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THE ARTS : The Gospel According to Peter : Multimedia wizard Peter Sellars is on the go again, organizing the 1993 Los Angeles Festival as a citywide, entry-level mega-course in art and culture. And if he has his way, this is one class you won't be able to skip, because you live here--and it will be everywhere

April 18, 1993|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer.

You know the dream. You are scheduled to take a final exam, and something has gone horribly wrong. You haven't studied. You can't remember which class you signed up for. When you get there, you find out the exam was yesterday. Or you are lost in a maze of hallways and can't find the classroom at all.

If you could see your own facial expression during those dreams, you would know how the students in Peter Sellars' UCLA class, "Art as Moral Action," looked when they got their final assignment: to find "a moment of beauty."

Hey . It didn't say anything about this in the course description.

Sellars--artistic director of the Los Angeles Festival, an adviser to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and producer-writer-director of a range of theatrical, opera and film-video projects--launched into an impassioned description of what he wanted at a late February meeting of the class, an offering of UCLA's World Arts and Cultures Program.

It was less a class assignment than a call for social revolution. He wanted, said the assignment sheet: "Something that improves the world by bringing some small moment of honesty to bear which supersedes the cliches, stereotypes and assumptions of the capitalist informational superstructure."

"I need work that reflects that something is in motion ," said Sellars, a smallish man with biggish ideas. A citizen of Earth for 35 years, something in Sellars and his amazed, amused manner makes him seem a recent immigrant to the planet. Even his Bart Simpson-esque hair appears perpetually surprised.

"It could break the stalemate of society and permit society to be in motion once again," Sellars continued urgently. "It moves beyond the dead-end thinking of the '80s, and into a notion of the '90s, the current flux we are in, politically and in all areas of the world."

The idea, he offered, is to find that "moment of beauty." And, Sellars admonished: "If you don't have that little moment, then take my advice and do what countless others have done before you: Go and get it. Live a little. Try life ."

Sellars was clearly delighted by the rustle of confusion, frustration and nervous laughter this command evoked. "Obviously the fact that nobody knows what to do with this assignment is what makes this assignment useful," he said.

But here's the part Sellars didn't mention that day: He expects not only his students at UCLA to take on this heady assignment, but the entire city of Los Angeles.

By your very existence as a resident of Los Angeles or its environs, you are officially signed up for a Sellars-inspired, entry-level mega-course in art and culture called "The Los Angeles Festival."

It begins this summer. You can't drop the course, because you live here. You can't skip class, because it will be everywhere. And depending on your perspective, this could be a dream, or a nightmare.

This summer will the mark the third incarnation of the Los Angeles Festival, which is an offshoot of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. Robert Fitzpatrick directed the Olympic arts fest, as well as a 1987 festival that focused on European arts. After that, the Los Angeles Festival turned the reins over to Sellars. Sellars, the 1983 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, steered a celebration of Pacific Rim art and culture that took place in 1990.

For 1993, the festival plans to produce a $5.2-million celebration of African, African-American and Middle Eastern arts from Aug. 20 to mid-October. Although the schedule of events will not be announced until late May, the scope is ambitious: The budget, most of which comes from fund-raising, equals about one-third of what the city plans to spend to tear down buildings gutted by last spring's riots.

According to Sellars, your assignment during the 1993 festival is much the same as the one he gave to his UCLA students: to take what you have always done and stop doing it; to assess what you have always thought and stop thinking it--as Sellars puts it, to just get over it . To open new lines of communication; to enter a wide-open state of mind in which a good enough reason for doing a thing is not having done it before.

Sellars fervently believes that the festival's mandate to bridge the gaps between the city's many ethnic groups through art and culture will create a fresh form of dialogue that could quite literally save the city. For Sellars, the process of creating such a festival is as important as the product . Although the festival does not begin until August, its most important phase has already begun: the planning stage, during which the communities represented in the festival begin to communicate, cogitate and disagree.

All the festivals have used a variety of locations citywide--the idea being to bring the arts directly to communities, rather than separate them behind the forbidding walls of established museums, performing arts complexes and other "irritating pieces of real estate," as Sellars terms them.

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