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THE BIG MIX : COMMENTARY : Diversity : 'Beginning to Notice What We Are'

February 05, 1989|PETER SELLARS | The author is the director of the Los Angeles Festival

The Big Mix of ethnic cultures in Southern California is producing a new reality for the arts here.

Our metropolis has changed wildly with the influx of immigrants. This special issue of Calendar is an attempt to recognize and examine some of the diversity.

The following essay concerns how American culture, based on European tradition, can awaken to the multitude of powerful Asian, black and Latino voices that have long been enriching the cultural life of our region.

The author is the director of the Los Angeles Festival, which, in September of 1990, will be partly devoted to cultures of the Pacific.

I am a white American male trying to live in Los Angeles and trying to think about cultural diversity while riding the Wilshire bus. I am surrounded by people of color. They are thoughtful. They have lives. Many of them are thinking about their lives. These faces, of course, are filled with beauty and anxiety and not a little dignity. Some faces are sly necessarily so and some are a little crazy. This is America, but not the America that I encounter in the lobbies, galleries and modern auditoriums of our city's leading cultural institutions.

So I sit on the bus and I keep looking and I realize how little I know about these people's lives. What do their houses look like? What are their favorite songs? It shouldn't be hard to find out; I could just ask. But this is an American city and we have rules about these things. One of the first rules is distance. Television and film are gratifying in this way; you can ask only questions that have very, very short answers and that in any case cannot be pursued, and that frightening point of human contact is thankfully avoided.

Western civilization has produced a neurotic, afflicted, hyperextended society where psychoanalysis has replaced culture and Big Entertainment has replaced everything.

Successful avoidance of problematic elements (people, traffic, credit-card payments, phone calls, etc.) is the key to the good life. Such cultural masterpieces as we have inherited are safely under glass and kept at arm's length by a cloud of disinformation that encourages appreciation over experience. (The catalogue entry describes the last four owners of the painting but declines to speculate on why the painter painted it.)

We're told that our culture, like our government, is for the experts to handle, and we shouldn't get too close, because our uneducated guess would probably be wrong. Even the basic functions of birth and death in the sanitized society are hidden away, (we have sealed white rooms for those things too) and we are left without the experience or language to deal with AIDS, while we obsessively discuss and depict sex without knowing quite how to mention love, responsibility or even shame.

It should be fun to be us, but finally it isn't. It's a little lonely and it's a little frightening. So we tend to congregate in little bunches of people who we presume are just like ourselves (at least they're dressed the same way) and talk a little too loudly about things we don't know that much about while drinking much too much.

Culture was invented as a way of helping people out of their isolation. Culture helped give you a sense of where you were coming from that made you feel a little better about where you were going to. It was about having something in common with people beyond a dress code. It allowed a mythology that gave permission for difficult, dark, mysterious or undiscussable things to be discussed. But we traded all that in for Big Entertainment.

Big Entertainment was cheaper (to buy, not to make) and required no maintenance. You didn't in fact even have to pay attention to it at all. The hard core of this soft-core porn was the rock-bottom assurance that all the characters would be pretty, handsome and white and that all of their problems could be solved in one and sometimes two sentences. We bought this mythology of the perfect suburban life and we bought the appliances to go with it. But somewhere it just went out of control.

Of course, as we all know, and as the history of Hollywood film over the last decade has shown, drug dependency requires stronger and stronger doses to still get that high. So armed with this knowledge, why were we restocking the liquor cabinet so frequently? And what addiction caused us to let the national debt pass the $2-trillion mark?

America is a young country, a kid, and filled with the wonder and marvel and amazement of childhood. It is also apt to be bratty, petulant, lazy and solipsistic. America hates to eat its vegetables. America hates picking up after itself. And above all, America hates to learn things.

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