To the Editor:

After reading Terry Teachout’s endorsement of Arlene Croce’s (in)famous article in the New Yorker [“Victim Art,” March], several questions which had been nagging me finally crystallized: Is there a distinction between “victim art” and documentaries of victims? What is “art for art’s sake”? What is meant by “political art”?

The first question is of primary importance because Still/Here, the Bill T. Jones dance piece at the heart of the furor, incorporated videotape of real people talking about their life-threatening afflictions. It seems clear to me that what Croce objects to most is the inclusion of documentary footage; the use of these people and their stories is what places Jones’s piece beyond criticism, because who can criticize a cancer victim’s portrayal of her condition? And yet, many victims have had their stories made into vital art. Surely there is a difference between a videotaped testimonial of a syphilis victim and a performance of Ibsen’s Ghosts; between an interview with a stroke victim and Arthur Kopit’s Wings; between a Holocaust testimonial and Schindler’s List.

But perhaps this distinction is too complex for Mr. Teachout, who hankers for an autonomous art, free from “politicization.” What confuses me is the insistence by many today, especially by those who are comfortable enough with themselves and their livelihood to have no ax to grind, on “art for art’s sake.” Such a vague phrase is hard to trace, but the farther one goes into the history of art, especially performed art, the less sense it makes. Whether one investigates the origins of the theater and dance in religion, or of painting in history-telling, the occurrence of art free from explicit ties to politics is unusual. From the annual, government-sponsored festivals of drama in ancient Greece, to the royal patronage of composers and artists in Europe, to the performance of Balinese ritual theater, art has everywhere, always, had something to do with politics.

Of course, our understanding of the “political” is what ultimately trips up discussions of political art. Those who see political art as that which relates directly to questions of government or to current events may watch most ballets or plays without feeling the need to think. . . . Good for them. But for those who believe that all relationships among human beings involve politics and scales of power and submission and, therefore, that all art is political, the primary concern will be the power of the presentation of those relationships. . . .

Finally, about the so-called politically-correct understanding that to criticize and censure a work of art without seeing it is oppressive it is. The roots of oppression, whether of Jews, women, or art, lie in the suppression of the unknown. Though Croce might have felt that she already knew what the piece would be “about,” she didn’t and it is wrong of her to write about something she had little knowledge of. I am thankful, however, that she presented such a wide target for those of us who have always believed art to be linked to human life, both to the victors and to the victims.

Jon Sherman
Washington, D.C.



Terry Teachout Writes:

In declaring that “all relationships among human beings involve politics and scales of power and submission and, therefore, that all art is political,” Jon Sherman reveals himself to be a member of the congregation to which Bill T. Jones and his ilk are preaching. I wholeheartedly encourage them to start a support group—so long as they don’t ask me to help them rent the hall.

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