Six years ago, when I began teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology for applied and not-so-applied arts, the professors hiring me asked if I might like to try my hand at a course that prepared graphic design students for the workplace—or at least got them in the door.
There would be lessons in resumé writing, they said.
But I don’t know anything about resumé writing, I protested—or the workplace, I managed not to add. (Why else would I be teaching for peanuts?)
Fine, they said.
Thus began my dive into the literature of layouts and fonts; shoes and belts (for the next stop, accessories design); obstacle courses for rescue pets and playlands for the elderly (interior design).
My hope was that my students would think broadly and deeply about the objects of study whose minutiae they were working out in their other courses. F.I.T., however, has always been practical-minded. In 1944, founder Mortimer Ritter was entirely serious when he alluded to that other “institute of technology” (hint: in Massachusetts) at the christening of his own, but the experimental thinking that distinguishes technology from the merely technical was not then and is not now a priority for a school that began on the top floors of Manhattan’s Central High School for Needle Trades.
I never did convince my accessories design students of the use Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes—about the form that painting and fashion have lent the naked body—might have for their impending sports-bag assignment. Nor would my interior design aspirants have conceded that Foucault’s dour history of the hospital might help them with their floor plan for a public health clinic—because it wouldn’t. No self-respecting arts school would discourage students from tearing down the walls of conventional thinking, but F.I.T. insisted that meanwhile they memorize the building codes for those walls.
Nevertheless, when a couple of years ago my grim march through the Art and Design departments delivered me to Photography, I felt vindicated—and not just as a professor. I knew that as a metonymy for modernity, photography attracted brilliant writers: I had read Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin. But on this topic I had yet to encounter Roland Barthes. His Camera Lucida, from 1980, made me realize what I had been missing and wanting for dance.
The cheerfully contrarian, mournfully personal Reflections on Photography, as this slim, peripatetic book is subtitled, does not elaborate, it lays bare. Its propositions are as transparent as glass—or a Zen koan, slipping through your fingers like water. Eventually the individual assertions delicately cohere, like the rooms in a glass house when light passes through. Camera Lucida is well titled.
For this last book published in his lifetime, Barthes’s ambition was “to formulate the fundamental feature, the universal without which there would be no Photography.”1 He didn’t mean the chemistry, though he recognized the science as central to the photograph’s effect. Rather, it was this effect that interested him. Not the technology, but the art. Not the thing in itself but the pact the photograph initiates with the viewer. This is what interests me about dance as well.
He soon discovered, however, that photography did not lend itself to definition. It took after the disorder of the world that it so often documented: “It was as if I were seeking the nature of a verb which had no infinitive, only tense and mode.”2 But before he would concede that there was no Photography, just photographs, he wanted to investigate.
With dance, we scholars, historians, critics, and theorists tend largely to assume. We proceed as if the nature of dance went without saying or, worse, that definition were constraint. We have done well by certain periods and artists (Cunningham and Balanchine, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Judson Church), but we have yet to consider what unites these artists and periods: what their relation is not differentially but essentially, as Barthes would say.3
We have approached dance historically (providing context) and critically (assessing value) but rarely philosophically. We have no Constitution for the united states of dance.
That other Constitution, of the United States, lays out principles for governance; it does not map the territories, big ruler in hand. It proceeds conceptually, not geographically. Dance, of course, already exists. Its constitution need merely be discovered, not invented; described, not prescribed. But the distinction between labelling parts for ease of handling and recognizing essential properties still holds. With dance, we can name the territories but not the country to which they belong. As Barthes says of photography, “the various distributions we impose upon it are either empirical (Professionals/Amateurs) or rhetorical (Landscapes/Objects/Portraits/ Nudes) or else aesthetic (Realism/Pictorialism), in any case external to the object, without relation to its essence.”4
The 2010 exhibition On Line: Drawing Through the Twentieth Century suggests what happens when all there is to organize the selection of work are superficial categories. The MoMA show, the website explains,
argues for an expanded history of drawing that moves off the page into space and time…making line the subject of intense exploration: as the path of a moving point or a human body in motion (the dancer tracing dynamic lines across the stage, the wandering artist tracing lines across the land), as an element in a network, and as a boundary—political, cultural, or social.5
Great, right? Dance integrated into a major exhibition dedicated to “intense exploration”! But then you go to the show. The dance fell far short of the generous claims made for it. For the “dancer tracing dynamic lines across the stage,” Trisha Brown’s troupers played a nearly stationary game of outsized pickup sticks, for example. Sure, there were lines—those plywood strips—but they hardly qualified as “dynamic.” While On Line’s visual artists lifted line off the flat surface, Brown nailed it back down, in literal-minded Judson Church fashion.
Downtown dance has never had much use for line. It is ballet that has made it a central concern—from the zigzag entrance of the shades in Petipa’s “La Bayadère” of the nineteenth century to the Muses’ legs that fan out like sunrays from Balanchine’s young Apollo to the serpentine chorus line in the same choreographer’s 1972 “Symphony in Three Movements,” not to mention his dancers’ off-kilter splay of limbs, which William Forsythe pushed to the limit a generation later. The evolution of the line is as good a key to ballet’s long, rich history as any.
On Line did include one piece by a ballet choreographer, Forsythe’s marvelous seven-minute video, Solo, which debones basic ballet steps so they bend and entwine like double helixes. Yet without the company of other works the solo’s dissolution of ballet architecture barely registered.
Juxtaposition—of an artist with his contemporaries or with those within an established or proposed lineage—is typically how museums establish value and meaning. The On Line curators used this method for the visual art but then seemed to assume that dance did not need contexts of its own. And it probably wouldn’t have if the work had been more sensitively chosen. The selection was handicapped, though, by this near-exclusion of ballet. The curators seem to have extrapolated from visual art that “classical” spells obsolete, which makes “classical dance” regressive and “modernist ballet” a contradiction in terms. According to this scheme, Nijinsky and Nijinska are anomalies, Balanchine a throwback, and Forsythe significant only insofar as he cuts ties with ballet (the ties that Solo stretched notwithstanding).
As long as those of us with deep knowledge of dance fail to develop a “universal without which there would be no [dance],” ignorant formulations will fill the gap, guaranteeing dance’s low status and poor representation among the arts.
Barthes’s reasons for seeking photography’s sine qua non were more immediate. His mother, with whom the 60-year-old writer had lived his entire life, had died. Barthes’s most powerful wish was to find again “the truth of the face I had loved.”6
He found it in a photograph—and transferred his relief at this truth-deliverance to curiosity about the medium itself. Camera Lucida draws hypotheses like Ariadne’s thread7 from the single beloved image and tests them against the full “evidence of Photography.”8 Once he completed this quest, the grieving, orphaned Barthes went to the hospital for a minor ailment—and died.
Camera Lucida is certainly idiosyncratic, but not in its deriving principles for a whole field from a single example. Critics often organize their thinking around the work they most love, because love heightens attention and subdues ego: it renders us susceptible to influence. I would argue that it also engenders the kind of meta-consciousness Barthes experienced with the photograph of his mother, whereby its particular operations spoke to the art form as a whole.
And what epiphanies about dance do I experience before my favorite works? The paradoxical feelings they elicit—melancholy joy, poignant fatalism. Or the way one extreme yields another: the dancer disappearing into the dance to resurface autonomous; the dancer homing in on a particular texture of movement that magically clarifies her persona.
Always at these moments I sense the unstable unity of person and thing, artist and art object: dancer and dance.
In my columns for “Between the Dancer and the Dance” I will approach this force field by various indirections: besides more Barthes, the modernist poets who express an affinity with dance, the rare philosopher to consider the art form, individual works, whole genres, and ensemble choreography. To go about it more directly would be like staring straight into the sun.
Next column: I propose the dancer-dance union (and rift) as the art form’s “fundamental feature.”
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (abbreviated CL). Translated from the French by Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 9