What is art?

As the 21st century begins, the definition of 'art' is being stretched more and more.

Walk through the largest show ever mounted in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and you will find not just classic art masterworks, but posters, costumes, furniture, and more - all designed to put a century of art into a larger cultural context, as well as push the boundaries of what a museum ought to do.

In downtown L.A., the city's flagship theatrical venue, the Mark Taper Forum, hosts a play by the Cornerstone Theater that includes nonprofessional actors. The purpose: to illuminate the artist within all of us.

Across town, in the Wilshire Theater, South Africans on a national tour consider themselves cultural activists as much as artists as they sing and dance their hearts out to tell the story of blacks under the heel of apartheid.

These three shows - "Made in California," "For Here or To Go?" and "Gumboots," respectively - each in its own way is part of a growing emphasis on both cultural context and artistic process in the arts that has moved from the fringe to the mainstream and is redefining what is "art."

The trend has come into sharp focus in the final decades of the 20th century, as debates over public funding for the arts have raised the question of the proper role of arts institutions in a community.

"We have to be so many things to so many people," says Paul Holdengraber, director of LACMA Institute for Art and Cultures. "We have had to embrace so many conflicting values" in response to decades of political pressure from women and ethnic and racial minorities, who have felt alienated from mainstream definitions of art."

Beyond that, as government funding for the arts has dried up, arts institutions have had to compete for consumer dollars in the marketplace.

Surfboards to spirituality

"One of the trends now is to compete with theme parks," Mr. Holdengraber says.

"Museums, like other institutions, are trying to make things relevant," he says, pointing to "Made in California." The show cuts a broad path through the cultural landscape, touching on everything from surfboards to WWII Japanese internment camps, as well as the varying manifestations of spirituality.

"It's all been a part of the growing democratization of the arts. Today you can say a word like 'multicultural' and people recognize it; you don't have to explain it anymore," says Alison Carey, playwright of "For Here or To Go?" She is a founding member of the Cornerstone Theater, a traveling troupe that creates theater using the stories and the real people in a local community.

Ms. Carey says the earlier demands for a more inclusive, multicultural approach to the arts has led to today's emphasis on putting art in a broad cultural context and examining the process of how art is made.

"A vocabulary to discuss these kinds of pressures didn't exist 20 years ago," she says. The demand to expand the boundaries of art has penetrated deep into the cultural mainstream.

She points to changes in funding as proof.

"When we first started 15 years ago, we'd go to the National Endowment for the Arts and ask for money, and they would say to us, 'You work with amateurs, and everybody knows those folks don't create high art.' "

Today, she says, the answer is different. Cornerstone receives funds "from all the big guys, like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations," because its work is so inclusive of a wide range of ordinary people.

Elitism is not a bad word

Despite decades of debate, the issue of what is included in the "canon" as "art" is, if anything, more polarized and unresolved than ever within the arts community itself.

"Museums used to organize art for the art public so that anyone who crossed the threshold could join the art community," says Christopher Knight, art critic of the Los Angeles Times. "Now, they have abandoned their natural constituency of the art public in favor of the general public. They're trying to compete with popular culture, and they will ultimately lose to [Las] Vegas and Steven Spielberg."

The former museum curator says elitism is not a bad word in a democracy. "I am an elitist by choice," he says, which is the great difference from old European society, where the elite were defined by an accident of birth. "Museums," he adds, "should be elitist; that is their job."

Mr. Knight says he left museum work because of the growing emphasis on context and process. "If you want to create context, you do it with other works of art," he says. "You can't jam the entire world into a museum. You can only put in works of art. That's what it's for."

Different voices

Critics of "Gumboots" have suggested that the actual singing and dancing skills in the show are secondary to the "liberal guilt" felt over the treatment of blacks in South Africa, which is really driving the show's success.

But the show's artistic director, Zenzi Mbuli, says social progress still needs to be made in South Africa. His company has never performed in his homeland.

"South Africans are not willing to see us as artists at all," he says. "We must appeal to the world first, then we can go home, and our countrymen will have no choice but to open their hearts to us."

"We have a lot of problems with [how to deal with] many [different] voices," says Selma Holo, director of the University of Southern California's Fisher Gallery. "We have been talking about it for a long time, but we really don't know how to allow all those voices to speak."

"What's going on in the arts is like the rest of the world," says Victor Zamudio-Taylor, curator of international exhibitions for the Institute of Visual Arts at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. "We're all changing.

"And in a time of flux, we know we need to change, but we don't necessarily know where we're going to go."

"The arts are the most omnivorous, freewheeling activity you can imagine," says Howard Fox, LACMA curator, who adds that change and challenge may be the only certainties in today's art world.

"Every kind of artistic expression will continue to bubble up," Mr. Fox says, from the most austere and scientific musical composition to the most wallowing, sloppy, juicy painting. "It will all be there because all kinds of people are creative, and so motivated to make their work," he says. "We are all eclectic in our curiosities and fulfillments."

Why, he asks, shouldn't our arts reflect that?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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