This piece was written for delivery at an arts conference in Georgia in 1990 and published in Atlanta’s ART PAPERS that year. At the time of this writing, I had written criticism for High Performance, Artforum, the Drama Review, L.A. Weekly and many other magazines and journals. I was also serving as the co-director of Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Calif., a theater and gallery determinedly “intercultural.” I believed that experience gave me the permission to write about what I was learning from other cultures.


What is a critic now? From my vantage point in what used to be called a “regional” art center, Los Angeles, the edges of that job description are becoming more and more blurry. Part of the reason is that the definition of “art” and “artist” is changing for me as well.

The firestorm of discussion at the recent L.A. Festival about the difference between “folk” and “fine” art was really only a capper on the topic for me, because as a citizen of Los Angeles and the co-director of Highways, an intercultural performance art space, I have been wrestling for years with the nature of the art beast.

In September I addressed a dance critics’ conference in L.A. just as the L.A. Festival was opening, and heard some critics evidence dismay at festival director Peter Sellars’ decision to showcase—right next to “Nixon in China,” The Wooster Group, and artists of contemporary L.A.—”artists” of the Pacific Rim, in particular troupes of aborigines, Eskimos, islanders and others practicing traditional rituals and celebrations and claiming not to be artists at all. The performers declared their dances and songs to be not art, but time-honored devices for keeping their societies functioning healthily in harmony with the Earth, her creatures, and her spirits. The Festival catalogue pointed out that this is the attitude in most cultures of the world.

Folk tradition, cried these venerable critics, is fine, but certainly should not be served up on the same plate as Art. By Art they mean European American art, and art from other countries that speaks to it, mimics it, or resonates with it.

Further they claimed that “multicultural” art should be treated by them no differently than any other, that it was their job to sit back, bearing their years of Euro-American experience and knowledge, and let the artwork impress itself upon them, then to pass judgment on its quality.

When I suggested to this gathering that this may be a time for critics to ask questions and listen, to research the culture from which the performance emerges (even when it is American), and to reflect upon the coming together of cultures before they make their traditional judgment of “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down,” many of them bristled.

“Beauty and truth are the only standard, ” said one defiantly, as though attacked at the core of her self-understanding. To which a young radical feminist critic from San Francisco responded, “Whose beauty and whose truth?” Discussions like this inevitably boiled down to: “Then what is art?”

Sellars knew this would happen all along. Los Angeles was the perfect ring for this match, because critics, artists and audiences here have become more and more aware of the multiplicity of cultures and art sensibilities in the region, where the “white race” is no longer the majority. The melting pot only exists in the mind of those who believe America is essentially a straight, lily-white, Christian nation.

Assimilation is a trick learned by immigrants to get by in this country, and it occurs only on the surface if at all. Americans are Americans, but we are also Irish, Japanese, African, Cuban, Vietnamese, Mexican. One may appear safely assimilated, but one’s roots in Oaxaca remain alive, even when they are suppressed into the unconscious. The cultures of the world, and their definitions of art, are with us—not just in our crowded inner cities, but in us. This fact can no longer be avoided by anyone in this society, not even the rich; we cannot help becoming more and more aware of each other as individuals with braided roots and many specific allegiances—ethnic, spiritual, racial, cultural, sexual.

As more and more artists step before the audience at Highways creating autobiographical monologues accompanied by the images, symbols, and sounds that are deeply integral to their lives, the picture of America as a polycultural society becomes clearer and graced with surprising hues.

Many of these artists are exposing a relationship to traditions and beliefs that are foreign to white America, or that belong to social systems our official culture regards as buried in history or on other continents. (And we are talking here about not only first-generation immigrants, but about third- and fourth- generation Americans.) At Highways, after testing the waters for safety, American artists have exposed and explored their relationships to voodoo, santeria, goddess worship, paganism, leather culture and more.

An important byproduct of this work (and of the L.A. Festival) has been that artists with their roots in African, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Indian, and Polynesian cultures have begun to reveal a picture of the “artist” as a functionary of a different kind. While it is possible to study sanctioned European art theory and methods in schools, beneath that education flows cultural memory of another social role for the artist.

I believe the dominant culture has lost sight of what art actually is. And in every discussion around the L.A, Festival, as the basic question arose again and again: “Then what is art?'”—the corollary rose in my mind: “What is an art critic?”

In my field, performance art, the critic is often an arts practitioner. This is partially because in the early days of the form no one else understood or cared to write about it. But it is also because most of us belong to a generation hooked on participatory democracy and self-determination. And as we built a world of artspaces, publications, even museums run by artists, we groped toward another kind of role for artist and critic, that of social thinker, one who takes part in not only reflection and analysis, but in the weaving of the social fabric itself. It is apparently this role model that so threatens the establishment that we are now under Congressional attack.

Now, as I sit in hours of deep conversation with African-American, Latino-American, and Asian-American artists, I begin to get a glimmer of understanding of how this artist/critic/social thinker might function or have functioned in other cultures. In Euro-America, the critic has been sidelined into a judgmental role, a paid functionary whose purpose is related primarily to audience development. On the sidelines, perhaps she or he writes theory, usually for nothing. And that theory pretends to be the pinnacle of human thought, the end-product of progress, pure discussion of pure art, pure truth and pure beauty—aesthetics, not to be confused with ethnology, sociology or theology. (An interesting argument about this subject is being conducted between the editors of Performing Arts Journal and The Drama Review)

In another version, the evolution of Euro-American art theory is simply part and parcel of imperialist world conquest, and education to that theory is necessary, perhaps for survival in the marketplace, but not related to the reality of world cultures. For most of the world, the ballet, for instance, is an experiment in the historical preservation of the expression of certain North European tribes; ballet criticism is a checklist of performance against tradition.

Let us leap to another culture for a while and try to find the artist and the critic there, I have spent many hours talking with an African-American performance artist from St. Louis who was brought up by his parents in Catholicism, but also by his grandmother in a West African tradition that is the antecedent of voodoo and santeria in this country, and that still functions here under cover. The grandmother had been identified since she was a small child as a griot in this tradition, and she recognized the same traits in her grandchild, so she began his education under the table and away from his parents’ eyes.

In our conversations about this idealized West African society, he explained the griot is a kind of storyteller for the tribe. The griot has a calling, and is identified early as a person who lives by the wits. The griot is a valuable asset and can be traded to other communities.

Different from the shaman of the tribe, it is the griot’s job to take in not only the details of the tribe’s history and dispense them when called upon, but also the metaphysical, spiritual, religious, and vocational traditions as well. The job is part confessor, part psychiatrist, part historian, part referral service for spiritual needs, part critic. Primarily, s/he passes along the history, stories, trials, and struggles of the tribe. The griot also might be called forth by the king or judge to bear witness to not only historical truth but also to the proper performance of a job or a ceremony. A griot could give an opinion on the products of an ironworker, for instance, by determining not only whether the proper procedures went into forging the iron, but whether proper ceremonies and prayers were adhered to, assuring that the object’s metaphysical and spiritual dimensions are correct. S/he knows this not only from observing, and even learning, the iron trade and asking questions, but by meditating on the subject and taking counsel with the orishas, the spirits.

The mind and soul of the griot is the place where history and inspiration from the “gods” comes together for the tribe, the intersection of religiously recorded fact and spiritual metamorphosis. Thus the society progresses without forgetting itself.

The artist does not exist as such. Artisans create objects for functional and religious purposes. Everyone dances, and even though an individual might find an avid inclination to dance, and an ability to do it long and well, there are no “dancers,” per se, for dancing is something required of everyone to keep the wheels of the society in motion.

It is easy to see that when trade and slavery occur, the objects and ceremonial performances of the society are lifted from their context and become objects of curiosity in a foreign country. They take on the function of decoration and lose much of the power for which they were created in the first place. Our world is flooded with dislocated objects and their offspring, traded in a manipulated marketplace for qualities that are, at best, a matter of debate. It is in this sense that we have forgotten what art is for.

I am fascinated with the definition of the griot, for I feel it is something like my function in the society. Infusing my life with performance, I recorded, even memorized a fleeting history of my people. And especially now, as I witness and record so much autobiographical monologue, I feel I am helping to keep and pass along as needed not only the tangled multicultural personal histories of my people, but the ceremonies, beliefs, and spiritual essences surrounding them, as evidenced only in art. Part of my job is to discuss how well those things were communicated to the audience, because the effective communication of these things, however seemingly insignificant or “self-indulgent,” is essential to the survival of my people in their struggle to come together, and, by extension, essential to the survival of my race and my planet. And as things progress, I am learning more and more about the many ways in which we, as a polycultural society, might communicate to each other, not only in English, and not only according to the canons of Euro-American arts criticism.

When looked at in this way, the function of the arts critic in our time is not only interesting, it is vital and I am glad I heard the voice of my calling. Anyone who calls him/herself a critic can look back over a very checkered career, propelled by very little encouragement from anyone. But in my view everything happens for a reason. So, critics, when you become confused and discouraged by your role, not to mention overwhelmed by the amount of asking and listening you must do in American art now, consider the possibility that you were born to it.


Linda Frye Burnham
Santa Monica, Calif., 1990

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