PORTRAIT OF AN ART SCHOOL IN FERMENT

"The hippie with the sandals is dead," says Kraig Cavanaugh, standing on a blue milk crate and painting an oversize cut-out of a fleshy woman. A student at Valencia's California Institute of the Arts, Cavanaugh works in a white art studio splashed with graffiti. Balloons from his 24th birthday party festoon the entrance; inside, cigarette butts speckle the floor and a leprous green sofa stands in a state of terminal dilapidation.

As he paints, he runs through the fashionable campus buzzwords-- Deconstruction, feminism, Marxist theory --and alternately pans and plugs television, suburbia, the Jaguar that he wrecked and his wardrobe of Neiman-Marcus clothes, bought with his mother's credit card. "I'm jaded, or try to seem that way," he says with a deliberately froggy smile. "I want to make myself seem less vulnerable."

To secure his future, he plans to get a master's degree so he can teach, and to make art-world contacts in graduate school. "I'd like to be able to live the way I grew up," he says. "But I know I won't." He variously hopes for a unified world government, supports nuclear energy and opposes killing baby seals. He reads newspapers only once a week. "There's so much to worry about. It's hard to keep up, so you ignore it," he says.

He works at painting from 8 in the morning to midnight, and his studio is a scramble of pieces--Minimalist, cartoonish, Expressionist--all of which he hopes will coalesce into a style. "I have high aspirations for art," he says. Where does he see himself in 10 years? "Who knows," he quips. "Maybe I'll be a used-car salesman."

If the artist as hippie is an antiquated species of the '60s, then Cavanaugh, in many ways, represents his successor. Middle-class, media-bred and art school trained, he is a child of the post-modern smorgasbord in which nothing is really clear--not an artistic style nor the role of the artist--and where money and trends move with the speed and bluff of a poker game.

"Young artists are functioning in a climate of expectation and confusion," says Robert Benedetti, who has been observing students for more than two decades, first at Yale and now on the CalArts theater faculty.

Reflecting society, the mood is conservative, with a new professionalism in the arts. The artist is emerging as an entrepreneur, and art schools are, in measure, replacing the old bohemian cafe society as milieus of camaraderie and intellectual ferment. Nevertheless, Benedetti, for one, forecasts: "It smells like there is really radical change in the air."

On a typical day at CalArts, dogs cavort across the polyurethaned expanse of the school lobby, a young man whizzes to class on a skateboard and a young woman shoots a video as she is pushed along in a Vons shopping cart.

Corridors are splattered with graffiti wars and a Mickey Mouse cartoon bears a "Slop! Danger!" warning.

An erotic art exhibit has been hung, a tai chi class is being conducted in the art gallery and musicians drum and toot on stairway landings, prized for their acoustics.

As always, art takes its irreverent swipes at bourgeois conventions. In an outdoor dance composition class a young woman disrobes, hangs her dress on a tree like a flag and marches unclothed toward suburbia. For the evaluation of a semester's project, an art student answers a panel's queries from the inside of a refrigerator, reversing the traditional roles of uneasiness.

Fashion, the artist's badge of different-ness, is kaleidoscopic, with a post-punk panoply of dress and a tumbling resurgence of '50s, '60s and even early '70s styles.

In the library, dance students Karl Anderson and Tracy Rhoades imitate the linear arabesques of Merce Cunningham dancers. On his wrist Anderson wears a red ribbon from which dangles a tampon fashioned into a bauble--a reverse Madonna-like scoff at sexual role-casting. Anderson used to dress for ballet class in a woman's one-piece bathing suit and fishnet hose, until he was stopped, and he's gone through the various fads of wearing clothes with holes and shaving his head.

Rhoades, who also has a penchant for drag, dresses for after-hours clubs in a flowing batik skirt, which he hangs like an artwork over his dorm-room bed. "It's whatever style turns you on," he says, though both students are skeptical about the commercialization of their life styles. "The shops on Haight Street are making a mint on second-hand '60s clothes," says Anderson, a San Francisco native. "But it's just a visual '60s. I don't feel like there is any social or political movement anymore."

Comparing '80s conservatism with the freedom and turbulence of the '60s is inevitable in artistic circles, and nostalgia for the past is frequent among the school's Old Guard.

"Oh, I'm delighted to talk about the early days," says Richard Jenney, the school's chief psychologist, sitting at a desk that is swept clean except for a box of Kleenex. Jenney, 58, wears a cowboy vest and boots and hangs out in the halls to be available to students.

On a nearby shelf he keeps a child's book from the Villa Cabrini, the Catholic girls' school in Burbank where faculty and students bivouacked in 1971, while the building at Valencia was being completed. There were no grades in those early days and in the first couple of years classes often consisted of a faculty member bumping into a student. There were joint-rolling lessons, and theater, Jenny remembers, could be two students in leather lashing whips at each other. "Now it's Shakespeare," he says.

Anxieties were different too. "Students were concerned about losing touch with reality," Jenney says. "They were more willing to risk their whole selves with what they were doing. Now problems tend to be more the garden variety of neurotic issues"--performance anxieties among theater students, a case or two of anorexia among dancers. And, he says, "They talk more about making money."

Yet, the volatile forces of the '60s aftermath nearly destroyed CalArts. The core antagonism arose from the funding of a libertarian school with conservative money derived from a master of the pop culture idiom. Since the making of "Fantasia," Walt Disney had talked about establishing a "Caltech of the Arts" in which there would be a cross-pollination of disciplines--animators studying painting, dancers working with composers.

When he died in 1966, Disney bequeathed $11 million to a "CalArts," at one point conceived as a sort of high-arts sequel to Disneyland, with guided tours to observe the working artists and a complex of satellite hotels and restaurants.

At the fledgling school, mockingly dubbed Mickey Mouse U, shocking the Disney family became the favorite campus sport. At one board of trustees gathering, students paraded by the windows costumed as giant penises, and, when nudity at the swimming pool became an issue, a faculty member stated his viewpoint by stripping before the board of trustees.

That now-famous incident in 1971 was the crucial stroke that later toppled the early administration of President Robert Corrigan and Herbert Blau, school provost. As affairs rapidly deteriorated, the Disneys tried to unload their recalcitrant educational effort on USC and Pepperdine University.

The tenure of President Robert Fitzpatrick, begun in 1975, brought a more durable academic structure. "Kent State was the watershed. Suddenly everybody shut up; the bluff had been called," says Benedetti.

Now, fashionable post-modern rhetoric denies the old helter-skelter inventiveness. "The word avant-garde is taboo," Fitzpatrick says. "In the '60s, avant-garde exploration became a fetish for the new and trendy. There's no more garde ; there's a pluralism in the arts. Today we speak about new work."

A new careerism has also brought in a changed concept of the art school. "Everyone has an MFA," says Provost Beverly O'Neill. "Students aren't taking the chance of making their own community outside. People aren't in one place long enough. So the art institute serves the purpose of providing what used to be cafe culture--the environment that allows you to entertain all kinds of curious ideas and have an audience that will take them seriously."

The artists who are coming of age in this climate are pragmatic, and, like such models as Robert Wilson and Cristo, they are prepared to raise money to bring their artwork to fruition. "This is a recent phenomenon of what we might call the artist-entrepreneur," says Benedetti. "Students now are politically savvy; they know how to write grants. They're doing all the stuff that the radicals of the '60s would have refused to do on principle, because it would have been playing ball with the power structure. These people know how to use the power structure. They realize that they can no longer remain the pawns of the arts business."

The new attitude is reflected in student concerns about their lives and aspirations:

Student council president David Holladay sits in his dorm room amid a jumble of clothes. A newspaper clip pinned to the wall announces the appointment of his mother to the Norman, Okla., school board. Like most of his peers, he displays little college-kid excitement over drugs, whiskey or sex. He has rippling muscles and works out regularly in the school weight room, installed in the dorm two years ago at student request. Asked what is the most inflammatory political issue on campus, he replies: "The high prices in the school cafeteria."

Photography student Susan Robinson does conceptual work, combining image and text, favored by the school's faction of Marxist theorists. She talks about linguistic analysis and worries about perpetuating sexist stereotypes of women in the appropriation of past images. She shares a nearby house with a male student, but says, "I plan on having an independent life style."

Robert Campbell, a former Peace Corps volunteer, is one of about 50 students who live at the bottom of the economic scale in an assortment of trailers in the parking lot. He has no telephone, electricity or heat, and covers his windows with African fabric. Following a fire in one of the trailers, the parking lot residents have been ordered out by May 15. "I don't know what I will do," says Campbell, a film student. "I don't see how I can come back next year."

When drama student Douglas Rushkoff realized that his immediate future probably lay in small town theater, he began to plan a career in the movies in order "to become wealthy enough in film to do theater for its own sake." The struggling artist, Rushkoff says, "is a '60s thing that kids don't want anymore. 'Make me marketable,' " is his generation's shibboleth, he says.

Still, the starkly modern schoolhouse has established itself as the country's leading multi-arts training institute. Alumni include painters David Salle, Eric Fischl and the bulk of the post-modern movement in art, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, the Sequoia Quartet, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Lapine ("Sunday in the Park With George"), clown Bill Irwin and the Academy Award winner for special effects in "Star Wars," Robert Blalack.

Fitzpatrick has attracted international recognition, heading the Olympic Arts Festival and planning a return arts festival for next year, while the faculty--in a 1 to 6 ratio to this year's 833 students--is composed of such name-artists as film-maker Ed Emshwiller, animators Jules Engel and T. Hee, photographer Jo Anne Callis and conceptual artist John Baldesarri.

As a spawning ground, CalArts continues to spill out creativity. There is the case of Jack Vees, for example. Wearing a permanently unshaven look, the 30-year-old composer and master's student is a hit in new-wave circles, cutting records and playing at L.A. clubs.

In an evening-long musical installation piece, he spoofs the stereotypical roles of instruments and explores the physicality of sound. There is an oboe that seems to grow out of a clump of foliage--an idea he tested at a farmer's market. A stack of cassettes chirps sylvan flute music like an aviary, and a grand piano, enveloped in an embryonic polyurethane bubble, plays warped neo-Romantic tunes. An "almost skull-crushing" pattern music piece would seem to leave Philip Glass's meditative harmonies back in the ashram, while the piece de resistance is a wash of resonances based on text from the Book of Revelations. "I'm trying to do music that makes sense to me," Vees says.

Still, a swell of student conservatism persists. Unlike early Disney-linked attitudes, which were out of step with the more liberal late '60s, the current restraint is partially rooted in economics. As signs of the times, CalArts observers cite the $7,800 tuition, student graduation debts of $20,000, severe cuts in government loan programs for the coming school year and the establishment of a career placement program.

However, after the social-political sobriety of the late '70s and early '80s, some perceive the start of a loosening up. "What we see in the arts is a stirring of a new era which will be the recapturing of the spirit of inquiry, of love for truth and beauty for their own sake, and of disenchantment with sheerly materialistic values," says Benedetti. "I think the old Kennedy spirit of 'ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country' is coming back."

Though less optimistic, O'Neill also sees an emerging critical awareness of the crisis of image overload and the blurring of artistic and industrial mediums.

"In a certain way, this school helped invent the post-modern stance--breaking out of the constrictions of a clearly defined traditional approach. What are the dues we pay for this position now? Where are the boundaries between culture and the artist? Art spills out over everything. How does the artist have an impact in relation to all the other things that go on in an industrial way--television, album covers, fashion design? A lot of questions are being raised, and that indicates a kind of leadership."

Michael Schtakleff, 27, sits at a blond wood table in the Ahmanson Hall apartment on campus that he shares with five students from varying disciplines. The unit has a kitchen, carpeting and cable TV--"the upwardly mobile yuppie life," Schtakleff snips.

The son of a Bulgarian banker, raised in Beirut, Schtakleff is one of a small group of student and faculty activists. He believes that "the artist should have something to say about life socially and politically," and worries about commercialism and how the school "is promoting art as a product."

However, he says, "Ours is a mellow opposition. There's a lot of apathy here. People talk about their work, or they keep to themselves. Sometimes it looks like the Club Med." He waves his coffee mug to encompass the school's heated swimming pool, the Jacuzzis, the computers, synthesizers and video cameras that constitute the high-tech paraphernalia of the contemporary artist. "It gets too comfortable."

Schtakleff also questions his position as part of the problem. "I'm being supported by a system. Should I revolt against it?" he asks. "You're looking at one frustrated artist."

In a multi-arts theater piece, "The Musical Chairs," Schtakleff explores the nature of order and freedom, specifically criticizing the school's structured environment. "It appears as a democracy, but is actually totalitarian. It's the same old story," he says.

During the work, the audience is asked to change seats, following coded marker-cards issued to them. Most of the crowd passively accepts the system, moving as told to new locations, but a defiant few hurl their cards at the production's would-be commandant and disobey.

The performance is given on Friday night and is followed by a party on the art gallery mezzanine where the erotic exhibit is on display. Nearby, a freshman twosome is entertaining in the living room of their art installation "house," constructed of recycled consumer products. (The coffee table, piling ever higher with emptied beer cans, is considered a work-in-progress.) Students mill around a buffet table, a band plays and couples execute foot-stomping dances.

The scene is lively but conventional, and one wonders where it will all end. Benedetti sees the school's graduates as movers and shakers of the Establishment, but cautions "Then the question becomes, will they be absorbed?"

Fitzpatrick points out that both the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, which CalArts claims as spiritual kin, went out of existence. "My interest is not in the institutional; it is in art-making, and if that becomes difficult to do then let's not be ."

Meanwhile, plans for Friday's graduation call for a "Parking Lot Concerto for Trombone and Cars," a "Pomp and Circumstance" send-up, and, as usual, the African ensemble, dressed in grass skirts, and the gamelan players, the CalArts version of a school band, will lead in the procession of students.

Several years ago, Fitzpatrick was cut loose in a hot air balloon, landing 40 miles away in a field, and students have shown up to receive their diplomas in limousines, tow trucks and helicopters. As one dean says, "When you see that someone's missing in line, you just close your eyes and hope for the best."

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