The Arts Voyager, 5-28: Charleston Diary
1: Writing about art as art
By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2011 Chris Dohse
NEW YORK -- In a few hours I leave for Charleston. Preparing my body-mind-heart to write again. I haven't revealed myself in this way, stripped off my skin and displayed the stinking gut of my brain, for nearly three years, except for a few lackadaisical posts on my blog, Know Your Own Bone. I'll be dispatching daily or periodic blog entries about my experience attending 10 days of the Spoleto Festival. I got my press badge through the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager, and I'll link simultaneously, perhaps slightly altered entries, to Know Your Own Bone.
The container of the experience will be simply being again in my beloved Charleston, the city of my becoming (1981-1985), and how do I even talk about that. It's physically painful, the throb of nostalgia, regret, the solipsistic regret. The smell of pluff mud transports me to a ditzy 23 years old. Many of the houses are gone where I had my joys and sorrows, my starving hysterical naked love affairs. They were wiped away by Hurricane Andrew. Many of the lovers are dead.
Secondary will be throwing myself again into the fray of critical discourse. Will it go tits up or nipples to the wind I wonder.
I approached Dance Magazine and Musical America to see if there was any interest in placing traditionally formatted reviews of specific shows in either place. Both said no.... Dance projects that aren't premieres have already been reviewed and music projects are being covered by someone else. I don't want to write that deadening format any more anyway but I thought I could make a few bucks. At this point in my life, I feel finished with the objective journalistic who-what-when-where of the traditional review. It's just another form of advertising that serves on one except the artist who maybe gets a pull quote for their next post card. Buy me! Consume me! The New York Times/Village Voice deems me worthy!
But wait. As Burroughs said, the ultimate addiction is to being right. And now already here I am, scrambling in one of my hamster wheels again, the rung of sour-grape festooned hell reserved for sufferers of post-traumatic embitterment disorder.
So what is it I aspire to write if not "deadening journalism"? Let's see if I can gather and clarify my thoughts on the subject. What is my project anyway? I thought I'd like to call it dharmic criticism. Then I came up with non-canonical post-historicism. I think I'd feel proud if I could produce subjective, performative writing -- like Jill Johnston or Gary Indiana -- that captures everything in the constellation of my identity. The stuff I've spent my life studying: praxis, theory, and the history of visual art, theater, and dance. Through the lens of the rest of the stuff I've spent my life studying: the bottom rung of the ladder, the gutter, frailty, falling down and getting up, getting laid and getting high, passion, art, radiant hootenanny happiness, enduring love.
"A woman like that is not ashamed to die. I have been her kind."
And what the hell does this writing look like and can it be accessible? Wikipedia tells me that performative writing is mostly feminist. I'm okay with that. But the entry sounds a bit surly: "It [performative writing] is often loosely semi-autobiographical, free-flowing in an ersatz stream-of-consciousness mode, and heavily informed by Left wing critical theory, but arises ultimately from linguistic ideas around performative utterances." It cites Peggy Phelan, whose writing is about as penetrable as week-old pumpernickel. If I need to puzzle and puzzle till my puzzler is sore to understand it, what good is it? Why does it exist except to exalt the ego of its utterer? And how the hell can stream-of-consciousness be ersatz exactly?
I think I once wrote in Movement Research Performance Journal that I wanted people to read my writing because I wrote it. Otherwise it wouldn't be criticism but program notes.
Since then I've spent time clarifying:
* The body in the body
*Feelings in feelings
*Mind in mind
*Phenomena in phenomena
I have stumbled across the idea of listening with my tongue. This is my invention entirely. I was at a program at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra on Meads Mountain to receive a reading transmission from Lama Karma Drodul. We had been instructed to absorb or receive these texts with our hearts, to allow them to fill our hearts, and I had been experiencing a lot of tension in my jaw and throat. An acupuncturist there mentioned that Tibetan medicine considers the tongue to be connected to the back of the heart, so I tried receiving the sacred sounds with my lolling tongue -- like an open-throated baby bird with a song in the bottom of its heart reverberating with the sound of Lama's Tibetan phonemes.
Since then I've been experimenting with grokking art objects and performances this way, just kind of hanging out with and corresponding to them. It seems to help remind me that everything is exactly as it should be, if you slow down enough to notice.
I've learned a distinction between judicious criticism and judgmental criticism, as defined by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who has written: "So how do you know if your criticism is going to be judicious? Ask yourself four questions before you say it:
*Is it true?
*Is it beneficial?
*Is this the right time and place to say it?
*Am I the right person to be saying it?"
*I'm not clear who receives this benefit. I'll be working that out as my writing gets read again and people send me death threats or marriage proposals. Is criticism "for" the reader, me, other people who saw the thing I'm criticizing, the object I'm criticizing, or its maker?
I used to categorize my interaction with the world as expression and relationship. Now I prefer the words response and connection.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild said something once, and I've paraphrased her many times in trying to understand the role of a person who writes about art and who wants that writing to be considered art: "Criticism is a response to a primary source, a kind of choreography for the page." I would go further. I want to make friends with the performers in this hard-copy choreography of mine. The elements of personal memory, the absorbed knowledge of history and context and nomenclature, the goddam canon, the images that come unbidden -- Joni Mitchell's lyrics or Tenniel's Alice illustrations, Plath Sexton Giorno, budding virions, sluts, slatterns, the performance of gender as an imitation for which there is no original (thank you Judith Butler), the ersatz stream-of-consciousness, my ongoing unflinching gaze at despair.
Who am I ideally writing for, other than myself, because I'm fond of the flatulent sound of my precious voice? I'd like to speak to and for the Queers, the fatties and pizza faces, the wallflowers, the Ichabods, the disease-riddled whores with hearts of gold, the androgynes with bird-like wrists, the flatsies, the tomboys, the unseen, the unclean, the doomed the damned the dead.
In other words, the people David Gere referred to, in his book How to Make Dances in an Epidemic, as "women, freaks, and marginalized others."
So that's it. What am I hoping to do? How am I hoping to do it? And who is it for? As Chiang Kai-shek said to Henry Kissinger, when asked what impact the Napoleonic Wars had had on world events, "It's too soon to tell."