Art as Societal Pathfinder

It Sheds Light on Our Collective Self, Says Sellars

by Fernando Quintero

Peter Sellars, world-renowned director of opera, theater and television, is back on campus to bring social activism back to Berkeley -- or at least to students of the performing and visual arts.

Sellars first visited the campus last summer to direct "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky," written and composed by Professor June Jordan and Berkeley composer John Adams.

This year, Sellars is the Avenali Visiting Professor at the Townsend Center for the Humanities. In "Art as Social Action, "Sellars teaches a seminar that addresses the role of the artist and art at the close of the 20th century. In his seminar, "The Invisible World," he focuses on the connection between the spiritual and art throughout history.

Sellars, who includes among several honors an Emmy Award for his production of "Nixon in China," is considered one of the nation's best -- and most controversial -- directors of contemporary American stage.

On a recent sunny morning at Caffe Strada, where birds playfully darted about amidst the coffee-swilling crowd, an ebullient Sellars presented a partial list of social concerns, beginning with his analysis of the social and political climate of the state and nation.

"It's an almost hedonistic pleasure to be here. Berkeley is still an open-minded and progressive place," Sellars exclaimed, expressing equal appreciation for Berkeley's mild winter weather. "God knows America is entering the Breshnev Years. While the Cold War is raging across the country, Berkeley remains in a permanent state of thaw."

Sellars cited the current making of public policy as "an utterly basic problem" the next generation of artists needs to address.

"Voting patterns in America have become primitive and brutal due to the low level of cultural discourse. We're getting rid of welfare and asking the criminal justice system to handle all of society's issues. This isn't something you'll hear on the evening news," said Sellars. "Our function as artists is to show you what Tom Brokaw can't and what the attorney general won't."

As a nation that continues to collectively reach social, political and environmental impasses, Sellars believes it is the artist who is in a position to initiate the first steps on the road to a breakthrough.

"There must be a wider public debate. America has such a primitive language to discuss such important issues. In the Information Age, there's plenty of information, but not much communication," said Sellars. "Our task as artists is to be communicators in a society that doesn't know how to communicate."

Sellars calls for a greater recognition of the Greek tradition of theater "as a function of a democratic state, where a discussion of society can happen in an atmosphere that gives weight to spiritual, psychological, social, political and personal implications of a given subject matter."

As a social activist, Sellars addresses the role of activism in the academy, the function of arts in urban spaces, and issues of race, gender and class in American theater. His work has taken him around the world, to places where he has witnessed first-hand the powers of art.

"In countries like Zaire, where serious human rights violations are daily occurrences, extraordinary art is being used not just for consciousness-raising and remembrance, but to keep hope alive," said Sellars.

"This contrasts markedly with the tradition of art for arts' sake, which has characterized Western art in the past decade."

For students of the arts, perhaps the toughest truth Sellars has to offer is about money.

"That nice middle-class Yuppie survival doesn't exist. You're either Madonna or Pavarotti, or you're living in a basement," Sellars said with a gleeful hint of exaggeration. "If you're not going to be middle class, you might as well develop some class consciousness."

Sellars said artists must also deal with the harsh realities of public funding for the arts today.

"The artificial life support system that has kept the art world going, such as an inflated art market and institutional grants that support everything from small theater groups to large becoming a thing of the past,"Sellars said.

"Most Americans consider art an extra frill, and are unwilling to pay for it during difficult times. We have to show that art is an important part of the economic cycle and makes a social contribution that justifies its presence."


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
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