Saturday, June 11, 2011

A negative review: The Voice makes life impossible for its dance critic, Deborah Jowitt

Deborah Jowitt out at The Village Voice
By Barry Johnson

When I was young and restless and living on the East Coast, I was an avid reader of The Village Voice. I read the political columns closely, because the mainstream press failed to appreciate either the depth of the disaster and folly in Vietnam or the old-boy corruption at home, and the Voice did. And I read the arts writers, Andrew Sarris for film and Robert Christgau for rock, because they understood that the arts of the times weren't a decorative sideshow -- they were at the center of things, reflecting the tumult of the '60s and containing  the most savage and telling critiques of American society. I understood that from reading those critics.

I also read the Voice's dance critics. Jill Johnston's columns barely qualified as criticism really. They were bright bursts of a cultural and personal consciousness summoned by dance, more than careful considerations. The shocking and wonderful dance experiments of the time, which questioned and redeployed all of the elements of movement into completely new approaches and concepts, were perfect for Johnston's enthusiasm.  Deborah Jowitt was aware of the cultural upheaval around her, but she focused her considerable powers of observation on the dance itself and the artists who made it, finding in their radical experiments a way for us all to engage the world creatively.

This is a column about Jowitt, because she recently resigned from the Voice rather than change her approach to writing about dance. Her editor wanted to her to write more "negative" reviews, and that's not the kind of critic that Jowitt is. She rightly refused to comply, and as a result, the Voice continues its mad dash toward irrelevance. Actually, I suppose it's more of a marathon, this slow unwinding of a once-great newspaper. On the other hand,  I'm confident that Jowitt will find interesting projects and places to write in the future. She is a national institution greater than the newspaper she is leaving.

Mostly, I want to talk about this idea of negative versus positive reviews, because it's such a limited way of looking at the arts and ultimately so damaging to everyone who cares about them. Here is how Jowitt's editor, Brian Parks, himself a playwright, explained it in his clumsily written reply to her resignation:
There were virtually no negative reviews. But of course all of us in arts journalism know that every arts field has all sorts of bad or mediocre work going on, many times by established figures and in prominent venues. This work needs to be addressed and challenged by a paper’s critics, just as the good work needs to be saluted. That’s part of a newspaper’s vigorous critical practice, and what The Village Voice does in all the rest of its arts coverage, from the sections I handle, through our film and music sections. The dance reviews have not been doing this.
This is the traditional view of criticism, arch-conservative, formalist criticism. I would say "mainstream criticism," but the New York Times is considerably more progressive. In Parks' view, all art divides into three categories -- good, bad and indifferent.  And the Voice arts critic signifies this (and demonstrates a "vigorous critical practice") by sorting the art of New York into these three categories and then writing a "negative" review of the bad work.

But it's a terrible way to think about art. Art doesn't divide neatly into those categories (critics disagree all the time about art and artists), and far worse, the critic who focuses on those distinctions misses just about everything that is at stake in the arts -- what insights it gives us into the world we live and the art form itself, how it fits into the cultural moment and cultural history, what direction it suggests for the future, what it means and how it achieves that meaning. Critical engagement means more than a grim argument "for" or "against" an artwork (of whatever sort). It should be a more creative and speculative inquiry than that.

I prefer a critic who doesn't come to art with a measuring stick in hand, one who arrives with an open, curious and informed mind, one who struggles with the problems the art poses -- technical, philosophical, political -- not to mention the inherent problems of interpretation. The best criticism is only very tangentially positive or negative, and really, the best is always positive, because it takes me somewhere  I haven't been, even if it's just a convincing affirmation of opinions I already hold. That's positive in my book.  

I hate arrogant criticism, and what Parks proposes is arrogant criticism, Voice of God criticism: This art work goes to Heaven, this art work goes to Hell. Ridiculous.  How many times have I changed my mind about an artist or a work of art? Too many times to count. And I don't trust critics who haven't done the same thing, because it means 1) they've stopped thinking, or 2) their brains are addled by terminal confirmation bias. Why do I care where Karol Armitage fits in your personal scheme of Heaven and Hell? I don't care at all.

Ultimately, the critic (and any writer, really) writes something that is useful to me or not -- gives me some information, suggests a connection, takes me on a little trip, makes something abstract come alive, translates some important bit of reality into something another human can understand. And, you know, as I read a publication, I don't divide the arts columns into negative and positive reviews or wonder why Deborah Jowitt isn't more scathing in her assessments of the artists she encounters. Either, she's useful to my purposes or not.

I read one of Jowitt's most recent reviews, just to check in with her. It was about Karol Armitage, the edgy New York choreographer, now a sort of avant-garde icon in dance. It begins with a little reminder about Armitage, who she is and what she's done, through a careful description of a recent concert at the Joyce Theater in New York. Armitage is a major artist, and Jowitt's column treats her that way. But Jowitt does have a problem with Armitage, and it has to do with her use of non-Western dance forms. Here's Jowitt:
What began as commendable artistic adventurousness emerged as a vivid, but disconcertingly superficial appropriation of non-Western traditions.
And then she enters the dance in question, describing and questioning and admitting befuddlement at the same time she admires certain moments in the dance.  Is it a "negative" review? No, not really. Nor a "positive" one. And it certainly isn't "indifferent." It's something else -- Jowitt trying to understand something that isn't easy to understand, that troubles her even as it captivates her. It's not exhaustive, this review, but we leave it feeling satisfied. Would we go to see this Armitage concert having read the review? That's a little beside the point. Maybe. Jowitt gave it a fair shake, though, and if we find something in her account that intrigues us, maybe we would.

The fair shake. I don't think Parks understands the fair shake and how important it is. I don't think he (or his overlords) understands how much further than thumbs-up/thumbs-down a review can go. I don't think he gets that his categories are shallow and ultimately useless. He doesn't get that Jowitt's conversation with the New York dance audience goes back several decades, that it's "rigorous" and valuable, that it transcends his small-minded idea of what criticism does.

I hate the high-handedness of Parks' response to Jowitt's resignation. I think he has made himself and his publication small and mean, and he has tainted the entire enterprise of arts journalism in the process, an enterprise I take seriously. That's not how I feel about the Village Voice these days: I don't take it seriously at all.


The Voice has been discontented with Jowitt's work for a while. She was nearly fired in 2008.


Lisa Radon said...

This is such a beautiful consideration of criticism, Barry. What it can do and should. Thank you.

Niel said...

That is the most intelligent criticism of criticism and its truest and highest function I have ever read. How incredibly succinct and insightful. That's a piece every artist should read and all critics as well. Certainly editors and publishers! What is going on at VV sounds like a paper trying to be relevant by handcuffing its writers instead of promoting the finding of good stories about which to write. sad..."Bye bye Miss American Pie..."

Barry Johnson said...

Lisa and Niel -- thank you so much!

Martha Ullman West said...

Terrific Barry, and I'll send the url on to Deborah, who was at the Dance Critics Assn meetings in Seattle this past weekend from which I've just returned. One small point, if you're talking about the choreographer I'm thinking you're talking about, it's Karole Armitage, who is American, performed here in the Contemporary Dance Season years ago and also choreographed a work on Oregon Ballet Theatre. In any case, amen brother, and it's certainly what I as a critic strive to do.

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