Fear and Loathing in New York: Mrs. Grundy Rears Her Head at the Times

“Here is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract attention at any price.”
— Theophile Gautier, critiquing Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” in the Moniteur Universel, June 24, 1865, cited by Jacques Letheve in ARTnews Annual, 1959

“…what an idiotic project…. A night in the slammer probably caused him at least as much fear as he caused straphangers.”
— Michael Kimmelman, critiquing Clinton Boisvert’s site-specific project for the School of Visual Arts in the New York Times, December 18, 2002

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on the DI on December 19, 2002. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of our archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 artist-critics of performances, films, exhibitions, and books from five continents published on the DI /AV since 1998, as well as PB-I’s Buzz column, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com .)

As alumnus Eugene O’Neill once wrote, Princeton University is a tradition-bound place. It was still that when I arrived about 70 years after O’Neill, and I frequently felt the need to overtly demonstrate that I was a non-conformist. One afternoon in 1984, this took the form of deciding to wear a white cowboy mask for the day. My rounds included a visit to the bank and, well, you can guess what happened. The police were very nice about it, simply advising me that it’s not a good idea to wear a mask into a bank. My classmates put it more bluntly: How could I be so stupid?

In my case, it was I who was not thinking, and it was the bank employees who were reacting as they should to a customer wearing a mask. However, the case of Clinton Boisvert, a freshman at the School of Visual Arts, is another matter altogether. Responding to an assignment for his Foundations of Sculpture class that he create a site-specific work, Mr. Boisvert (whose last name would translate in French as “Green wood”) last week reportedly painted 37 Fed Ex boxes black, scrawled the word “Fear” on them, and attached them to girders and walls in the Union Square subway station. Not having seen the work, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it taps into the post 9/11 NYC zeitgeist. But from reading numerous reports in the local media, I see nothing that warrants a) the charge of reckless endangerment with which, if one can believe the New York Times — a big if — the district attorney intends to prosecute young Boisvert, or b) the condescending crucifixion with which Times critic Michael Kimmelman attempted to lacerate the courageous artist in yesterday’s paper. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that an artist was working beyond the ability of a critic to comprehend.

“As the saying goes, art this bad ought to be a crime,” Mr. Kimmelman writes. Is this the best ‘criticism’ the chief art critic of the New York Times can come up with? Well… no! He then goes on to cite, approvingly, an even higher critical authority: the NYPD. (This would be the same NYPD who busted an artist of an earlier era, tapping into an earlier cultural zeitgeist, when Anna Halprin’s troupe was arrested for dancing nude at Hunter College in the 1960s.) “‘The kid is clueless, basically,’ a police official said on Monday,” Mr. Kimmelman continues, referring to the policeman’s quip, “demonstrating remarkable acumen as an art critic.” Well, actually — no. At best, what the police demonstrated, in responding to Mr. Boisvert’s installation by closing off the subway station for several hours and calling in the bomb squad, was a circumspection understandable from law enforcement in a post-9/11 New York. Never mind that, as even Kimmelman acknowledges, many New Yorkers had already guessed that the 37 boxes were an art project and not a security threat; a reasonable argument could be made that it is law enforcement’s job to err on the side of caution. One might also argue that it is their training to recognize even the slightest possible threat to public safety, and that they are not trained to recognize art projects.

An art critic, however, should be able to make this distinction. However, it seems to elude Mr. Kimmelman, who writes of Mr. Boisvert:

“Trying to imagine what he intended, I can only guess that he might say the boxes bearing ‘fear’ were meant to make tangible, as sculpture, what New Yorkers have felt since 9/11 — to give physical form to prevalent emotion. But that’s art mumbo jumbo. By provoking fear, the work trafficked in emotional violence.”

What a stunningly ignorant (“Mike, you ignorant slut!”) statement for a supposed art critic to make! Not all, but much art is MEANT to provoke emotional response. And not just of safe emotions. It is meant to hit us where we live. Cutting the NYPD the slack for actually removing the boxes — unlike Mr. Kimmelman, it’s not the cops’ job to recognize art — where, exactly, is the basis for charging Boisvert with ‘reckless endangerment’? Was there something inside the boxes they’re not telling us about?

And speaking of boxes: Also at Princeton, I had a professor of Russian literature named Ellen Chances. With her raven hair, pallid complexion and taste for old-fashioned dresses, Professor Chances looked like a heroine straight out of Tolstoy. Every session, she would write on the chalkboard elaborate charts explaining the literary and social context of that week’s assignment. One afternoon, Professor Chances did not show up for the beginning of class. When she strolled in 20 minutes late, she was wearing, for the first time ever, pants — blue jeans. She commenced to talk about boxes: The boxes we put things in, literal and figurative — she even pointed to the iron frames of the bright classroom’s windows as evidence. And when she was done, with 15 minutes left to go before the class normally concluded, she abruptly left.

In the United States right now, there is a big, huge box labelled FEAR. Can you see it? The Bush Administration grabs Iraq’s declaration on weapons before anyone else can see it not, of course, to edit out references to the numerous U.S. corporations and government agencies alleged (according to a German newspaper which claims to have obtained copies of some of the deleted pages) to have aided Iraq’s weapons programs over the years, but because the excised portions might help others construct weapons of mass destruction. Yup, put that one over in the FEAR box, my fellow Americans. Trust us. We know what you should fear.

Much of the coverage of Mr. Boisvert’s project has emphasized that he just arrived in New York three months ago, the inference being that he’s just a rube from the Midwest. I would draw a different lesson here: Plopped down in an alien mileau, Mr. Boisvert is, perhaps, able to see things — big picture things — that New Yorkers (or many, anyway) cannot see about themselves, captive as they are to the post-9/11 neurosis — how else explain Mr. Kimmelman’s exagerated response to a college art project? I could WRITE a thesis about this, but in painting that one word and those 37 boxes and placing them in a subway station, Mr. Boisvert has made much a more eloquent and communicative statement. I encourage his professors at SVA to affirm that he has a special gift. He didn’t “cause” the fear, as Mr. Kimmelman would have us believe; he identified it, as only an artist can. Mr. Kimmelman didn’t have to like the results, but he could have at least have had the eye to recognize the intention, and to reveal it to his readers, instead of abdicating his critical responsibility to law enforcement. But it’s not the first time in history a visionary artist has been pilloried by a tunnel-visioned critic. Mr. Boisvert, you have arrived

The Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 4: Add your light to the sum of light

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

To read more about Jill Johnston and more Jill Johnston Letters, click here. Today’s publication made possible by Dance Insider Co-Lead Sponsor Slippery Rock Dance. To find out how you can sponsor the longest-running dance magazine on the Internet, please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com  .

“What then must we do?” This is Linda Hunt’s big line in the 1982 film “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Hunt, you’ll remember, plays a diminutive cameraman named Billy Kwan, a role for which she won the Oscar. She, or he I should say, quotes the line, and its source — from Luke, chapter 3, verse 10 — near the beginning of the film while taking journalist Guy Hamilton, just off the plane from Australia, on a tour of Jakarta’s slums. Billy has plans for Guy, played by Mel Gibson. Here is the pre-Passion, pre-Lethal Weapon, pre-Braveheart, pre-blockbuster-addicted and drunkenly arrested anti-Semite raving Gibson as a young darkly handsome leading man in an intimate romance, directed by Peter Weir and put through his paces by co-actor “Billy,” a spiritually and socially enlightened “dwarf” as he is sometimes identified. His very first lines are his own voice-over while sitting at his typewriter creating a file for our hero, through whom Billy will live: “June 25, 1965, Dossier #10, Hamilton, Guy, born 1936 under the sign of Capricorn, occupation journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Service — Jakarta, first assignment as a foreign correspondent.” A revival of “Dangerously” in movie theaters country-wide would be appropriate right now. The political undertow, a steady pull powering the film beneath its fictional romance is the US/UK intervention in Indonesia to drive out the people-driven Communist movement, or PKI, depose President Sukarno who had been aligned with his people and install the dictator Suharto, making way of course for all manner of Western capitalist ventures.

As Guy/Mel gets off his plane and presents his papers you see on the wall behind him a huge sign: CRUSH U.S. AND BRITISH IMPERALISM. As the film ends, you see Jakarta in chaos, its military coup underway, and the beginnings of the great bloodbath, the famous massacre of many thousands of PKI or Communist party members, and the escape by air of our hero and other Westerners. When I saw the movie in 1983, I thought it was terrific. But I saw only Billy the narrator and prime mover, and the romance between Guy and Jill (Sigourney Weaver), and was mindlessly, incuriously aware of the political situation. It’s surely one of the few really convincing romantic relationships in movie annals. Looking at “Dangerously” now, I contemplate something new: of the couple, who am I? I started thinking about this while playing the video of Volume V of “Brideshead Revisited” over and over — the episode where Charles Ryder/Jeremy Irons and Julia/Diana Quick fall in love on a stormy Atlantic crossing, New York to Southampton. The political background in “Brideshead” is class and Roman Catholicism. As women, we may find Julia’s position in life ideal. The daughter of a Lord, beautiful and elegant, she commands Charles’s deference in seeking her love. This is England on the high seas, and Charles, merely from the upper middle class, and an artist, knows his place. But do we want to be Julia? As a Roman Catholic, she must marry one, or else a non-Catholic willing to prostrate himself before the Church, by pretense and/or conversion, for her to feel saved from perdition. She doesn’t so much fall for Charles, as allow him to love her. And if we read her conflict well, we know the affair can’t last.

Americans will be much more captivated by the romance of Guy and Jill in “Dangerously,” especially after 9/11, when many people in the population, once politically stupid or oblivious, like myself, woke up to our government as a rogue nation. Like Julia in “Brideshead,” Jill has the power — she is established in Jakarta before Guy gets there, she too is beautiful, is English, and she has a mysterious job at the British Embassy. Billy the puppet-master, a role attributed to Sukarno, and one Billy proudly claims himself, is already a devoted friend of Jill’s or Jilly as he may call her affectionately; and “Jilly” adores him too. By suggestion, sorcery and manipulation, he unites Guy and Jill. He wants us to see them against the poverty and corruption in Jakarta, thus Indonesia at large. Their attraction, and the huge energy it generates, exposes the Western luxury of romance in the midst of the ruins of Western indifference and exploitation. It also capitalizes LOVE as a transcendent force overcoming the misery created by state policies, local and international. A build-up under Weir’s expert direction and attention to detail sucks us into the romantic vortex. The ground is laid first by giving Guy some status to make him a viable suitor. He arrives from Australia without any contacts in his new post. You see him on his first day rushing around vainly in the presidential palace microphone in hand ready to interview someone, anyone — the other journalists already so employed. Later that day our omnipotent all-seeing “dwarf” who knows everybody finds Guy disheartened in his office, and makes him a spectacular offer. He will set Guy up for an interview the very next day with the second most important man after Sukarno in Jakarta, the leader of the PKI or Communist party. In return, Guy enlists Billy as his exclusive cameraman. But without the love of the most beautiful available woman in this politically explosive and tropically sweltering claustrophobic town, Guy’s profile is not complete. “Every man,” Billy tells Guy tantalizingly after he has introduced him to Jill, “wants to get into bed with her in the first five minutes.” Her history in Jakarta includes an affair with a French journalist, now reassigned to Saigon. Jill herself is soon to leave and return to England, and so after a glittering afternoon spent with Guy wandering through tropical groves, connecting in hilarity under a drenching downpour, and spending time in Billy’s quarters of wall-covered photos where they realize he is their medium; and a long moment locked in an open-mouthed gaze signifying romantic recognition, she disappears into the Embassy, waving Guy off as he presses her to get together again, laughingly turning him down, saying she’s leaving soon and doesn’t want to complicate things. It is her power now, to bestow her love or not, that makes the film suspenseful and exciting. She doesn’t return his calls, and he has no access otherwise.

Guy in the meantime has been influenced by Billy, the film’s androgynous wonder, to write his stories with more feeling and compassion. We have to keep in mind their first moments walking together through Jakarta’s slums, when Billy quoted from Luke, “What then must we do?” She, or rather he, had told Guy, still in tie and shirt, with jacket in hand slung over shoulder, the underprivileged swarming all around them in a dark evening light, that Tolstoy asked this same question, and even wrote a book with that title. Tolstoy got so upset about the poverty he saw in Moscow that he went one night to the poorest section of the city and just gave away all his money. Billy tells Guy, “You could do that now; five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.” Guy predictably says it wouldn’t do any good, that it would just be a drop in the ashes. “Ah,” says Billy, “that was the same conclusion Tolstoy came to — but I disagree.” “Oh?” asks Guy, “What’s your solution?” And Billy says, “I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues, you do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light.” Supplying Guy’s answer, he adds, “You think that’s naive, don’t you?” And Guy verifies, “Yup, we [journalists] can’t afford to get involved.” Then as we see, Billy makes sure he does, with reports to his newspaper that become increasingly sympathetic to the people.

In a middle-class piece of the U.S. known as my neighborhood, you are aware without asking that we all feel the same way: remote from government, powerless to affect its murderous policies, living in an archaic political system called democracy, waiting for the other terrorists, the ones we call evil, to get their nuclear arsenal together in some semblance of a “state” in order to blast us to kingdom come.

In Billy’s impotent world of “Dangerously,” he finds strength in immediacy. While Guy and Jill are hanging out in his quarters waiting for him, on that glittering afternoon when they form a romantic understanding, they are both leaning forward staring at one of Billy’s photographs: a poor woman from the “inner city” and her woebegone little son whom Jill says Billy has adopted. Guy imagines for a second, with a smile, that Billy “has a woman” until Jill puts him straight, explaining that he gives them food and money, “that’s all.” At the end of that day, Guy, now smitten, exists in a hung time-frame until Billy makes a final move to get the two together.

Waving a British Embassy party invitation addressed to Guy in front of his face, he asks him if he doesn’t plan to go. Guy says he has no jacket and the British are hard to understand. Billy says the British are just more subtle, you have to listen harder, and — “Jill will be there.” A fast cut shows Guy in his hotel room scrambling in a suitcase, clothes flying, looking for a forgotten formal jacket. The next cut has him at the Embassy party staring into the crowd, spotting Jill chatting in a small group, heading toward her with grim purpose, a bull, a Zeus, the god who marched or galloped toward Europa to abduct her. He segregates her by grasping one of her arms and pulling her just outside the party environs, on some alcove or balcony, and Jill succumbs to his kisses but says she can’t possibly leave with him… that “All of Jakarta will know….” He stalks away and outside to his car, which won’t start, giving Jill time to change her mind and follow him. Now Zeus has Europa in his car, and he bears her off in a propulsive burst of his engine and of Maurice Jarre’s fabulous synethesizer score — a basso ostinato drumming underneath, like an insistent rapid heartbeat; brass or horn simulations in the middle register, and on top, an insanely driving exciting soprano melodic line. The denouement we all waited for is underway.

As they hurtle toward consummation, borne on the urgency of the score, with Jill all over Guy kissing him as he tries to handle his chariot, crashing through a military barrier marked by a leaping bonfire and armed soldiers who shoot to kill, madly laughing as they escape, operatic crescendos by Jill, baritone versions by Guy, now integrated with the pulsing orgasmic score, they are heading for Billy’s bungalow, vacated by him for just such an outcome. Then all is silence as you see Billy outside his place, his hand on Guy’s car, lingering a moment, savoring his triumph with a slight smile, knowing he has made love manifest in the besieged town of Jakarta. Love amidst crisis, the most believable kind of love in films, perhaps in life. I always fell in love when I needed saving. I know, by the way, who I am in these movie couples and it is not who I am supposed to be. I was plainly never Jill, or the “Brideshead” Julia, or let’s say Faye in “Chinatown” or Ingrid in “Casablanca” or whatshername who plays the Amish widow in “Witness,” another brilliant Weir film with a romance built on a crisis. A film featuring me has never been made. After seeing the two cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” the most recent beautifully structured and shot film with a convincing romance played out against a calamitous background, I tried to imagine a couple of women equally credible in love and in unlikely roles. That’s as far as I got. What on earth would such “unlikely roles” be? But let’s face it; we need a “Brokeback” for women. This thought may seem altogether vain and offensively privileged in light of the worldwide assaults on women and girls, America hardly excluded — murder, sexual slavery, genital mutilations, domestic violence and much more, currently well documented with stunning statistics by the United Nations. In the Jakarta of “Dangerously,” 1965, women are not singled out or identified as a specially oppressed group; they never are where cinematic slumming occurs. But Billy’s death is specifically linked to the impoverished uneducated woman and her little boy whom he has been helping with food, money, and love. He tells us about her plight: “In another country, she might be a decent woman. Here, she begs and perhaps sells herself. Her tragedy is repeated a million times in this city.”

The death of the boy, who had become fatally ill, drives Billy to madness and suicide. “What then must we do?” he clamors over his typewriter, punching violently at the keys, detonating them, no longer able to find strength in immediacy, but compelled to think about the “major issues.” After leaving the dead boy and his grieving mother, he glares upward at a looming poster-portrait of Sukarno, once his hero, a leader of the people, now co-opted by the right in the military coup. Billy fashions a demonstration, hanging a banner outside a hotel window six or seven floors high, saying SUKARNO FEED YOUR PEOPLE, forcing him to hurl himself out the window to his death when two security guards of the new regime break into the room, aim their guns at him and start shooting. It was not just Sukarno, but Guy, by whom Billy felt undone. His handiwork matchmaking Guy and Jill looked destroyed after Guy betrayed Jill for his career, becoming just a guy you could say, no longer Billy’s creation: a man inspired by love.

Love and politics had intermingled suddenly when Jill at the British Embassy received a coded message from Singapore saying a shipment of arms is on its way from Shanghai for the PKI or Communist forces. If successfully in PKI hands, civil war would ensue, and all the Westerners in Jakarta would be slaughtered. Jill walks slowly, twisting uncertainly in a steady rain, accompanied by a somewhat muted version of Jarre’s electronic score, toward Guy’s office, evidently trying to make up her mind whether to tell him or not. But she will tell him — after they end up in bed, because she wants to save him (she says she can get him on a plane “tomorrow”). But Guy has other ideas. His eyes get big as pinwheels over the news, and he jumps at the fantastic scoop, ready instantly to risk their relationship by broadcasting the message, and to risk death by staying in Jakarta reporting a bloody civil war. Instead of course, the shipment never made it, or if it did, the military picked it up, and the fortunes of the British and other Westerners there changed. Now they didn’t have to leave but my impression is that most of them did — unwilling to witness the huge massacre of people that they divined or knew directly their governments were behind. It eliminated the mass-based political party of the poor and opened the doors wide to Western investors. Chomsky says the massacre “was greeted with unrestrained euphoria” in the West. Isn’t this how most Americans felt about our invasions and countless slayings of innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11?

The end of Billy in “Dangerously” effectively ends the movie. Both Guy and Jill are devastated by his fatal plunge to his death, and the film’s last scenes are vague codas making you wonder if Jill will take Guy back after his betrayal, and if Guy will help his case by giving up his designs to stay and report the horrors at hand, or escape Jakarta on the same plane as Jill, hoping she will have him. As Billy had said at some point, invoking Jesus or Tolstoy, who became a Christian anarchist, believing only things Jesus reportedly said, not what the Church made of him, “We must give love to whomever God has placed in our path.” In our movie-looking path, we sigh with relief seeing Guy walk across an expanse of airport tarmac, his left eye heavily bandaged after an encounter with the security police, no baggage on him except his passport, his khaki jumpsuit stained dark with sweat, reunited with Jill as she embraces him in the door of a Royal Netherlands airplane.

For us film-infatuated Westerners, Billy’s vision and legacy of romantic love remains intact.

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager, click here.

Life for a ‘Luxury Item’ after 9/11/01

By Veronica Dittman
Copyright 2001, 2019 Veronica Dittman

First sent out to the DI E-mail list on September 15, 2001. Veronica Dittman is the founding editor of the Dance Insider, and without whom the magazine would not have been possible. 18 years later, Veronica, and you still bring me to tears. — PBI

Dear Dance Insider Readers,

There is a long-standing delicate matter between my respected friend Paul, the editor of this venture, and me. It consists of my defensive insistence that he not print any of my submissions without letting me approve his edits to them. However, in this case, I am trusting him to not let this be too personal, too self-indulgent, or too full of parenthetical notes (but Paul, don’t you think an occasional glimpse of the subtext can be interesting? like when someone’s slip is showing?). He’s asked for written responses from us New Yorkers, but like everyone here, I’m a little strung out and am aware that my judgment is probably wobbly.

We’re quickly learning to live in the aftermath. Phone lines are undependable, the subways are undependable, there are 90 bomb threats a day, we hear fighter jets overhead patrolling us but mostly we can’t see them, and the air quality is horrendous in places. Just the same, I took ballet with Marjorie Mussman yesterday and the class was well attended (she comes in from New Jersey!), and Stef tells me she took class with Zvi at City Center this week. Friends came over to my apartment last night, and after the now routine exchange of stories and impressions, there was much hilarity.

Among my concentric circles of friends, so far I’ve only heard tales of luck, escape, and relief, so I’m grateful. But then, there are so many people gone that it becomes impersonal. If ol’ Martha was onto something with the idea of collective unconscious, there’s such a big hole here that we all feel it. There are fliers made on home computers and posted on bus shelters and lamp posts everywhere, with a photo and phone numbers: “If you’ve seen this person, please call.”

At my worst, I’m scared to drink the water, I’m scared to breathe the air, and I practically hyperventilate when the train stops for a routine red signal. In an outburst of selfishness, I’m scared that I won’t be able to get to my doctor’s appointment on Tuesday, or that the doctor will be busy with some new disaster. The hardest part for me is accepting that now the structures and systems I’d taken for granted are vulnerable and impermanent. Everything will be different now, unstable. (For once, I would love to be wrong. I would love to think back on this in a year and see myself as a melodramatic alarmist.) It’s possible, probable, that there’s more horror to come, that we’ll live with it. I’m aware that so many other cultures have had to live with this fear, and have adapted, but I arrogantly thought we were immune here.

I find I’m hopelessly in love with the physical, and my tangled theology reveals itself. I’ve got the Apostles’ Creed promising “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting” and I’m drawn to these Zen Buddhist dancing skeletons meant to confront “the impermanent nature of material existence” so that freedom, bliss, and enlightenment can become possible.

After an initial impulse to run like hell all the way to my parents’ house in Wisconsin, I don’t want to leave. As Fran Liebowitz said in a radio interview this morning, “I need myself here, even if no one else does.” I also related to her identifying herself as a “luxury item”: my skills aren’t particularly useful right now. She pointed out that construction workers and nurses, who never get any press around here, are desperately needed, and it turns out that the stylists and designers are temporarily unimportant.

Sending out good wishes to you all,

Veronica