The impossible pas de deux of looking and writing

Sarma 1 Nov 2002English

item doc

Contextual note
This "poetics" on Peeters' critical writing was commissioned by Sarma and translated by Julie Bryden. Published on the occasion of Sarma's launch in November 2002.

Beyond fascination. “Now I’m really quite curious what you’re going to write about this!” It’s a statement that I heard almost weekly for many years from spectators searching for elucidation, since shortly after a performance they aren’t sure precisely how to trace out the lines plotted out by that event, at least not in words. Also, since dance performances can be very complex and sometimes innovative too and more probable still, since the casual observer ends up entangled in his own fascination for all of that. How in heaven’s name does the critic manage to take distance from the event, to neatly map out all the points and besides that, communicate them intelligibly by way of an article?

When I began writing about dance for the weekly magazine Veto, during my student days, I did indeed wrestle with a comparable problem of fascination: during a performance I would constantly be thinking over what it could all mean, what to write about it, and in this way I actually missed the boat twice. The looking was constantly disrupted in its concentration, disturbed and infected by an investigatory thinking that was all-too-often out to project its own logic – thus also its limitations – onto the performance. Hence afterwards the writing fell back finally onto a thought process that referred more to itself than to the performance, due to the fact that the looking itself had never really been the order of business.

Looking and writing are two. The period in which I gained competency in writing about dance coincided with an exhaustive study of the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard and his art-critical oeuvre. His thoughts provided a key to the problem that I had been confronted with in writing, and has thus strongly influenced the course of my own art-critical poetics. For Lyotard an artwork does not allow itself to be translated into words without excess. In one’s approach to the work of art, he foundationalizes the reciprocity of the visible with the viewer and of the sayable with the speaker and with this, the congruity of both groups as well. However, we must admit at the same time that no reciprocity exists on the level of the whole of experiences, vision and speech are each characterized by a different sort of necessity. Or better still: looking and writing are two.

Every perception of art is of course confronted with that paradox, and it is only when it appears in lucidity, that an opening for art criticism can also appear. Acknowledging that writing can never coincide with looking, it falls to the task of writing to untie the Gordian knot of fascination, and to distinguish the writing from the looking. It is precisely then that it is possible to sound the necessary distance between the two and then also to convey the specificity of the perceptual stream, such as it is released by the artwork or by the dance performance in question. The fiction of a ‘pure’ looking is thus not in any way before my mind’s eye, and looking and writing must above all be independent moments in their own right: first a looking that unfolds itself from out of a foundational open-ness, in light of the scenic events; afterwards a writing that offers a formulation in words – one that takes what’s been seen as its point of departure and then resonates with it, rather than wanting to replace it.

A writerly look. The construction of art criticism traditionally consists of three constitutive moments, and that appears to be an effective form even now: description, interpretation and evaluation – and yes, in that order, logically speaking. Description determines the specificity of the critique, in that it fosters a proximity to the artwork without actually merging into it; to reverse this, it prepares an interpretation without totally removing itself from the work, which is the case in art theory. Still more, it is in description that writing itself is established, continuously at odds with the paradox that it can never coincide with looking; and even in the light of that consciousness it yet continues to carry on with the attempt. This process transports it to a turning point; namely, it is in the description that the writing becomes autonomous, the text writes itself.

The point at which the text acquires a certain autonomy throughout the writing is crucial, it is at least here that the critique is once-removed from the critic’s taste, and relates itself to the looking and thus to the performance itself. Naturally the writing itself can never be free of the writer and his background, the writerliness of his look is still a multiplicity that is ingrained, and leaves behind conscious as well as uncounscious ‘intertextual’ traces. In description, the looking translates therefore as well into a specific reading of the performance, and in this way it draws interpretation into the process.

Thereby the description leads the way, but it sees its recurrence in the interpretation confronted once again with the tension between looking and writing, between the visible and the sayable: by its linguistic nature the writing easily shapes this interpretation to its hand. In other words: the critic lends the text an autonomy, one that values the writing, but that also often tends to give his stories a conclusive character. That story then sometimes no longer remains loyal to the visible and to the looking; it sometimes even fixes itself onto the ‘textual’ and thus sayable elements that make up the performance, and loses sight of the blind spot that is maintained between looking and writing. And it is precisely the respect for this paradox that the artwork imposes on criticism that is so important: this consciousness is simultaneously the characteristic trait of criticism and its position over against the work of art, which insists upon an open look.

Frames for frames? The paradox of the art critic is of course insurmountable, which doesn’t have to mean that every art-critical text must be a betrayal of the artwork or of the visible. In the end an accessible and coherent form is expected, from a newspaper critique especially, and insight too. In this sense the autonomy of the text is a welcome given, the majority of the readers have in fact not seen the performance discussed, and never will see it either. What is there then to say and what does it all hinge upon, this delicate question of interpretation?

On the basis of the description the critic has to discover the departure points and premisses of the performance in question, and trace their development. In doing this he follows the dynamic of the performance itself starting from his own background and experiences of looking. Therein finally lies the basis for evaluation: by the translation of the course of a dance performance into critical writing, the performance can be judged according to its own merits. The question of the so-called ‘objectivity’ of the critic doesn’t pose itself at all: an evaluation is never gratuitous if it stems from the description and analysis of a performance, such that the work is evaluated within a framework that is all its own.

Does this evaluation in the case of newspaper criticism, not also unavoidably have a political character? For a framework plays along with it that is more expansive than just the relationship beween performance and criticism – think for instance of writing or not-writing a review, or of the possible difference in approaching débutantes and established performers. My interest in this problematic has never been very involving, the interpretation itself diverted away most of my attention, and it already spoke for itself. The articulation of this question – whether a performance has been successful in the end or not – was nothing more than a peripheral issue. The logics of the text did their work, compared frames with frames and brought the evaluation entirely into the territory of writing. And perhaps I liked to think of evaluation as an open question, one that in the end belongs to looking, even though it escapes only sporadically from all these frames. Criticism must remain an impossible pas de deux between looking and writing, this is what sustains it.