Book Review: Living In an Artworld

Nöel Carroll’s collection of 1970s-era reviews and essays bring the vibrant downtown New York avant-garde arts scene to life.

Book Review for ASAGE

This collection of influential dance, performance art, theater, and fine art exhibition reviews, curated from The Village Voice, Artforum, Dance Magazine, SoHo Weekly News and more provide an invaluable insight into the avant-garde New York arts scene of the late 1970s.

CARROLL, NOËL. Living in an Artworld: Reviews and Essays on Dance, Performance, Theater, and the Fine Arts in the 1970s and 1980s. Evanston Publishing 2012, 388 pp., $22.50 paperback.

Erum Naqvi (excerpt)

Noël Carroll’s substantial contributions to contemporary Analytic philosophy of art and film need no introduction. They are complemented in this text with a collection of essays showcasing his body of work as an art critic in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. Comprising, for the first time in one volume, an anthology of Carroll’s influential reviews of dance, performance art, theater, and fine art events and exhibitions in New York, along with philosophical essays on these topics ranging from 1978–2007 (with the majority originally published between 1978 and 1984), this text provides an invaluable insight into the avant-garde New York arts scene of the late seventies and early eighties, seen through Carroll’s philosophically astute lens.

John Cage, Water Walk (score), 1959.

Following a foreword by Arthur Danto, in which Carroll’s critical and philosophical writings are presented as a valuable “downtown” counterpart to the “uptown” aesthetics of this time that focused more exclusively on more traditional arts of painting and sculpture, this volume is divided into sections featuring reviews and essays on “Dance,” “Performance and Theater,” “Fine Art,” and later reflections on the conceptual and global implications of the characterization of the art movements in this period as postmodern in the final “Coda” section. Carroll situates the focus of this anthology on arts that share a commitment to exploring the idea of perceptual indiscernibility between art and life that was beginning to taking center stage in avant-garde and mainstream art circles during this time, an idea that features prominently in Danto’s seminal philosophical writings on art. Arguing that the blurring of boundaries between ordinary objects or events and art works and between traditional and non-traditional art media in the work of artists like Cage, Rauschenberg, and Warhol motivated a fruitful conceptual period focused on exploring these same boundaries in other forms, Carroll emphasizes a similar integration of ordinary movements into the various performing arts featured in many of the reviews in this volume. See in particular “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964): 571–584 and The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).

The reviews themselves (some co-authored with dance critic and historian Sally Banes) are concentrated in the “Dance” and “Performance and Theater” sections of this text. Encompassing many art criticism pieces originally featured in a range of publications including Artforum, Dance and Dancers, Dance Magazine, the Soho Weekly News, and the Village Voice, they cover a wide array of artists and performances embedded both centrally and fleetingly in the downtown New York performing arts scene of this time period — notably including Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer, and Ishmael Houston-Jones.

The reviews address a range of topics including minimalist dance, reactions to formalism and expression in dance, the attention to everyday movement in dance and performance, Black avant-garde performance art, and popular culture in performance. These are intertwined with essays on the conceptual analysis of the dance, theater, and performance arts featured in New York in this time period, among which is a key essay on the art of performance, all particularly timely in the context of growing academic attention to the philosophy of dance and performance studies. The “Fine Arts” section in contrast compiles primarily philosophical essays analyzing concurrent fine arts works and artists, focusing on the concept “postmodern,” which is the focus of the final “Coda” section. The volume ends with a notable (though much more general in focus) essay on globalization.

Though the reviews in particular seem at first more narrowly useful to readers with a specific background and interest in performance arts of this period (with the exception of music, which is not strongly featured), Carroll’s characteristic clarity and philosophical framing of each section render them accessible to readers less versed in these areas of scholarship, such as upper-level undergraduates pursuing the philosophy of the arts.

Beyond this, however, I see this text also serving as a thought-provoking supplement to scholars and teachers interested in broader philosophical issues on two counts.

Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964

First, the essays and reviews combine paradigmatic cases in Analytic philosophy of art — such as Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), Cage’s “4’33”” (1952), and Warhol’s “Brillo Box” (1964) — with a rich collection of philosophically relevant performance arts examples. They provides a more comprehensive and contextualized range of examples for theorists and teachers interested in philosophical claims about indiscernibility in the arts, across multiple forms of art making.

Second, though the pairing of art criticism reviews and philosophical essays in the anthology might resist its categorization as either a strictly philosophical or performance studies text, it presents a critically interesting meta-narrative that questions how philosophy and art criticism do, can, or ought to engage and intersect with each other.