Merce Cunningham’s critique of ‘the natural’
In their well-known book Theory of Literature (1949), René Wellek and Austin Warren distinguish between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ approaches to criticism. Intrinsic critics (most notably, the so-called ‘New Critics’ who dominated literary scholarship in America during the 1940s and 1950s) sought to concentrate the critic’s attention on the formal properties of the art object itself rather than on the social or historical context in which it was created. Merce Cunningham is widely acknowledged to be one of the contemporary dance world’s foremost practitioners of a formalist aesthetic. Thus it seems entirely appropriate that most of what has been written about Cunningham falls into the category that Wellek and Warren refer to as ‘intrinsic’ criticism. This body of writing is essentially descriptive in nature; and, at its best, it performs an invaluable service by providing the reader with a closely observed, physically palpable sense of the Cunningham body-in-motion. Applied to the work of some formalist choreographers, a detailed descriptive approach (or what the New Critics would have called a ‘close reading’) is often more rewarding than other critical methods. But for reasons that I intend to explore in this chapter, an ‘intrinsic’ response to Cunningham’s dances constitutes only the first, most tentative step towards accounting for his significance. Dance writers are so eager to credit Cunningham with having liberated choreography from the burden imposed by various sorts of meaning (narrative, symbolism, personal expression, etc.) that they often fail to consider properly the meaning of this liberation. So rather than celebrating the ‘autonomous’ nature of Cunningham’s choreography, this chapter examines his movement style in a broader context, that is, not a social but an aesthetic context. It argues that the fullest appreciation of Cunningham requires us to examine the relationship between his movement and the work of those composers and visual artists (Cage, Rauschenberg, Johns, etc.) with whom he collaborated most often. An even richer understanding of Cunningham’s work emerges if we examine his innovations within the particular ‘dance-historical’ context of the 1950s. That was the decade in which Cunningham forged an aesthetic rejecting many expressionist elements in the modern dance tradition of Martha Graham. At the same time, his principal collaborators were rejecting another expressionist heritage: the ethos of abstract expressionism in the visual arts. This essay examines the similarities between Cunningham’s repudiation of the Graham aesthetic and his collaborators’ repudiation of the spirit of abstract expressionism.