Discussing the Undiscussable

In 1994, Bill T. Jones created a new work called Still/Here. He had spent a significant amount of time before choreographing the piece in interviews and workshops with people all across the United States who were suffering from terminal illnesses. Jones, having discovered his own HIV-positive status, used movement to work with these people through their life stories, then incorporated those movements, as well as video and the people’s own words, into his final work.

Arlene Croce, in a controversial review (or lack of review) for the New Yorker, used Still/Here as a scapegoat for hers and the critical world’s frustrations, refusing to attend the performance on the premise that it was impossible to review. The reason for this, she said, was that Jones had created merely a piece of victim art. She stated, “By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism” (p. 1). This may be true, but Croce constructs her article based two premises: firstly, that art should be held merely to aesthetic standards and not emotional ones, and secondly, that art is only worthy if it can be criticized. There has always been an attempt on the part of the critical world to categorize something that is perhaps meant to exist outside the realm of capture. I came away from the review having found it more of a desperate cry, masked in clever rhetoric, on the part of a critic who found her position in the dance world less and less easy to inhabit. Croce’s argument does beg the question of how the worth of art can be determined when it is purely personal. But she cites the 1960s as the beginning of an era of dreaded sentimentalists, and then turns those sentimentalists into Philistines who only want more and more funding and so turn to art that will produce both emotional and fiscal results. However, having watched Bill Moyers’s documentary on Still/Here, in which is chronicled some of the journey of the piece as well as direct interviews with Jones and clips of the final product, I can safely say that I both admired the dance on an aesthetic level, and was deeply moved by the stories it highlighted. But what affected me the most was the fact that they were given a space in which to tell their stories through their bodies, the vehicles of illness.

Watching the dance and the process became almost cathartic for me, and yet Croce proclaims that “[We have] created an art with no power of transcendence, no way of assuring us that the grandeur of the individual spirit is more worth celebrating than the political clout of the group.” She laments a lost time (the nineteenth century), in which “one’s personal disease and impending death were unmentionable . . . but through art the individual spirit could override them both.” I will agree that art, and especially art dealing with illness and death, can easily slip into a mire of defeatism that can damage rather than inspire, but perhaps Croce is merely longing for an era in art that has passed. Do we still want our art to have aesthetic standards and yet be impersonal? Croce speaks of the dangers of not being able to distinguish art from non-art—of being scared or coerced into believing in art that is worthless. And yet we are moving into a time in which the lines between “art” and “life” are significantly more blurred. Croce cries out for an art that, while able to represent death, still holds true to certain aesthetic standards and does not reflect a personal journey. But one wonders ultimately how one can process mortality and death—perhaps the most personal of experiences—through anything other than art. I believe that Jones’s piece performed an integral duty of art, which is to bring people together, both throughout the process and in the final product, to process emotion in a meaningful and cathartic way.

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