I saw this performance designed by Nick Cave, the Chicago artist, in Grand Central Station today. Cave's "Heard NY" was brought to us by Creative Time and MTA Arts for Transit, as it will be for another week, twice a day. Thirty raffia-costumed dancers cavort around the space as "horses" while harps and drums egg them on.
These kind of performances could easily be panned as pseudo-primitive spectacles, full of a romanticized, urbanized yearning for a simpler, more direct, more symbolic, more "authentic" culture. But watching Cave's performance, and the enthusiastic reaction of the Grand Central audience, it occurred to me that what I was seeing was a fully "authentic" expression of the culture of modern times – not because we moderns want and seek some kind of deep, mystical, shamanistic communion with the animal world, such as our ancestors are supposed to have got through their dancing. But because, in an atomized age of TV and the Web, we simply want shared, live, impressive spectacles, of almost any kind, without expecting much more from them than an instant frisson and shared thrill. And it could be that, even in so-called "simpler" cultures, "ritual" dance may have as much to do with its surface spectacle as with the deeper meanings that anthropologists insist on finding in it. That is, the rigorous anthropologists may be the romantics, in their search for symbolic depths they view as missing from their own lives, whereas the "primitive" dancers and spectators, in their sheer pleasure in the act of communal dance (and disregarding whatever they report to the PhDs) may actually be behaving rather like their commuting peers in New York.
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