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COMMENTARY : The Question Should Be: Can L.A. Help Heal the Arts? : Culture: A public forum scheduled for today has confused the issue, mistakenly promoting the idea of art as social therapy.

January 27, 1994|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Today at noon, Club 100 of the Music Center and the Town Hall of Los Angeles will jointly host a distinguished panel of local politicians and arts administrators to discuss an oft-heard subject: Can the arts help to heal L.A.?

The panel was put together long before last week's earthquake. It's safe to say the immediate wound in need of healing is riot-related, although other urban ills, such as homelessness or gang violence, could easily be included.

And, as is so often the case with such issue-oriented presentations, the question is actually rhetorical. Its answer has been decided well in advance, and the answer is yes.

Club 100 President Genevieve McSweeney observes in the press release announcing today's event: "The Music Center, along with the other arts organizations in the city, is examining how the arts can be utilized to help solve some of the many problems facing our community." So today's panel of experts will be expected to tell us how, not whether, the arts can help to heal riot- and recession-torn L.A.

That's too bad. Far more consequential would be a prominent public forum in which to vigorously dispute such entrenched claims, which conceive of art as a species of social therapy.

Our therapeutic culture, which has made an industry of ravenously diagnosing endless social illnesses and recommending innumerable cures, is now swallowing the arts whole. It's time to reconsider, not to reconfirm, because the notion of art healing civic sicknesses is finally rather like the idea of Miss America bringing world peace.

It's a nice sentiment, and we've learned to expect to hear it touted. But, in the end, who can really believe it?

I'm not talking here about the economic impact the arts can have on a community, which is huge. Currently, the city's Cultural Affairs Department and the service organization, ARTS Inc., are contemplating a study of that multibillion-dollar impact locally--a long-overdue sequel to the one undertaken by the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce in the wake of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.

I am talking about the impact art itself has on a community. Back-handedly, the distasteful imposition of a therapeutic ideal implies that art is not of much significance unless it can be put to demonstrable economic or social use.

Is the Sistine Ceiling really most important because it's a boon to Italian tourism? Or because its presence in the Vatican brings diverse audiences together in one place? Is that what Michelangelo had in mind when he began to paint?

From the therapeutic angle, the persuasive excitement of the Sistine Ceiling's beauty, which is the source of its artistic significance, doesn't count for much. Beauty and significance are qualities more subtly demanding and harder to codify than tourist receipts or the interaction of crowds.

In fact, gnawing discomfort with the way that truly powerful art makes urgent demands on its audience might be exactly what causes some people to want to transform it into therapy. After all, one hallmark of therapeutic culture is that it turns the tables: Rather than art making demands on an audience, now the audience gets to make demands on art. No wonder the art that results typically seems powerless and wan.

The therapeutic ideal for art is not new. Its local application to pressing civic problems updates an old riff: Remember all the grand claims once made for art as international diplomacy, claims born of the Cold War era?

Then, the perceived crisis was a threat of nuclear war. Under cover of diplomacy, government agencies such as the U.S. Information Agency and entrepreneurial businessmen such as Armand Hammer put art at the service of their political and business aims.

Not much has changed. Art still rides in the back of the bus: Note that no member of today's distinguished panel at the Music Center is an artist.

There will be two politicians (County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and City Councilman Joel Wachs), two civic bureaucrats (County Music and Performing Arts Commission President Eunice David and Cultural Affairs Department grants director Roelle Hsieh Louie), and three institutional administrators (Cal Arts President Steven D. Lavine, County Museum of Art curator Stephanie Barron and Music Center President Shelton g. Stanfill). Among them are gifted, insightful and articulate individuals. But they are not artists.

The question "How can the arts help to heal Los Angeles?" is heard most often from institutional representatives because, when a city is in crisis, bureaucracies always hunker down for self-preservation. Surrounded by daunting social and economic problems, they funnel arts resources toward proposed social and economic solutions. Public and private programs get designed to urge artists to follow the institutional initiative.

Alas, trying to get artists to follow institutional directives is precisely backward. Some artists do it--eagerly--knowing that's where the always-scarce funding lies. But it's backward nonetheless.

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