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Panelists discuss role of art in changing society

STANFORD -- The definition of art and the role of art in a changing society were among the questions debated by panelists at a Sept. 30 Stanford centennial roundtable on "The Arts: A Catalyst for Social Change."

Art is usually a criticism of the world as it is and a vision of the world as it might be, said Stephen Weil, deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

"A characteristic of good art is that it engages individuals in a very deep and personal way, and in ways that may not be shared by every member of a group," Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for the New York Times, said. But art also can forge common bonds among groups, he added.

Modern art is based strongly on the notion that the artist does not have to speak to a consensus, said Kirk Varnedoe, director of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

By allowing for a wide variety of individual responses, modern art produces a different kind of collective, said Varnedoe. Modern art asks people to reinvent their world to accommodate these new creations, he said.

There is no meaning, either in art or in society, without participation, said Peter Sellars, director of the Los Angeles Festival, and a stage director whose most recent production is the opera The Death of Klinghoffer.

"What sparks engagement is something that speaks to you personally," Sellars said. "The purpose of art is to find a way to wake people up who are going through their lives sleepwalking and say: 'Stop it. You can't walk past this. This is your life.'"

The role of art in reflecting a culturally diverse society was addressed by Amalia Mesa-Bains, an artist whose work has been exhibited in a number of national shows, including the currently touring "Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation."

At a time when the United States is going through major social change, she asked, "What are we as a nation going to do to support the cultural rights and heritage of people who are not all the same?"

The artist can indict the social reality around him or her, Mesa- Bains said, citing as one example an artist who had used posters on the sides of San Diego's buses to criticize residents' attitude toward and treatment of Chicanos and Latinos, especially those crossing the Mexican- U.S. border.

A lot of voices are not being heard because filmmakers do not have the money to make certain movies, said Robert Townsend, the writer, producer, director and star of the 1987 comedy Hollywood Shuffle, a movie addressing the problems facing blacks in the entertainment industry.

Restricting the media presentations of African Americans, Asian Americans and Mexican Americans reinforces stereotypes, Townsend said. "When I walk down the street, someone might clutch their purse because they've seen certain images of African American men on television and think, 'Townsend is going to rob me.' " If other voices were heard, views of what people are like would change, he said.

Arts budgets are being slashed because the arts are not filling a need for most people, said Sellars. Most artists wake up and say, " 'What do I want to do this morning?' That is not a very interesting or probing question. It should be: There's a whole world out there. What does that world require?

"Until the artists look at the audience they want to address, how are they ever going to address it? Until you spend time getting to know the audience and figuring out what are the concerns on the audience's mind, you are creating something that is solipsistic and useless.

"The artist's job is not to reject the society, but to engage it."

When moderator Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC News' "Nightline," asked panelists to synthesize their views in a final comment, Sellars said, "As artists, we are quite normal. What is not normal is American society today. We as artists have to be able to function in society and say there are basic human values that must be, that cannot be shortchanged, or else we won't have a society.

"Art is an invitation to become part of something that is larger than yourself," he said.

"The arts are connected to being a grown-up," Weil said. "In order to be a grown-up, one has to be able to envision other lives as real, other possibilities as real.

"When we don't have the arts, a very important part of us begins to starve and our humanity begins to dwindle," he said.

Actress and comedian Carol Burnett said that although she would defend an "illegitimate" medium like television, where she makes her living, "the complaint I have about show business is that it is now show business. The show has been taken out of it. I would love to see artists as heads of studios but that's a fantasy."



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