Barbra Streisand Brings Her Advocacy to Harvard

The activist and entertainer talks about her role as both a citizen and an artist

USUALLY graced with such visitors as Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Harvard University turned a deeper shade of crimson last Friday in enthusiasm over Barbra Streisand's appearance.

Never mind that the world-famous actress and singer might have a speech to give, and never mind that she tried to dress conservatively in pinstripes and pearls. With the glamour quotient tipping off the scales at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, the radiant Ms. Streisand had to wait anxiously through the chatter of camera shutters, the rapturous applause of her audience, and a hefty introduction before getting control of the microphone.

When she did, she wasted no time.

Streisand had been asked to speak at Harvard a year ago, but she said her chosen topic, ''The Artist as Citizen,'' has taken on special urgency since the 1994 congressional elections. Speaking as a ''tax-paying, voting, concerned American citizen,'' she had a few words for Republicans, led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, for unfairly targeting arts programs to balance the budget.

Arguing that ''the far right is waging a war for the soul of America by making art a partisan issue,'' she suggested that arts programs are so small -- the Public Broadcasting System costs each taxpayer less than one dollar a year -- that they hardly can be under attack for the money's sake.

''Maybe it's about shutting the minds and mouths of artists who might have something thought-provoking to say,'' she said.

Streisand then launched into a passionate defense of art, which can ''give a voice to the voiceless'' in authoritarian countries like China and the Czech Republic, where playwright and former dissident Vaclav Havel is now president.

She pointed to her own experience as a member of the choral club at Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., saying that children anywhere can find ''solace in an instrument to play or a canvas to paint on.''

The longtime activist said she had promised herself not to get ''too partisan,'' joking wryly that ''some of my best customers are Republicans'' because they can afford the high prices of her concert tickets. But her heart has always belonged to liberals, a fact she proudly acknowledges. ''Most artists turn up on the humanist, compassionate side of public debate, because we have to walk in other people's shoes and live in other people's skins. This does tend to make us more sympathetic to politics that are more tolerant.''

Right from the start Streisand struck a chord with most of the audience, a mixture of some 700 crammed-in students and professors, including economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

But the first question after her speech came from a Harvard senior, Christopher Garcia, who fought through a barrage of hisses from her fans to ask Streisand why she was being so ''defensive,'' suggesting that the artistic community was ''out of touch with society.'' She, in turn, asked him why he was a Republican.

Later, Mr. Garcia, who is majoring in government, explained that he had already met with Streisand the day before at a ''wonderful lunch,'' attended by 25 students and John F. Kennedy Jr., where he said the performer was genuinely interested in discussing issues from welfare to defense spending.

Taking care not to label Streisand personally, Garcia said the November elections were a ''vote against certain issues that Hollywood identifies strongly with,'' such as big government.

Streisand took advantage of her star platform to denounce violence, sexism, and exploitation in the entertainment industry.

Her comments brought emphatic approval from Jackie Husid, a member of the audience who pointed out the power of celebrities. ''Look at the effect rock stars have on teenagers,'' she said.

Look at the effect Streisand has on college students, one of whom earned cheers for asking Streisand to run for public office.

And two students raised a banner with the words: ''Babs in '96.''

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