The first installment of the New Museum’s Visionaries Series lectures — which took place on Friday — marked another instance of the institution’s uneasy attempts to conform to a traditional museum model and to forge ahead in ostensibly “new” directions. Alongside its praise of youth (their current triennial The Generational) and free Thursday nights, the first Visionaries lecture struck a note of art world elite exclusivity. Thankfully, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones‘ casual address and tangent-prone lecture cut through any lingering sense of pomp or pretension and still managed to tackle all manner of aesthetic and philosophical subject.
Jones’ rise to critical success in the modern dance community (financial success, he pointed out, is practically impossible in the world of choreography) has all the markers of our favorite art career narratives. Raised by Christian fundamentalist parents who were migrant workers, Jones was the second of their twelve children to attend university and his decision to do dance rather than track and field didn’t go over too smoothly. We can only imagine what they said when he came out.
Moving to New York in the 70s, Jones took up all the meaty artistic debates of the time. For his first performance, as he recalled, he walked in a circle on a Central Park stage while removing his clothes and asking the audience to embrace him. “Dance at first,” he conceded, “was a way to be seen, to be fabulous.” Still, Jones became a pioneer of modern dance’s formalist and minimalist movements, speaking stream-of-consciousness words when most dancers refused to talk and favoring abstraction over narrative. As he put it, “I wasn’t talking about race, I was talking about otherness, about empowerment. I didn’t want to talk about AIDS specifically, I wanted to discuss injury, intimacy and mortality.”
Jones’ early career was marked by New York’s gay subculture and bustling art scene, and though he refers to himself jokingly as “an old fart,” he still seems very much connected to every realm of the arts and their current aesthetic and political battles. Answering a question about whether he thought art would suffer having lost its convenient boogieman in George W. Bush, Jones was brutally frank. “We’re our own boogiemen,” he responded, “How do we deal with our sense of entitlement? How do we give up all the things that we’ve come to expect? How do we accept that things are never going to be so easy again? We get therapists to help us understand why the rest of the world hates us.”
Still, whether discussing his upcoming performance for Lincoln’s bicentennial, recounting anecdotal conversations with famous painters or confessing that he can’t wait to see Wolverine, Jones remains disarmingly warm and honest. Looking ahead to an art world in crisis — and drawing on the lessons of pre-Giuliani New York — he left those of us gathered in The New Museum’s basement theater with a question that recurs throughout the exhibition in the galleries above: “What is unraveling now, and what can what happens in this building do about it?”