Everyone’s a Critic, or Raising the Barre

I woke up on Friday morning with Frühlingstimmen on my mind, either because subconsciously I was aware that it was supposed to be the first day of Spring, or perhaps I have larger concerns given that I am hearing voices of Spring in my head. In any case, I was puzzled to see that it was snowing outside. Thinking that perhaps the Library of Congress had a piece of sheet music related to this clash of the expected with chilly reality, I searched in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia using the words “cold spring.”

Such a search does not turn up any sheet music, but it does yield a newspaper clip entitled “Graham Dancers Prove Puzzle At Eastman,” written by Norman Nairn. Immediately I had this image of Martha Graham and her troupe busily solving some sort of spatial movement puzzle, or perhaps showing that the puzzle remains an enigma regardless of mathematical assault, or something along those lines. All I could think was: “are Eucliddin’ me?”

On closer inspection, the article proved to be a review dating from January 30, 1945 of Martha Graham and her dancers, who performed at “the Eastman,” as Nairn calls it. The review is filled with amazing quotes, and you should read it in its entirety, but here is how it opens:

“Martha Graham and her dance company came to the Eastman last night and left a large audience completely bewildered by her first two offerings, ‘Appalachian Spring’ and ‘Deaths and Entrances.’ Presumably it was their introduction to the modern dance, the new form as evolved by Miss Graham. If there was one person in the whole auditorium who understood what it was all about, diligent search failed to unearth that person.

Fortunately, for the sake of this reviewer and 99 ½ per cent of the audience, there was some relief and something to understand about the finale, ‘Every Soul is a Circus.'”

Thus begins a remarkable sequence of newspaper clips from the Martha Graham Collection, and of course I was immediately hooked, especially by the notion that Every Soul is a Circus trumped Appalachian Spring in terms of intelligibility for this reviewer (Incidentally, Every Soul is a Circus was the entry point for Merce Cunningham into Graham’s group, and the work received a favorable response by composer David Diamond).

Norman Nairn, "Graham Dancers Prove Puzzle At Eastman," Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, January 30, 1945.

Norman Nairn, “Graham Dancers Prove Puzzle At Eastman,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, January 30, 1945.

The review continues:

“This wasn’t ballet–it was the MODERN DANCE. I approach the task of comment with fear and trembling, for I confess to knowing absolutely nothing about this kind of art–if it be such, and presumably it is–nor could I find anybody who considered it anything but futile. I’ll be excoriated for that by the dance modernists, no doubt, those with whom such dancing is a cult, similar to the cult of artists whose paintings can be hung upside down or crosswise without making any difference.”

Here is the EVERYMAN writing about the INSCRUTABLE. I love how “the MODERN DANCE” is referred to as one might to “the PLAGUE.” One could immediately rush to judge the philistine for lambasting that of which he is professedly ignorant, but there is an honesty to his writing, even a sort of charm to it, that is in itself aesthetically gratifying. A number of issues are brought to the fore, and they are as relevant now as they were then:

  • Why is this particular critical voice given the weight of a published review?
  • Does professed lack of qualification make negligible the critic’s opinions? Or does it provide context that empowers the readers’ own judgments?
  • For whom does the critic speak? (Here the critic suggests that he speaks for 99.5% of the audience)
  • For the person who did not attend the event, is the critic (local, regional, etc.) serving the role of “arbiter of taste?”

 

The writer of the review offers a caveat regarding his modern dance knowledge, and knows that such an admission may have consequences (as would the lack of an admission, one might suppose). But beyond dance, what was the response to the music, including Copland’s much-loved work, now considered a general draw to the musical “laity?”

“And the music!… This was all dissonant, austere, angular, and stood out like a collection of sore thumbs. A whole evening of it was just too much to take.”

This is an interesting response, and instructive if we reflect on the reception of now-canonic works like Appalachian Spring. Despite these misgivings, the critic still recognizes, in his way, the artistry of Martha Graham and the rest of the dancers:

“I presume the performance of Miss Graham and her assistance [sic] could be called brilliant and vivid. I presume the movements were expressive, but of what I wouldn’t know. Also I suppose it was all stimulating, fascinating, but I wouldn’t know about that, either. It must have been a terrific lot of hard work, but for what? We’re really not educated up to it, poor, provincial people that we are and too much devoted to the obvious.”

In the final argument, the reviewer covers himself from all sides–in a savvy political move–by shielding himself from the experts on the one hand (i.e., maybe this modern dance stuff is great for those in the know), and cloaking himself in the “shared experience” of the masses on the other (the collective “we” does not possess the background to understand this, so please refrain from exposing us to it). He ends with the line: “But, please, no more modern dance–at least for a long while. We’ve not been educated to it.” This, sadly, is not a plea for increased understanding, but rather expressive of the desire to not force the boundaries of comfort to stretch, or worse, be breached by the unfamiliar.

Elizabeth Stiles, “For Modern Dance,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, February 1, 1945.

This review is interesting by itself, but it is linked to a rich tradition of reader response–a perhaps slower process in 1945 due to limited media outlets for the public, but one no less impassioned than one finds in the comments attached to a contentious blog posting today. After pulling up the review in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia, I looked at the often-helpful “See Also” listing on the left side of the page, and found a series of three responses to “Graham Dancers Prove Puzzle At Eastman.” The first dates from February 1, 1945, and based on what I could discover, seems to have been written by a student at Eastman, a cellist named Elizabeth Stiles who only recently passed away in 2014. Her letter to the editor starts out as a harsh criticism of Nairn: “The Democrat and Chronicle must be pretty hard up for news when they have to fill up their columns with the ravings of a professed ignoramus concerning a very worthwhile evening of modern dance by Martha Graham.”

After she expresses her concern about the influence of the critic’s opinions on those who might be susceptible to the views, Stiles asks “[w]hy must there be any comment unless it be from a person who knows at least a little bit about the subject at hand?” I don’t think she means that the opinion does not matter, but rather that it should not be afforded primacy of expression in the columns of a newspaper. But what of a solution to the problem? Stiles continues:

“We, of the Eastman School, are taught to approach such an evening [of something unfamiliar] with an altogether different attitude: On finding out the program ahead of time and if there is something entirely new listed, there are libraries, periodicals and a few ‘unprovincial’ people around to give us some explanation or help.”

That is, there is a measure of responsibility that the audience member bears when approaching art–it is not enough to be passively entertained; one must actively pursue the exceptional encounter. Stiles closes with the opposite call for action from event organizers: “Please, more modern dance!”

Betty Anne Percy, "Enough for a While," Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, February 2, 1945.

Betty Anne Percy, “Enough for a While,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, February 2, 1945.

The next day, February 2, 1945, brought a response in support of Nairn’s original review, by Rochester resident Betty Anne Percy. The header is “Enough for a While.” In a confessional but straightforward manner, Percy brings an honest yet complex contribution to the discussion. She establishes her credentials early on:

“I don’t know anything about music–I never studied it. I don’t know anything about dance–I never studied it. I love both of them, and that’s the only claim I have for making any comment on Mr. Nairn’s work.”

At a stroke, she transfers the validity of experience from belonging to those with or without knowledge, to those who have a passion for art. She buttresses Nairn’s quality of critical fairness to artists (indeed, one senses not so much disrespect as befuddlement in the original review). The ability to understand what is happening on stage is not just a question of education for Percy, but additionally one of perceptive receptivity:

“We three Percys went to this performance knowing we were going to see a new art form, and well prepared to adapt our senses accordingly. My husband was the only one of us who could; Patsy, the 10-year-old and I were worn out trying.”

Despite the counterexample of the husband’s positive response (without a priori knowledge of the art), Percy gives constructive feedback that is not an attack on the art form, but rather the manner in which it was presented:

“I have no patience with people who cannot try to understand a new language [.] Such an attitude is unadulterated prejudice. But I think he who chooses to introduce a new language spoils his own chance by not doing it gently, gradually, and with the fullest possible explanation. My husband says that I had the wrong viewpoint. I couldn’t relax and let it sink in in its own way. He was right, I couldn’t relax, and every fiber of my being was concentrated on trying to find the proper attitude. Why couldn’t something be said to help us over that point?”

In terms of effort, Percy represents the active audience member, although perhaps unrealistically expecting an encapsulate-able explanation of the “meaning” of an artistic encounter. The notion of gradual exposure is certainly a viable strategy in certain contexts, but it begs a few questions:

  • Is the gradual move from familiar to unfamiliar supposed to take place within the space of a single performance, as implied?
  • What about the audience member who starts at a greater or lesser degree of familiarity with the art form–that is, how could performers provide this gradual transition to all parties over multiple performance experiences, or a more extended period of time?

The makeup of an audience, of course, is not dichotomous–knowledge, experience and predilection, if measurable at all, would be points on a dynamic continuum, different for each person in each situation.

So why did my query of “cold spring” lead to this series of newspaper articles? “Spring” is clear enough, but “cold” comes from the last letter to the editor I will mention here, written by Hilda Altschule Coates and published on February 6, 1945, under the title “Cold to New Art?” Despite her middle name, Coates is not “old school” in her observations. After a dressing down of Nairn, Coates offers her historical perspective:

“Mr. Nairn… is only one of a long line of chronic resisters who have played so lamentable a role in the evolution of art. These people characteristically accept an art form about 50 years after it has ceased to have any vitality, and oppose with vehemence, ridicule, or dogmatism (often imperfectly concealed by a pretended humility) any innovation which challenges or seems to challenge the ‘hand-me-downs’ which they have so uncritically cherished as absolute standards of art.”

Hilda Altschule Coates, "Cold to New Art?," Rochester Democrat and Chronicle," February 6, 1945.

Hilda Altschule Coates, “Cold to New Art?,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, February 6, 1945.

Coates continues to explain that her experience in talking to other members of the audience (those who did not walk out), was not one of unilateral opinion along the lines of levels of education:

“These people, most of them laymen like Mr. Nairn, did not necessarily understand every passage in the highly complex patterns of movement presented by Miss Graham and her company; but neither would they or Mr. Nairn know the meaning of every interval in a Beethoven sonata or find themselves able to detect a story in a Bach fugue.”

Neither, I suspect, would anyone possessing a degree of expertise in an art form claim access to universal understanding of artistic content. Art is not a puzzle to be solved; or rather, being able to solve it would remove its mystery and degrade the experiences possible with an artistic encounter and the communities involved in its creation and reception.

Beyond the inherent interest that these heartfelt letters from 70 years ago hold, I had several takeaways from my brief encounter with them:

  • These issues were vital in the past, are relevant now (in an age of readily available information  that is nonetheless filtered by various societal forces), and likely will remain so in the future;
  • Opinions thoughtfully ventured are worthwhile in themselves, despite the issues of power that remain about who is granted a position of critical authority;
  • The polarities of absolute expertise and ignorance form a double-edged sword, but few of us actually gets close enough to either edge to risk a serious cut.

When you open a box that resides in a special collection at the Library of Congress, there is always the potential to discover something meaningful that was unexpected. Likewise, an uninspired search (like “cold spring”) of the Library’s online resources can yield unanticipated lines of inquiry, rewarding the intrepid (or persistent) explorer. With some context and an open-minded attitude, artistic experiences can be more meaningful and varied.

I close here with a less-linguistically-limber version of the Nairn/Stiles plea, this time addressed to the potential audience instead of the presenter:

“Please, attend more live performances, and be a part of reception history!”

3 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    March 24, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    What a wonderful exercise in serendipitous discovery!

  2. Sharon M.
    March 24, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    Wow. Who could imagine “Simple gifts” and the rest of Appalachian Spring as a sore thumb?!” Well, obviously, THESE people did! Great post; thanks! (p.s. i’ve seen A.S. at LC, and the choreography is as angular and austere as you can get!)

    “And the music!… This was all dissonant, austere, angular, and stood out like a collection of sore thumbs. A whole evening of it was just too much to take.”

  3. JLo
    March 25, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    Having alternately been on the Nairn end of the continuum, boorishly rejecting a piece which I was unprepared and unwilling to give any measure of artistic credit, and the Coates side, deriding those not appreciating my selected art as the same boors I resembled on the Nair side, I found this to be a fascinating exploration of the audience response to a new exposure. Let’s hope Mr. Plylar continues to wake up and be filled with seeming contradictions like a “cold spring”.

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