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Sunday, January 22, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jones' Dance Launches Debate On `Victim Art'

The political war between those eager to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts, and those fighting to preserve it, isn't the only battle raging on the cultural front.

Another fiery debate over artistic expression has erupted in print - a more complex dispute waged between some disgruntled, prominent arts critics and leading arts practitioners whose work is topical, personally revealing and socially engaged.

New Yorker readers got a bellyful of the debate recently when the highly respected dance critic Arlene Croce blasted the newest piece by successful choreographer Bill T. Jones, "Still/Here."

"Still/Here," which the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company will perform in University of Washington's World Dance Series at Meany Theatre next month, confronts the specter of life-threatening illness. A multimedia epic blending live dance and video segments, with music composed by Kenneth Frazzle and ex-Earth, Wind and Fire member Vernon Reid and sung by Odetta, it draws indirectly on Jones' own history as an HIV-positive man, and his partner Zane's AIDS death in 1988.

But Jones also derived inspiration for his semi-abstract, dance-theater assemblage from cancer patients and others facing acute illness. He conducted "survival workshops" with such individuals in 11 U.S. cities. And some of these far-flung participants appear in "Still/Here" on video, or are heard in the audio score.

Croce was so disturbed by the inclusion of their images and voices that she refused to see "Still/Here." But her lack of first-hand observation didn't keep her from using the work as a springboard for a polemical New Yorker essay, which ran in the magazine's Dec. 26 issue.

Complaining that, given its subject matter and structure, "Still/Here" could only be "intolerably voyeuristic," Croce accused the piece of making sick people "the prime exhibits of a director-choreographer who has crossed the line between theater and reality - who thinks that victimhood in and of itself is sufficient to the creation of an art spectacle."

She went on to clump Jones, and other socially engaged performing artists who came of age in the '60s, into a "new tribe of victim artists parading their wounds." Their creative output is impossible and unworthy to review, she insisted, because it "defies criticism, not only because we feel sorry for the victim but because we are cowed by art."

Croce's position in turn inspired a column by nationally syndicated columnist and practiced NEA-basher John Leo (The Times, Jan. 10).

Crowning Croce "the best dance critic in the country," an arguable title to be bestowed by a journalist of fuzzy cultural credentials, Leo went on to rant that "artistic aspiration is more and more built around the conventional tribal and identity politics of the Left.

"Instead of real art, we are apt to get buzzwords, sloganeering, pamphleteering and political graffiti running around the walls of once-great museums or flashed on screens during performance art."

Leo then raged, "Victim art has virtually no base of popular support - it is totally dependent on grants from corporations, foundations and taxpayers. If the tap is cut off it will have to produce its own audience, or better yet, just go under."

Perhaps Leo isn't aware that presentations of Jones' previous epic, "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land" sold out in Seattle and other U.S. and European cities. Or that ticket demand for "Still/Here" (which was co-commissioned by Seattle's On the Boards) has been so great that an extra performance was added to Meany's schedule.

But setting aside the question of whether Jones' works are more or less popular than, say, Vincent Van Gogh's unsold paintings were in his time, let's move on to a more central issue: What constitutes "victim art"?

When an untalented, unoriginal, self-pitying performer rants and raves at an audience, maybe the artist deserves to be tarred with this trendy brush. In any case, the sensation he or she creates is likely to be short-lived and faintly remembered.

But when a serious, gifted artist investigates a subject of social and personal significance in an inventive manner, is that truly an act of victimhood? If the artist decides to bring willing non-artists from a specific subculture into the creation of the work, does it automatically translate into exploitation and/or tribalism?

And if foundations, corporations and government agencies offer support for such projects, are they doing so only because of liberal guilt and "political correctness"? Are artistic standards abandoned entirely, just to accommodate social priorities?

Jones rejects these generalities. So does Ping Chong, an internationally known director, in residence this season at Seattle's Group Theatre. Chong is preparing a new version of "Undesirable Elements," a documentary theater piece which examines the effects of history, culture and ethnicity on the lives of eight Seattle residents of diverse backgrounds.

In a recent interview, Chong agreed with Croce that some socially aware artists suffer from acute self-indulgence. And he believes there's a nugget of truth in theater critic Robert Brustein's recent argument, published in The New York Times, that arts grants are at times bestowed with more attention to multicultural content than artistic merit. But Chong also thinks art is a valid arena for historical observation and social reflection. And he resents the current move to dismiss all topical or ethnic-specific art as a form of whining.

"You come up with a nice handy term like `victim art' and you can throw it at anything that doesn't uphold the status quo," he says.

"I mean, how does Croce define art? If she defines it by contemporary standards, there is no single norm - throughout the century, art has been a constantly changing and fluid thing. She's holding to this purist classical line, as if life never imposes on art, as if consciousness never changes."

Contacted by phone in Portland, where his company was performing "Still/Here," Jones refused to comment directly on Croce's attack. But he did mount a spirited defense of his "inclusive" creative vision.

"I've always wanted to move outside of the small world of modern dance and into the wider community," Jones explained.

"This is the challenge of artists in the late 20th century: How do we take our private agendas and connect them with the larger world? Any good artist constantly understands he is rooted in the real world."

Listening to those who volunteered to discuss their experiences with grave illness was for Jones a means of "opening up the discourse to more people. I continue to have the belief, the need, to be as inclusive as possible as an artist."

Only a few of the many people Jones interviewed appear (briefly) in "Still/Here," and the choreographer refutes the charge that they are "exhibited" as pathetic specimens. (Jones remains fit and healthy, but chose not to perform in this piece.)

Furthermore, he insists the work "is more about living than dying," and emphasizes that he conceived it as a sophisticated modern-dance production performed mainly by professional dancers - not as an "Oprah"-style encounter group.

"You have to know something about dance and be patient with the shape of movement to enjoy it," Jones noted. "An artist needs all the sophistication of formalism, all the dance technique he can get, to make something like this good, to make it really come to life."

He and Croce would likely concur on that point. But philosophically they are miles apart when it comes to the "utilitarian" potential of art - a subject of longstanding debate in American art circles.

Croce sides with those who reject the idea that art can serve a direct social purpose, yet remain aesthetically inviolate.

But Jones sees art as a form of spiritual healing, "a coming into harmony with. This piece is about coming into harmony with your own notion of death and being able to meet it with some dignity and a sense of peace."

Jones, an African American, and Chong, a Chinese American, both point out that in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the concept of artists as healers is far more acceptable than in the West.

"It's difficult for modern American artists, by definition an alienated sector, to take our place in the mainstream in this way," Jones contends. "But can we bring some awareness and spiritual force to a world that needs it? I choose to believe we can."

Though Croce's polemic has overshadowed other responses to "Still/Here," not all critics share her views. There is, in fact, a generation of younger dance writers who are receptive to provocative, well-made fusions of dance, theater, music and visual art, which do cross the line "between theater and reality" in stimulating ways.

Newsweek dance reviewer and former Seattleite Laura Shapiro was one who lauded "Still/Here" as "a piece so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of 20th-century dance seems assured."

But those curious about this much-discussed dance piece should be free to draw their own conclusions about its merit.

And it helps to see it before passing judgment.

----------------------- PERFORMANCES AND EVENTS -----------------------

"Still/Here" will be presented by the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company in the UW World Dance Series at Meany Theater on the University of Washington campus, Feb. 2-4 at 8 p.m., and Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. Meany Theater also will host a public symposium entitled "Managing Mortality," with Bill T. Jones and health professionals who specialize in life-threatening illnesses, from 2 to 5 p.m. Feb. 3. For ticket information, call 543-4880.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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