Victims don't make art

The dance critic of the New Yorker refused to review a recent work by Bill T Jones, dismissing it as `victim art'. Adam Mars-Jones sees red Aids, by its nature, gives people a good long time to think about endings What are artists affected by HIV to do, if not include it in their working prac tice?

The Christmas and New Year double issue of the New Yorker carried an article under the rubric "A Critic at Bay" - the regular heading being the less embattled "A Critic at Large" - by the magazine's dance critic, Arlene Croce, with a forthright title "Discussing the Undiscussable" and a grievance to match: the replacement of a viable dance culture by special- interests posturing - what Croce calls "victim art" - as exemplified by a piece of work, Still / Here, by the dancer-choreographer Bill T Jones, which she has chosen not to see. She argues her case at length, but the essential point is that Still / Here cannot be art because of its subject matter (terminal illness in general, HIV in particular). Jones makes no secret of his antibody-positive status, and this new piece incorporates video testimony from terminally ill people.

Under Tina Brown, the New Yorker has lost a lot of its shyness. It's nice to know that even the most sedate institution, given a little assertiveness training, can pick an occasional genteel fight.

This particular fight is partly about art, partly about criticism, and mainly, I feel, about Aids. Aids is a new subject, one that people find easier to deal with, in some curious way, by treating it as if it had nothing in common with anything else in the world.

If there is a divide between those who produce art work and those who judge it in the market-place, then I have been on both sides of it, but I'm only on one side of this argument. I've written fiction about Aids that has been dismissed, on occasion, a priori on the basis that Aids cannot be the subject of art (a point of view you hear less often these days in literary circles). Those reviews seemed to me to be indefensible: if you exclude in advance the possibility of a book succeeding, you have no business pretending to assess it. If I have also been the beneficiary of imperceptive favourable notices, prompted by the supposed virtue of the attempt, rather than anything I actually brought off, those were only routinely inadequate reviews - they weren't corrupt.

But I have also reviewed films - usually Queer with a capital Q - that set out to overturn my assumptions and change my fuddy-duddy life, but which only reminded me of Godard films I hadn't enjoyed in the first place. On those occasions it wasn't unreasonably hard to detect the lousy film underneath the right-on sweetie-paper.

What is art? That's a big question. Let's discuss that another day. What is a critic? That's much more tractable. Here's where we scale down from philosophy to ethics. We can settle that now if you like.

There are times when everyone wants to stay home with a strippagram and a risotto, and the good news is that everybody can except for critics. Art is optional for everyone, always, who isn't a critic. Anyone but a critic can avoid the theatre, shun the cinema, boycott the music superstores and the book shops, and not owe the world a policy statement. A critic, though, is obliged to experience art on a regular basis, in the mood or out of it, or else find another line of work.

Most art has designs on us - moral, political, sentimental. Most art is also bad (just as most time is wasted and most love lost) and it follows that much bad art has designs on us. Isn't it the critic's job to point us away from bad art, and if there is reviewing space left over, to analyse its failed designs?

It would be unfair to characterise Arlene Croce simply as conservative in her tastes. Some years ago, for instance, she wrote an extraordinarily exciting account of Karole Armitage's Drastic Classicism, one of those rare pieces of critical writing that make you forget you missed the actual event, as if it was you personally that was in rapid succession deafened, baffled and elated. But as a dance critic she has a technical vocabulary of description - very precious in an art form so impermanent - which is routinely violated or ignored by much modern work, and that seems to be the heart of her grievance. In other words, much of her animus against Bill T Jones and Still / Here is not that he and it are drastic, but that they aren't classical.

One of the phrases coined by Arlene Croce in her article is "victim art", which I confess I find offensive. If an exhibition was mounted of art produced by inmates of concentration camps who had subsequently died there, no one would dream of referring to it as "victim art", even though the artists were in a very real sense victims. In that context it would be clear that the phrase denies even the possibility of generalising from a place of suffering. We would find terms like testimony to describe such an exhibition, or even survivor art, on the grounds that victims don't make art. (I apologise for the hackneyed Aids / Holocaust analogy, bane of the partisan think-piece. It's not that I think the two subjects are deeply linked, only that people are more lucid about the supposedly unthinkable in the older context, where they have had more mental practice.)

Reviewing such an exhibition would not be easy, but that it would not be impossible is shown by the careful analytical responses to the recently opened Holocaust Museum carried by, for instance, the New Yorker. What is it about Aids that provokes a fierce recoil. If we can imagine an Aids Museum of the future, why is it hard to accept Aids-informed art now? And more crucially, what is an artist personally affected by HIV to do, if not include it in his or her working practice?

Bill T Jones's dance life and life life were shared with Arnie Zane, who died of Aids; Jones himself is antibody positive. That's an awfully large chunk of his existence to expect an artist to rise above - to rise above and have the good taste or manners not to mention. Aids by its nature gives people a good long time to think about endings. Why should it not bring on a late style (a subject explored in different contexts by Edward Said), late Jones analogous to late Beethoven or late Strauss? A dancer's working life is so short in any case that a performer / choreographer of Jones's age would need to be thinking of a change of direction anyway.

Aids-informed art need not be frightening, but it seems likely that people will go on being frightened of it anyway. The most revealing sentence in the whole of Arlene Croce's article is this one: "I can't review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about." For one thing: sorry and hopeless. Tweak those terms a little and you have pity and terror, not emotions that art should not arouse but actually the emotions that tragic art depends on, according to one of the oldest definitions we have.

For another: if you look at that sentence, you'll see that Croce sees herself as reviewing a person. (If you do see yourself as reviewing people rather than what they make, then a stroppy gay black man with HIV may well be a tough assignment.) If there is a breaching of the proprieties in modern art, and that is the substance of her complaint, then it is one that she herself insists on.

To go back to the question of what an artist affected by HIV should actually do: there are two exemplary paths. One is to restrict information about your health as much as you can, and to carry on as you did before. By the time you lose control of the information you will probably be too ill to work anyway. This is the choice made typically by interpretative or non-autobiographical artists, for whom art is a way of not being themselves, and we can call it the Freddie Mercury Defence.

The other option is to integrate HIV into a working practice that is already in some degree autobiographical. This will tend to suit those for whom art is a way of being themselves, and we can call it the Derek Jarman Option.

Both of these choices are brave, and neither of them amounts to being a victim. The great drawback of Freddie Mercury Defence is that when the facts become known the art changes in retrospect. If you look now at the video for the Queen song "I'm Going Slightly Mad", for instance, it's impossible not to think that Freddie Mercury, prancing dutifully in a top hat, was preoccupied with the likelihood of Aids-related dementia, rather than English eccentricity however marketable. With the Freddie Mercury Defence, the pity that the artist refused comes back to haunt the work.

The dance world already has one towering example of Freddie Mercury Defence, in Nureyev. The pathos inherent in a great dancer refusing to retire when well past his prime, already almost overwhelming, is many times magnified when we understand how much he was denying. And now the dance world has, in Bill T Jones, someone who is trying the other option. He is entitled to bad reviews, but at least he should be spared non-reviews, either from critics who turn up knowing that nothing of what he wants to achieve can be done, or from those who stay at home.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?