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Joan Acocella At Stanford

February 7, 2008

Spent yesterday afternoon at Stanford's Humanities Center listening to New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella talk about arts criticism. I went because I love Acocella's writing. Her book, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints is one of the best collections of culture essays I've ever read. I'm particularly drawn to her focus on the idea of art as being born out of hard work rather than a bad childhood or some other source of pain. She takes an opposing stance to Edmund Wilson in this respect.

So I took my place in the audience, which was composed largely of skinny older women wearing flowy clothes and brandishing copies of The New Yorker and listened to Acocella talk about such things as her reasons for being a critic, the role of arts criticism today and the nuts-and-bolts of the job.

The most fascinating part of the talk was the middle section, in which Acocella talked over a 9-minute film of a segment from Mark Morris' Mozart Dances. As the performers moved across the screen against an ochre-colored Howard Hodgkin backdrop to a double piano sonata by Mozart, Acocella gave us a blow-by-blow account of her thought processes as if she were sitting watching the piece in the audience in preparation to write a 1800-word review of the performance for The New Yorker.

I can't think of a better way to give people an idea of all the different things that a critic watches for and thinks about in real-time as she's watching a show. (If I ever teach a class on theatre criticism, I might try the same exercise.) What was particularly interesting to me was the way Acocella would draw conclusions about what was going on in a scene from a symbolic standpoint. For example, when a soloist was thrown up in the air horizontally by a group of dancers, Acocella interpreted the move as having something to do with the soloist's death.

As a theatre critic, I'm pretty much only concerned with how I, as an audience member, would "read" what's going on on stage. But with theatre, the meaning is often much clearer because I usually have text to work with. I was curious as to how confident Acocella felt about making assertions about meaning for an artform as seemingly abstract as dance. So I asked Acocella about this in the Q&A. Acocella said that she brings the same approach to reviewing dance as I do to theatre. She's especially interested in interpreting symbols and she doesn't much care about the choreographer's intentions. What matters when you're reviewing is what you experience, not what the creator intended. We agreed on that point.

One area where our beliefs diverged was on the subject of "the extent to which a reviewer is tied in with a company." Acocella believes in maintaining a distance from all the dance companies she writes about on the grounds that you can't be honest if you're on personal terms with the artists. She avoids going to lunch with people and doesn't attend press conferences. She refuses to write profiles on artists unless she "admires them intensely." She also prefers it if they're old and established and don't need her help. "Even the act of writing a profile makes you feel the subject's humanity," she said. "You find out he hasn't paid the rent in three months. You get to meet his mother. How, then, can you turn around and say something mean about her boy?"

Acocella's stance seems to stem from fear. Her examples of critics' interactions with artists were way over the top -- she talked about critics marrying or sleeping with artists. She talked about those who had traveled around the world with a company on the company's dime. This is all very extreme. Just because you happen to know a few artists (and it's impossible not to brush shoulders with them when you write about theatre, an intensely local, live artform), that doesn't immediately make you a proponent of "advocacy reviewing" or unable to give an honest point of view. I personally don't have a problem with having lunch with a director or actor and then writing honest reviews of their work down the line. We're in conversation because we respect each other. Otherwise, we wouldn't be meeting. The artists may disagree with what I write in my column. I'll receive some angry mail. But my heightened knowledge of their work has only helped me create responses that are more engaging to read and heartfelt. Of course, I work for an alternative weekly in San Francisco and Acocella writes for The New Yorker. One could argue that my stance might change were I writing for a more widely-read and prestigious publication. But then again, I don't necessarily think that's true.

Funnily enough, Acocella says that she isn't above calling up critics who aren't as uptight as she is about maintaining their distance to get juicy bits of insider information about artists. She admits that these other critics "are privy to a lot of good information that helps them understand what's going on on stage." Not sure what to make of this. I'd like to invite Acocella to one of our theatre salons, I guess.

Some more edited highlights from the talk:

* The point of arts criticism is "to make art a subject of discussion and a concern of civilized society."

* "The best reviews are essays and the best of these essays are speculative, exploratory and personal."

* On the reason why arts criticism is low in the pecking order of literary endeavor: "Unlike other kinds of essays, reviews are dependent on a prescribed subject. An art which requires another art in order to exist is less prestigious." Acocella also noted that dance reviewing occupies a particularly lowly position because the art of the review relies not only on the art of dance but also, generally, on the art of music to exist.

* On deadlines: "The job of the reviewer is to turn in the best thing you can within the given time."

* On wordcount limits: "wrodcounts impose boundaries on a reviewer's ambitions. The trick is to cram as much information as you can within the allotted space."

* "A reviewer's life is like being an undergraduate with a French test in the morning and an essay due in the afternoon."

* "Symbol is the chief mode of communication in dance."

* "Every good review contains three elements: context, description and evaluation."

* On the difficulty of being judgmental as a dance critic: "Dance is like Israel. You don't just live there. You have to support it."

* "Descriptive criticism is excruciatingly boring. Everyone in the audience forms an opinion of what they're experiencing during a performance. Therefore to deny this in a review is simply a lie."

* On the demise of arts criticism in the media: "You cover foreign news and you cover art not to earn money but because you should."

* On arts blogging: "Advocates talk about blogging as 'the voice of the people.' But the people are not trying to do what reviewers do. They generally write about big shows rather than small ones. And most of the blogs are written by fans for fans so they're even more elite than print reviews."

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