Over the past few years, I have spent a lot of time reading about dance and thinking specifically about what seems a growing phenomenon of dance appearing within a visual art context. In April 2013, I co-organized with Brennan Gerard a series of discussions, screenings and performances at The Hammer Museum called Dancing With the Art World. A diverse group of artists, curators, performing arts presenters, and writers got together to talk about the stakes of this interface—what’s in it for dance, what’s in it for museums, and perhaps most importantly, what’s in it for all of us who care about the relative autonomy of artistic expression and want a space for creative exchange not wholly determined by market forces.
I am using these few pages to address some of my own thoughts in the weeks following this gathering and to pull out some of the unfinished business. Notes on Dancing With the Art World is my attempt to understand what happened at The Hammer and how those conversations have better informed me about this phenomenon of dance in the museum.
I suppose I could begin with what I did not anticipate. I was surprised how unsatisfying it was to talk about money despite money being something many people speculate are the root stakes of bringing dance into the museum. We didn’t talk about it a lot; in fact, the group seemed to take great pains to not address it, despite the fact that excepting some ballet companies, Broadway shows, and the entertainment industry, dance has a next to nothing market value and the visual arts are a largely market-driven economy. Dance is a service-model industry in which, in the best of circumstances, artists are paid for their performances, generally with monies acquired through the state or private philanthropy run down the pipeline of small and mid-sized artist-centered organizations. Even when these same artists scale up to the international festival level, they are only ever paid for what they do. Happy dancers and choreographers are the few who make a decent living wage being paid to perform.
By contrast, in visual art, there persists even through the drought of the European debt crisis and the American recession, a robust and speculative global art market infused with cash from Wall Street banks and international financiers. True, this market does not serve the lion’s share of artists, but it exists as a catalyst for institution-building and though it may sometimes feel like squeezing juice from a raisin that cash does trickle its way down to make programs, residencies and commissions. It is a failed system in many respects—it fails to provide fairly or broadly, it fails to provide any security or labor protections, it fails to incentivize innovation in artistic practice—but it does not fail to return on speculation. It continues to grow, even today when growing a market can seem like trying to raise daffodils in the desert.
For these reasons, conversations on dance and art tend to circle around the disparity of their respective markets and labor conditions. The phenomenon of dance in museums often draws skepticism and aspiration in equal measure, at least on the part of dancers. Money is often the elephant in the room, especially when people are at pains to be polite. Even when it is a big part of what is at stake, most people prefer not to talk about it or if they do, they couch it in gentler terms. (Anyone who has tried to raise money knows this by heart.) What surprised me in our discussions was that when the silence broke and people started talking openly about fees and labor conditions, contracts and production budgets, there were no “aha” moments, no cries of Eureka, no news. We confirmed what we already knew, that dance has an extraordinarily limited market value, that visual art is a lottery ticket that can only reward a few, and that even very famous artists can still be in a struggle financially if they chose not to, or could not, play the market game.
In short, it didn’t surprise me that the group was reluctant to discuss money. The curve ball was that when we did, the conversation fell short of any revelatory conclusions, or for that matter, much catharsis.
So, maybe money isn’t as important as I first thought? That would be an incredibly naïve pronouncement, but it could be fair to say that the phenomenon of dance in the art world may not entirely be about the economic interest of one or another field hoping to expand its reach. But then, what is it about?
Claire Bishop, in her essay “Unhappy Days in the Art World,” published in The Brooklyn Rail in 2011, considered the motivations for one side of the pairing when she argued that art wants dance because it offers a “plenitude” that is otherwise missing from performance. She was talking about the specific knowledge of dance, its “pared-down beauty” and “skill and seduction,” easy to see in a dance performance, even in those works of the early 1960s that attempted to refuse such characteristics of the form. Dance, for Bishop, is a latter-day formalism, a language of its own, that appears to the uninformed as opaque abstraction. It fulfills for the bleary-eyed postmodern art-viewer a long-standing desire to feast on visual pleasure. In front of a dance—even a simple one of, say, a group of people jogging in intentional directions, or a gaggle of de-skilled dancers tumbling over one another in a meaty but graceful Huddle—the pupils are given permission to dilate and the critical faculties hit pause. Something of our overworked and reasoned mind is suspended and the fact of moving bodies can dazzle.
This perspective on dance is rife with problems. Never mind the infantilizing, pre-verbal status conferred to the form, or the troubling other-ing the work is subjected to when made into an object only to be looked at. The suggestion that dance is entrenched within its own language and therefore free of the demand to provide any critical reflection on the various social, institutional, and representational frames a dance work necessarily engages is deeply conservative and a betrayal of the work of so many—if still a minority—of artists who have worked with the form since 1960. Dance has extraordinary critical potential. The fact that too many choreographers have dodged this fact and instead elected to indulge in its plenitude only makes it more ripe for the picking for those choreographers and visual artists who are invested in these concerns.
But even a problematic discourse can hold more than a fragment of truth, and I think Bishop’s take on dance and the reasons for the art world’s interest in it is an example of this sort. Is dance not a seductive beauty, even when pared-down and de-skilled? Like drawing and singing, dance is a rudimentary form, something every child does. It is a basic and foundational mode of expression, one we explore even before we learn the codes of language. That we are drawn to look at it as adults and find pleasure in its simple and complex manifestations is proof of our common condition of living in bodies. These affective motors command us to move and sing and mark our way into existence. When dancing, we are closest to the psychic drives, touching the ur-text of our existence, the life and death forces that push us onward, minute by minute, through our lives and make for the muddled scatology that language organizes into meaning.
Language is not necessarily words; dance itself is wholly capable of producing its own system of representation. As in the systems of visual representation some may be more familiar with, this system resembles that of language—in that there is grammar and syntax, signs of every order, a structure—but is not a translation of it. As structuralist theory had to adapt linguistics and semiotics from the analyses of spoken and written language to include visual texts, so may theory need to work again to address these moving texts that are neither linguistic or exactly visual in form.
What is it precisely that differentiates a so-called moving text from a visual one? When I watch a dance performance with colleagues in the visual art field, a curator or critic or fellow artist, I notice they usually glom onto any aspect of the work that explores representation self-reflexively. Douglas Crimp has written extensively in Artforum about Merce Cunningham’s work as “pictures.” Carrie-Lambert Beatty launched an entirely new perspective on Yvonne Rainer’s practice when she mused that the choreographer’s work could be re-thought as an effect of her troubled seeing. Critics are thinking dance through the theories of representation and spectatorship that were developed in the 1970s and 80s as part of postmodern discourse and by this way, are producing an entirely new set of criteria for watching dance. This work will continue as the students of these and other established critics and historians enter the marketplace of ideas, many of whom are dancers, themselves, and may be able to more accurately account for precisely the difference I hinted at above.
This brings us full circle. If Bishop landed on one plausible motivation for visual art’s attention toward dance, I am taking a stab at why dance would care at all for visual art. In many respects, the financial agreements and labor conditions in dance are far more equitable and transparent than they are in visual art. My own experience has proved educational on this point. Labor and compensation in dance is modeled on the theater which is an old institution—a 20th century economic model—replete with unions and day rates, royalties and over-time. Though dance and its modest institutions rarely achieve these standards but for the larger opera houses, these are the principles to which it aspires. There is an effort to ensure everyone gets paid, the choreographer, the dancers, the lighting designer, the stage hand. This is not true in art. There is an effort to represent everyone’s unique contribution to the production of the work. In art, there is only ever one name on the wall label. When a dance is presented, the institution always makes a contract with the artist. It is uncommon for a gallery to sign any legal document with an artist; the field functions on a system of handshakes and winks.
These facts of economic disparity between the fields, inverted from how they have normally been discussed, may do nothing to dispel dance’s fantasy that art may be its patron. That is something to take up in another analysis. Once the financial myths are dispelled, why do some dancers and choreographers still struggle to be a part of art? I think it has a lot to do with the Claire Bishop’s, Douglas Crimp’s, and Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s of the art field and the expansive, engaging contestations of ideas that have fueled the art world since Duchamp. Dancers are hungry to be more than plenitudinous. And they are tired of addressing culture from the margins of its production. It’s no fun being the endangered species for whom a special sanctuary is made to keep you from the ravages of a capitalistic world if you have to live there for the rest of eternity talking to yourself. Anyone who knows a dancer well, knows she loves to talk, talks all the time, in fact, with her movements and her words, and does so with a voracity that cannot be sated by in-speak. Dance has a lot to say to the world about our common and contemporary experience and it will take more than a few good critics to work out the means by which we come to understand what is being said.