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ART : Some Thoughts on Artists Who Abandon Easel for Soapbox

April 27, 1992|CATHY CURTIS

On the face of it, it seems absurd that Rosenthal should appoint herself ecological spokeswoman when she already has a field--performance art--in which she is an unquestioned expert. Yet she is hardly alone. Artist Barbara Kruger, speaking last winter at UC Irvine, eschewed any discussions of the genesis or development of her work in favor of answering questions from the audience. No matter what the query, she had a snappy comeback that hammered home her political views.

So often, what seems to happen at such forums--oddly enough, even when they are held on college campuses, which are supposed to be bastions of free speech--is that no one challenges the speaker on his or her facts, no one offers an opposing view. On the contrary, a revival-house spirit flows from one and all, apparently united against the common enemy of right-wing bigotry.

What's missing is the middle ground of reasoned analysis, a more neutral arena cleansed of hyperbolic reactions and sweeping assumptions. When artists--who work in the gorgeously intangible world of metaphors and images--seize the microphone and start making flat pronouncements about the state of the world, passion has a way of overriding fact and logic.

Certainly, there are also politicians who let passion override their grasp of facts and logic. Part of the inspiration for the latest wave of politically minded artists has come from the wild-eyed statements of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and others bent on inflaming constituents with the notion that the National Endowment for the Arts is funding carloads of sinful stuff with our tax dollars.

Still, it's hard to buy the argument that shrillness on the Left is the answer to scare tactics on the Right. That doesn't mean artists are not as entitled as anyone to take a stand against clear and present dangers--whether they are perceived as war, unprotected sex, men who batter women, or anything else.

But we do need to separate the artist from the message and realize that expertise in one field is no guarantee of expertise in another. And I think we also need to register our sincere disappointment, if it is warranted, when an artist gives us a rant instead of a work of art.

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