally. In reality, however, all we see is spots of colour on a flat surface. Nothing real, and we know it perfectly well. And all this is very typically human: my cat, for example, does not react to Bach or Pasolini. And what is typically human? Language, in the very broad sense of the word. It is a platitude, but it is still true: it is only when an event is absorbed into a language that it begins to work or strike home. It is only when you can put an event into a framework that you can actually call it an event. In other words, there is the artist's conceptual effort, but this only exists by grace of the viewer's conceptual effort. The critic is above all an impassioned viewer.

I would like to look just a little more at that image of the exposed nerve. Language brings with it all manner of distinctions and classifications that make the world comprehensible. These distinctions are very often not our own, but are handed down to us as the result of a long historical process whose background we are generally hardly able to divine, let alone understand its contradictions and unspoken commands and prohibitions. We are mostly not even aware that we ourselves think very little, but are above all 'thought'. Now art, at the best of times, has precisely this power to reveal something of all this 'hidden text', and to touch the raw nerve of an unstoppable story. This can happen in many ways. There is a popular belief that art should knock you half unconscious, grab you by the throat, etc., etc. I don't have much confidence in this sort of artistic terror. It is something else when art briefly misleads you, by making you look at things obliquely so as to suddenly show you different facets of reality. In the case of theatre and dance this often has to do with an image of physicality that is different from what is more or less construed as 'normal' in the media.

Let me say it straight out: I think art should be a bit intelligent, a bit ad rem and pertinent and a bit contrary, but not over-explanatory and certainly not manipulative. I have a pet aversion to art that coincides completely with its explanation, and just as much to art that swaps the need for explanation for shameless seduction. Art 'rattles' our performances, but does not then necessarily say how we should watch or think. It is the job of the viewer to make comments. Now, language is a very clumsy instrument with which to take on this task, and is above all the bulwark of all our rustiest ideas about reality and how it should be. This is especially true for dance performances. Sometimes you sense perfectly well that 'something' is going on in a performance, but you just can't express it or put it down on paper. And that's how things disappear. In fact they have already disappeared before you have seen them.

As William Blake said, more or less: if a sense shuts down, its object disappears too. But we mustn't interpret the senses too narrowly! Thinking too, whether more or less intuitive, is a sense, and one that is perfectly suited to training. Only those who are extremely stupid or extremely clever allow this exercise to pass them by. Not only can you do this exercise, but it also necessarily arises in any critical dialogue. Anyone who make it appear that you can look at a work open-mindedly and without prejudice, is serving an ideology of the first water, which is directed against the essence of art itself. Art has nothing to do with kicks or spectacle. Art is not a place where, like everywhere else in the media society, we have to be congratulated on ourselves.

Finally, one of the problems dance criticism has long had to deal with is that it has remained very much enclosed in its own world and history. Changing practices in the second half of the 20th century also opened up the critical jargon. And a good thing too. Dance criticism can only exist as part of a more general thinking on art and culture, can only exist if connections are made with things going on outside dance. It is precisely the most captivating choreographers who have again and again pointed a way to this broader context. In this sense the facts do indeed show a primacy of art over criticism. But they are inseparable twins, or even Siamese.