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Bill T. Jones: A true artist can be wild and dangerous

In a divided world, a unifying force is desperately needed. Is art powerful enough to play this role? We talked about this with star choreographer, National Medal of Arts and MacArthur Genius awards recipient Bill T. Jones.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Bill T. Jones, star choreographer, the receiver of the National Medal of Arts and MacArthur Genius awards, human rights activist. It's really great to have you with us today. Hi, Bill. 

Bill T. Jones: Hello, hello. Thank you very much for inviting me. 

SS: We're really glad to have you here because you're one of the rarest people that I actually wanted to talk about what we're going to talk about today and I want to start... 

BJ: Just for a moment.  

SS: Sure.  

BJ: You introduced me as a human rights advocate. And I take that to be the highest compliment and I don't think it describes me. I am a self-involved artist, an artist who happens to be black in a racist country. And I have been trying to make all of my life I've been trying to be true to the inside and I find a way to speak to the outside. I want to be a global citizen, but I'm very much rooted in the American experience. So the reason I sound sometimes a public voice is all part of the poetry that asks the question: is the public and the and the personal one in the same? So I appreciate the compliment of saying ‘a social activist’. Social activists get thrown in jail and killed for what they do. Nobody is throwing a modern dancer in jail or killing them in this country because of things I say. So just to clarify that.  

SS: Sure. I wanted to start off with ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’ which you’ve signed, it implies that people today are presented with a false choice between justice and freedom. Now, I understand you're a strong supporter of what young people in America are standing for today on the streets. Why did you feel compelled to actually lend your voice to a letter that hotter heads might see as an anti-protest statement? 

BJ: Yes, well, I thought that if that was the case, people might read the letter certain way, it might be an opportunity for dialogue. And let's face it, I'm reading a great deal right now the great philologist, philosophy historian Hannah Arendt. And Hannah Arendt speaks about thinking with no bannisters. She talks about plurality. Plurality is what we call actually democracy. How do many different people with many different points of view exist together without picking up a gun and blowing each other's heads off? How can they really be honest in debate? So that letter for me was my putting my hat in the ring and saying no matter what happens with the future, I want to stand for freedom of speech and civilized behaviour between people who could otherwise be opponents. That's what the letter was for me. You know, one of the weaknesses of the letter was that it meant a lot of things to a lot of different people. I didn't even know who the other people signing their letter were until after I signed it because I think highly of the people who penned it, the leading being Roger Berkowitz of the Hannah Arendt Foundation. So I've learned a lot since signing the letter, but so far, I can live with it.  

SS: So I want to hear your opinion what is happening with justice and freedom being presented as opposites? Why is there even a question of choosing between one or the other? 

BJ: Oh, I don't know if I'm the person to ask that. Justice and freedom… I believe that there's a great deal of justifiable anger at the system that we call the US democratic system.The United States has never fulfilled its promise to many marginalized people. As you heard Martin Luther King saying back in 1964, unfortunately, some of those things have still not been addressed. Therefore, there are young people who are angry and saying, ‘we've had enough’. I say it's good to be angry. But the fact is, there is still the pursuit of a ‘we’ and that ‘we’ might be the people who are supporting the present administration under Donald J. Trump. Do you want to go to war with them? I don't want to go to war with them. I want to find a way that we can grow together into the new thing we must become. The world calls out for justice. I don't need to tell you as a Russian woman, what that means in your own country. And justice is something that is sometimes controlled by the people in power. They tell us what it is. But people now, the young people, better educated than my generation, very aware of the world with social media, they are saying, ‘No, these things must change; the history of slavery, monuments that represent slave owners, they must go’. Now let's talk about how far it goes. Then there is the idea that there is ultimate authority - the police. Who critiques the police? The police cannot critique themselves, who does it? This is a test of American democracy, the same democracy that Tocqueville experienced when he came in 19th century, he was amazed at how the city councils and little towns around America, everybody felt that if they organised, they could change things or they could become the president. That was a very quaint American idea that has suffered a great setback, because of its manipulation by corporate structures and power-mad politicians. But people, young people are idealistic enough that they think they can get back that ability to make decisions for themselves, which is what democracy promised and liberal democracy promised. And as you know, around the world right now, that notion of democracy and liberal thought is being pushed aside by strongmen, by right-wingers, by fascists. I refuse to be on the side of people who want to take up guns and kill each other. I want to stand where intellectuals should always stand and I think artists should stand. Hold on, ‘no’ to violence, ‘no’ to bloodshed, ‘yes’ to thinking. Less heat, more light. Less heat, more light. That's what that letter is for me - “Let's talk”. Now, when people are out there with guns, as we have seen, threatening protesters, already separating people because of their perceived lack of patriotism, and they're threatening to kill you, I don't know the answer to that. When is it time to push back? I say right now we have to trust the system. We have to trust the next election if we're allowed to have the election that we should be having without outside interference. I feel that that is what we have to have faith in for a while, faith in the democratic process. That's what that letter meant. 

SS: So you're saying less heat, more talk, talking meaning speaking... 

BJ: No, less heat.  

SS: Less heat, yeah.  

BJ: I thought you said ‘hate’. 

SS: No-no, less heat. 

BJ: Less heat, more light, thoughts. 

SS: Okay. But all of that, when you say ‘thoughts’, all that include conversations, speaking to each other.  

BJ: Yes. 

SS: Let's talk about the concept of speech and what's happening to it now, because speech is a big topic you've said, right? I feel societies came to a point where they're were allowed to say everything they thought they could say, you know, like they didn't need to hold back things. Now people need to think twice about saying anything pretty much and I'm trying to analyse that... 

BJ: Okay, are you talking about what we call politically correct speech? Are you talking about the fact that people want to be... Yes, I think. Well, I want you to be more direct about what you're saying. So that's one of the things that happens to speech - euphemism. I do think trans people, people who are not male, not female, have a right to a voice, and we must represent them and respect them if that's what you mean. I do think that women have a particular point of view around history and power, and women should be heard, and the legislation should reflect women's thinking. I do not like any more seeing anywhere in the world a room full of men, probably white-hair like me, white men sitting around making policy for many, many people, oftentimes women or people of colour. This is suspect already. That is not an open forum for free exchange of ideas. It must be diverse. Who chooses who's there in the room? Well, that's what our elections are supposed to be about. And I don't think that anyone should be shouted down because they disagree with me sexually, gender-wise, even politically. I do think that there are times... I am not interested in hearing a fascist, on the evening news spouting lies that are not checked, and that there's no reputation, nobody is guaranteed to tell lies. As you know, from reading Hannah Arendt, she said that lies have been a part of politics forever. But now we have to look much more closely at lies. So are you saying, “Is the left-wing repressive”? And you know what? I think they are at times, and that's one of the reasons I signed the letter. Because I dislike something my professor says, I do not need to fire my professor, I need to come back with a stronger argument and better research myself. The New York Times had a man who was a right-wing man who wrote on the editorial pages, Tom Cotton, things that were outrageous things about race, stupid things. People said he should never have been allowed to speak and as a result, the editor was fired. Maybe it was a mistake to ask him to contribute but the editor was trying to do his duty to be intellectually open and provide this opportunity for thinking people to see. No, the editor should not have been fired. And if I call you a name, if I talk about you as a woman and I use language that is inappropriate as one legislator did to a new young woman legislator, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he said something to her which was deeply offensive to her. She took her time on the floor to point that out to him. That was not cancel culture. She was not taking away his right to speak. She was pointing out that she found it offensive and that she wanted him to think publicly about what he had done. Nobody threatened this job. That is what I think is good democracy. That is good. That's what the young people potentially can do. And my generation is supposed to help pave the way for that. Less heat, more light. 

SS: They're always so many nuances with topics and issues like this, like inevitably when from theory of racial discrimination you come to the practice of people of colour being shot by the police and then to the practice of protests and clashes, is there room left for a wide variety of opinions inside the war council, so to speak? Like, do times allow for you to have a nuanced view of what's happening, or should all those who stand with BLM just stand with BLM and keep quiet about nuances for now? 

BJ: No, no, no, I think we never keep quiet about nuances. You and I are trying to have a conversation that's not going to fall into cliche and soundbite. We're trying to exert our right as thinking people to really talk about an idea. So you started your analysis by saying - I thought that your analysis implied that racism and violence against black people was a relatively new thing. It has been since the founding... No, I misheard you. The way you described it was as almost as if it started at the end of the Civil War. The country was founded on racial premises. If I got you wrong, I apologise. But I just want you and your listeners to know that the feeling is this country was founded on the degradation and stealing of Native American lands - first fact. Another thing that Hannah Arendt speaks about, let's talk about facts. The second was that blacks were brought here as a cheap labour force. That is, they were already brought here as little more than animals, that's a second fact. The third fact is that there was a major war fought that gave citizenships to blacks, which is totally kind of insulting, isn't it? Considering there were blacks in the country who have been here longer than before the pilgrims came on the Mayflower, but still they had to be given the right to be citizens that already makes one really angry. Those are the facts of the situation that we have in the background. Now, how can the laws really support a progressive idea that all people truly are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights? You've been telling this lie for about 300 years. Let's look at what you've promised and let's look at what you're doing and let's think about what we can do. This is what I think the conversation in the street right now promises. It is being destabilised because of a political season, everything now from one side is about being reelected. The other side is, as you say, maybe a bit too caught up in details that fly away. They are full of idealism and I trust them more than I trust their political operatives who are trying to consolidate their power and hold on to it by any means necessary. And yet, once again, my job as an older person, and a radical in my way, is to say to people, “Be angry, go for your rights, demand that we use the correct pronouns, demand that we respect your body, demand all this, but we must have the rule of law, and these are the rules we have. Do you like them? If not, get in there and change them through the political process. That's where I'm at right now. 

SS: I want to ask you a bit about your personal experience because when you're talking about your experience as an artist in the United States, you mentioned that you were expected to live up to certain standards of your white audiences to be respectable. How did that manifest itself? I mean, did you feel that you need to avoid the subjects pertaining to the race in your art, not to start like an uncomfortable discussion? Or did you have to compromise artistically in order to be accepted? What is it exactly? What was it? 

BJ: Well, I have had success in the white avant-garde. It is the avant-garde, mind you. No, I am not Alvin Ailey. No, I am not the New York City Ballet. I am not the Kirov ballet. Those are all socially condoned art organisations. Good art comes out of it, not so much good art comes out as well. But good art comes out of it. The field that I'm in is an experimental field. What is performance? Who is allowed to perform? What are the appropriate things that one can do? Early on it occurred to me that I had this freedom, but I was oftentimes performing in a room where I was the only black person. I began to think why? Why is that? Is it because of the tradition that art consumption is of the middle classes? And therefore many people of colour or people who look like me feel excluded because they were not of that class? Maybe. What about an artist like myself? Could I say to a room full of white people, “I am speaking to you now as a black person”. And can they really relax and not feel that because I'm speaking as a black person, I'm going to attack them. Many of them felt they needed to be attacked. They had deep guilt, and they had no way to talk about it. And there was something that as a black artist you have, I have, that I think, white audiences wanted. It looks like sex sometimes. It looks like a lure. It looks like something animal and forbidden in a Judeo-Christian tradition that this country is. So black people already go on and they know that they're already being set up to be used in some way for the fantasies of white people. Now, if you're going to be - women know this very well, - if that man wants me to play his fantasy game, what am I getting in return? And when I get deep and close to that man, let's say, that white person, can I really be truthful about it? Can I be truthful about the fantasy you're asking me to project? That's where the art becomes very important. How can I seduce you and educate you? How can I move you and at the same time correct you? That's what my career has been about. And I've been very lonely. However, I have been successful because there are decent people of every colour - and primarily white the space of the art world is white - they have really wanted to have this truth that I represented if not spoke, and they made it possible for me to be there. So I am not cynical about the art world that made me. I am angry as hell about certain things, but the anger is good. I have to fuel it into well made, well-crafted art. I have to. That's my job. 

SS: Okay, so here's like the eternal question, but I'm gonna ask you about the dance since this is  your speciality. What can dance as an art form do about today's social situation? Do you feel that artistic expression, artistic endeavours have political power? 

BJ: They do. The personal is political and the political is sure as hell personal. Now, that being said, I'm not saying what anyone's art should be. If you had come into the New York school 30 years ago, it was extremely abstract and minimal. People like myself came into it and began to tell personal stories that had a colour, a gender, sexuality, they had a history, and they were telling those stories in many different ways. So the New York art world is as potent as the people who dare to work in it. One more thing, which I often say to people because I've been oftentimes in this position, “Oh, you're such a radical, you're so engaged in the world”. Once upon a time that used to mean that you were a bad artist because the best artists were Apollonian, transcending the world. That's what the intellectuals maybe of the 18th 19th century would have said, art should not be about this world. Some people said, “Oh, yeah, well, I'm gonna make it about this world, and what I say is art”, and then we can fight about that. So what people ask me, “Mr. Jones, you're an engaged artist (as the French say ‘artiste engagé’ implying there's another kind which is unconnected), could you tell us what an artist should do?” They love me to give a juicy soundbite about what they should do. And I say the artist should be the freest person in the society, the freest, sometimes running literally naked through the streets, thumbing their nose at all received wisdom, left, right system... Don't tell me what the truth is. Because I have an internal truth. That's what an artist should be. An artist is like a wild child in a way, and artists should be dangerous. You should not be able to decorate your dinner party with an artist and feel superior. And artists should blow up that dinner party not literally with bombs but should be able to drop things at that dinner party that changes it. That’s how highly I think of artists. Now the second part of the statement, yes, an artist should have all of that freedom. But an artist is a man, a woman, a trans person with a location, a class location, a chequebook, a history, a race, a gender, an artist is a person like you and I are persons. What does that person that the artist is, needs to do? That's what I get to. Sometimes Bill T. Jones has wanted to make pure beauty, make something that's like a contemplative object to be looked at, enjoy. Sometimes Bill T. Jones is wanting to raise hell and talk about what it means to be this black man standing on stage with a shirt off for a bunch of white people. Sometimes I want to talk about how I love the man I live with -this is my husband now. Arnie Zane was my first husband. Both men are Jewish. I want to talk about the complexity of loving someone across your race or ethnic lines. So the art can do whatever I have the courage to do and I cannot tell another artist what they should do. 

SS: Just to wrap this up, because I know you have to go. Hannah Arendt which you love so much and I also have a great deal of respect for, famously said that man cannot be free unless he knows that he has necessities. Is it the same with art? I mean, it's about self-expression, yes. But it really depends on reaction and response to it. So can it ever really truly be free in that sense? 

BJ: No, anybody who believes that freedom is not conditioned... That's another thing that Hannah Arendt said, we as human beings, we are conditioned, we're born, we grow and we must die. That's the condition right now, human life, you can never be free of that. You can take your own life, that's for sure, that's an expression of freedom. But that's not that I call life. So, I accept, I respect necessity and if you mean necessity represented by boundaries. Artists know, and I always paraphrase Igor Stravinsky poorly, and he says something to the effect that the greater the restrictions on my work, the greater the demands for my resourcefulness and solving the problems that arise with these restrictions. He thinks that the greater restrictions you have, the more vibrant and vigorous the solutions are, which means the better art. So I accept necessity and I accept the fact that I can never be free of being conditioned. Do I accept that racism exists? No. Do I accept that some people think that as a homosexual, I should be killed or driven out? No. And I will fight you on that. You can tell Mr. Putin I said that. Do you think? You know what I'm getting at. Yes, that's where I'm at. I accept the boundaries to a point, after that is when it is... Let's see what you're made out of. I'm looking at a woman right now. I'm trying to imagine 100 years ago, a powerful, confident woman like you having the platform you have. Somebody had to fight for that.  

SS: True.  

BJ: So I believe that.  

SS: True.  

BJ: Thank you so much for your time. 

SS: Thank you so much, Bill T. Jones. All the best to you, take care of yourself and all the best with all your future endeavours. 

BJ: Thank you very much. Thank you.  

SS: Have a great day. Thanks.

 

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