There are no tie-ins with Versace here, no banners heralding the martini of the moment or meager grants from gutless government agencies, as is usually the case these days when “culture” rears its capital-appreciating head. There is only an empty space framed by stained-glass windows behind a Stanford White facade whose rusticated elegance belies its intentions. This is Judson Memorial Church at Washington Square, where for more than a century the concept of grace has been given bodily dimensions: where immigrant families once found cheap milk; where women found abortion referrals back when that was a crime; and where, for the past 40 years, artists have found a home.
This week, Judson is commemorating its engagement with the arts in a festival aptly called “No Limits.” The events— which range from panels on freedom of expression to re-creations of seminal dances from the ’60s— celebrate the idea introduced by Albert Camus and often reiterated by Howard Moody, Judson’s legendary minister emeritus: “The artist must create dangerously.”
It’s none too clear what that means today, but in the ’50s, culture was a restricted community policed by critics who obsessed over the distinctions between high- and lowbrow art, reserving the most withering contempt for something they called midbrow (and we call popular). Anything that subverted this hierarchy was deemed dangerous, and Judson was the place where the threat became manifest. The dances, plays, exhibitions, and inchoate events called “happenings” that germinated there were sometimes blasphemous, often obscene, and nearly always political. Back before nudity was a staple of cable TV, it was welcome at Judson as a vector of trangression and transparency. You might see dancers’ bodies commingling with raw fish and sausages, or an artist coaxing passersby to hammer nails into a cross.
This latter work was executed at Judson in 1990 by Yoko Ono, who had been attending programs there since the ’50s. “They wouldn’t take me at Carnegie Hall,” she recalls, but Judson was always there— “an oasis for artists” as Ono notes. But the most remarkable thing about Judson was its religious identity. “It’s just incredible that the whole art movement which sprung from Judson started in a church,” says Ono. “It gave me a whole different understanding of what a church could be.”
In an era when the performance art coming out of churches consists mostly of attacking abortion clinics and picketing gay funerals, it’s hard to imagine a mainline Protestant congregation opening its heart to the free will of artists, but that has always been part of Judson’s theology. “Christianity’s foundational concept is the common table,” says senior minister Peter Laarman. “Conventional judgments about clean and unclean go out the window. Jesus had people who were unclean at table with him; in fact he sought them out. So go and do likewise.”
This active search for communion with the unclean has led the church to skirt the law more than once. Its ministers have been arrested for their outreach to sex workers and busted for improperly displaying the American flag, back when it was a crime. This Thursday, Judson will restage that 1970 dance, Trio A With Flags, by Yvonne Rainer, in a program that includes work by postmodern masters David Gordon and Kenneth King. All were part of the original Judson Dance Theater. “There was ground to be broken,” Rainer has said, “and we were standing on it.”
As Rainer notes, the artists who gravitated to Judson were resisters. In dance particularly, the few venues that showcased new work didn’t even think of this stuff as dance. “We were very isolated and excluded,” Rainer recalls. “You saved your money and gave a concert once a year. But all of a sudden, we had this space where we could perform and have a weekly workshop, and so there was a sense of community.” In fact, the hallmark of the Judson sensibility was interdisciplinary collaboration. “Not only could artists watch dancers and vice versa,” says Wendy Perron, part of the second generation of Judson choreographers, “but visual artists just jumped in and made dances— and they were great.” This was the seedbed of multimedia, but back then it was simply a matter of creative people meeting at the common table.
“I don’t think we ever talked about the divine,” says Al Carmines, who ran the Judson arts project during its heyday. “We talked about need. The need in theater was for something alternative to Broadway and Off-Broadway. In dance, the need was for simple dance. In art, the need was to explode— everything that had been framed suddenly exploded.” Carmines is probably the only ordained minister who is also the author of a play called Faggot— “the first gay musical,” he kvells— which had its premiere at Judson in 1973. “This is the only church I know of that lets the world set its agenda,” Carmines explains. “Letting that happen means risking yourself religiously, risking your sense of propriety, and risking even your intelligence for the sake of the world right outside the door.”
Little has changed at the space where Sam Shepard, Meredith Monk, and Robert Rauschenberg once played. But the ghost of happenings past still haunts this sanctuary, raising the inevitable question of where the Judson sensibility has gone. The most common answer is that it was absorbed: pomo dance is a staple of PBS, gay drama is a Broadway cash cow, happenings are the stuff of fashion shows. But what of that old rubric about “creating dangerously”?
“I suppose there must be pockets of insurgency, but if so, it has not crossed into the media,” says Jill Johnston, who practically lived at Judson during her years as the Voice‘s dance and art critic in the ’60s. “It’s just that we’re in very conservative times, and that has blanketed everything. The cutoff of funds for individual artists has shut down frontline work. There can only be a reaction to this, but we’re not there yet. The times have to change for things to move in the arts.”
Yet below the radar, there is plenty of insurgency, and some of it is still taking shape at Judson, largely thanks to the church’s special programs associate, a young, Harlem-based choreographer named Aziza. Quite in keeping with the Judson tradition, she has strong criticisms of the canonical pieces on display. “I admire them for the aesthetic,” Aziza explains, “but spiritually there’s something lacking for me inside the work. I like to be moved, I like to be pulled, I like to feel full.” If Aziza were running this show, “the movement, the look, the music, the language— all would be different.” (For a taste of what she means, check out the festival’s final event on April 24, a dialogue and performance by Dance of African Descent Downtown).
Aziza’s workshops at Judson, which include open-mike and spoken-word events, attract a largely young African American following. Even more distinctive is the participation of multiracial people “who don’t want to make choices about being black or white, straight or gay,” as Aziza explains. Here is an authentic incarnation of the Judson sensibility, with its shattering of seemingly inviolate boundaries and its nurturing of new idioms that express new identities. “It’s just what they were doing in the ’60s,” says Aziza, “providing space and not fearing where this is going. That’s the best way anyone can support culture, just by opening their doors.”
No rules, no charge, no limits. That’s how Judson lives.
For a schedule of remaining events in the “No
Limits” festival and information about ongoing
workshops, call 254-6230 or drop by Judson at 55 Washington Square South.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 20, 1999