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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.