Friday, February 20, 2009

by reflecting on

I want to begin.

I want to begin by reflecting on what has happened here this evening


Is Criticism


Gathered before a crowd of dancers and dance goers at
counterPULSE on Mission Street

critics Rita Felciano, Rachel Howard and Ann Murphy

dancemaker activist Keith Hennessey

a panel discussion on the future

of criticism.

The evening was part 5

Introduced by counterPULSE artistic director Jessica Robinson and

choreographer Mary Armentrout

We agreed that

the evening opened with

a summary of the dire state

arts writing.

As the economy reels from cutbacks,

print journalism foreclosures

dance writing has slowed to a trickle.

Reviews are
particularly vulnerable
under these new market conditions.

Panelists agreed.

Panelists disagreed.

Feature coverage continues to be available
in some papers
frequently written by arts editors

(soon to clean the office toilets).

The move is defended
Advertisers might still advertise coming events;
readers might still use the newspaper

Reviews, which have no perceptible market value
increasingly regarded as superfluous to the goals of print


a narrow digest of news and events.

The panel of freelancers represented varied views and opinions

Some felt lucky to be paid
freelance work is itself endangered.

The group noted the long list of lay offs among arts freelancers.

A moment of silence....

Controversy between the audience and the panelists
flaring over the dangers and opportunities provided by the usurpation of journalism by the internet.

No one knew the future

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I want to begin by saying we are here tonight attempting to forecast the future of criticism

I think the best place to start is with a definition of criticism. We might also want to define forecast. I recommend we think of that as throwing a fishing line out ahead of the current.

Criticism often signifies unkind communication that delivers a putative truth laced with barbed wire or soaked in acid. We distinguish good criticism by qualifying it as “constructive criticism.” Criticism also means a serious examination of something, coming from the Greek word “kritikos” meaning one who discerns. I find this definition beautiful, suggestive of an ability to scrutinize what is, the more refined the better. This is a far more appealing definition of critic than that of “appraiser,” which is what critics frequently become, and is interchangeable with the jeweler on the corner squinting at your grandmother’s ring with his loupe.

Criticism is like fly fishing. The critic is the fisherman, the art the fish. The critic’s job is to bring the fish in. She has the greatest chance the better her flies, the smoother her casting and the longer and farther she’s willing to wade out in her hip waders.

The fish is the beauty sought, the mystery to uncover. It is another form of dance.

I want to begin by talking about something Keith wrote to Mary. It was in an email conversation they’d been having--something I skimmed the other night. It was designed to spark conversation. This is proof that it has:

Keith argues that writing about dance is translating across a language divide that fundamentally cannot be traversed.

I say nonsense.

Dance is not wholly inscrutable. Dance, like words, music , painting and sculpture, provoke thought and feeling that arise out of the same sea of concepts, emotion and memory that we rely on to formulate verbal language. I can say things in Italian that cannot be said in English, but that doesn’t mean that I had no concept for stronzo or ingambe. The fact that there’s no exact corollary in English doesn’t make the word untranslatable. There may be no one-to-one correspondence between them. It may take me several words to do the work of the single Italian word. The question is: do I have a concept for that word? If I do, I can find a means to express it in English, no matter how clumsy.

The same with dance. An arm floating behind a dancer’s back as she looks down at the floor may have no obvious correspondence to a single word. But that doesn’t mean I can’t capture the conceptual sense of that moment. The deeper the dance is, the richer each movement, and that usually means that phrases, even paragraphs, are needed to capture the poetry of the act.

The essence of criticism as the pursuit of some shared notion of truth and beauty and transcendent values is to engage our shared language to generate and expand discourse in the public sphere. As flawed and imperfect as that discourse is, without it we would be hostage to the solipsism of every faction, social movement, political leader and dance practitioner who claimed to be above or beyond language and mutual conversation.

The word, or logos (which the Bible claims brought the world into being when clearly it was movement) has its limits, and words are often used in a brutish and two-dimensional fashion. But so are dances. Words are signifiers capable of carving out great meaning and haunting beauty about the things they signify. When they fail it’s often the messenger and not the message system that’s lacking.

Is writing a substitute for dance? Hardly. But most of us can agree that, at bottom, it is vital that we have people writing about dance with vivid intelligence. Dance leaves no artifact behind; wrapping words around the vanished moment becomes a means to transform the ghostly experience through an emulsion of words into something we can partially see again. In our culture, a written record is also proof that you exist.

As for the inability to translate across the divide: For those of us who hold Plato’s idealism in one hand and John Dewey’s pragmatism in the other, everything is both an act of translation and nothing more than itself. I am a translation. And I am only me. My dance writing is a translation and it is itself. My name is a translation. My body and my presence here tonight are translations.

My dance writing translates to paper my experience of the dance I watch, and it always does so through my imperfect writing skills and the limitations of my understanding—and I don’t only mean my understanding of the work but the understanding of my own thought.

My name is a translation of my father’s urge for continuity, passing on his love for his mother by giving his daughter her name. It is also a translation of my mother’s lost battle to name me something else. My name is not me, and still it’s inextricable from who I am and have become, forever translating me to the world.

My body is endlessly mediating my soul, and though it often seems to have little to do with anything noncorporeal, this body is, for better and for worse, the mouthpiece of what I am.

My presence here tonight is a translation of my ideal presence, which I can only imperfectly imagine and can’t attain.

So what of the future of dance criticism?

The future of dance criticism is an unknown. I find that exciting because of the endless possibilities of the internet. I find that terrifying because of the tyrannical cacophony of the internet. The mob rules yet out of the chaos can come structures we haven’t dreamed of. The mob rules and that can be very ugly, as some of us know first hand.

Dismantling printing presses, newspaper infrastructure and intelligent journalistic culture worries me. The internet isn’t alone to blame. Remember that corporate raiders bought up papers, pirated their assets then left near empty shells to totter into the 21st century. Libertarians consumed progressive weeklies around the country and divested them of their political and aesthetic content. We need to beware of how vulnerable to oligarchies and corporate elites centralized information is. Countries like China and Russia are all too happy to control news and suppress opinion; corporations like ATT would prefer to sell bandwidth to the rich. The end of family run print journalism and the destruction of the old information infrastructure, with it ideals and ethical standards, challenges us to insure that information remains free and freely shared. It also cries out for discipline and purpose. These were the hallmarks of the best 20th century journalism. May they become them for the 21st.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Ann-- Thank you so much for sharing this thoughtful piece of work at last night's Dance Discourse Project at CounterPULSE.

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