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Critic at Large

PRELIMINARY--BUT BRIGHT--PROSPECTS FOR A GREAT SHOW : A Cargo of Hope for the New Year Coming in Crates of Masterpieces

January 01, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It is hard not to begin most new years on a note of hope. The disasters of the ending year are fresh in mind and easy to chronicle. Even the prayer that things won't get any worse is a kind of hope.

For 1985, you can cite the terrible natural disasters, the Mexican earthquake, the Colombian volcano, hurricanes and drought and killing cold. You can add in African starvation, on which man and nature seem to have collaborated. The evidence of man's inhumanity to man was strong, indeed dismaying, in 1985--the terrorist bombings and hostage-takings in the Middle East, the oppressions and the rumbles of revolution in South Africa.

But as the old year began, the umbrella of anxiety that overlaid everything else was the paranoia of the two great superpowers confronting each other across what seemed a widening chasm of distrust and obstinate misunderstanding, with the rattle of arms for a sound track.

Yet nothing stays static for long. A change in Soviet leadership, a cautious but useful confrontation in Geneva with a fireside chat as its enduring symbol, and a small sigh of relief could be heard around the world.

The hard-liners in both countries, deeply entrenched in their Cold War positions, were likely to remain hostile and suspicious. But George Kennan argued in a provocative lecture to the National Defense University (reprinted in Opinion on Sunday) that the two superpowers now have less to fear from each other's aggressions than from the arms race in which both are engaged.

The filament of renewed understanding that seemed to have been spun at Geneva was a fragile link across the chasm. But it is an item of considerable hope as the new year starts. And so, as both a practical and symbolic gesture, is the exchange exhibition of Soviet and American art holdings instigated by Armand Hammer and detailed by Suzanne Muchnic elsewhere in these columns.

The cynics see cultural exchanges as no more than window dressings that obscure the hard-eyed Soviet maneuverings. "What does art mean to the men in the Politburo?" a man asked angrily at a church forum in Pasadena a few Sundays ago.

One answer, not entirely irrelevant, is that the Politburo has its constituents, too, and that present Soviet leaders are not insensitive to the wants of their citizens.

A more immediate answer is that the process has to start somewhere. And if the process can be said to have begun at the Geneva Summit, it seems useful that it should continue in ways that underscore not the national differences but the common delights and shared pleasures of the two nations.

Dr. Hammer, that paradoxical genius of unabashed capitalist enterprise and useful communication with the hard-line Communist leaders, has cut through the political and museum red tape with a style that suggests a script by Robert Riskin and direction by Frank Capra.

It may be that only a man who creates his own status, is in his late 80s and has seen it all from Lenin forward--and, not least, owns a fine stack of bargaining chips--could have brought it off; but he has done it, and it is a cheerful and invigorating piece of year-end news.

It has been a catch phrase of Hollywood wisdom that in opting to do a movie, you weigh topside gain against downside risk. It fits international relations as well. A widened (or reactivated) arts interchange between the United States and the Soviet Union seems hardly likely to hide or dissolve the fundamental ideological difference between the two systems.

But the exchange of art, and of artists, musicians and film makers, could well reaffirm that neither system has a monopoly on the admiration of artful beauty, or of faith in the family, or the love of peace.

Only a dreamer would suggest there are not rough patches, shoals and dangers ahead, but only the stone-hearted would deny that the new year does commence with an unusual cargo of hope.

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