ART : At War With the Establishment : Politics and art are inseparable to Lucy Lippard, who has devoted almost three decades to feminist, political or socially committed work

<i> Suzanne Muchnic is a Times art writer. </i>

Lucy R. Lippard has no interest in the Q word. Quality in art is just “personal taste,” according to the veteran New York art critic and social activist who curated “A Different War: Vietnam in Art” at UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery (through May 19). She frankly admits that her first priority in selecting artworks for the anti-war show was to represent women, people of color and veterans. Beyond that, “I chose what I like. It’s my personal taste,” she said of the roughly 100 works on display.

And why not? In Lippard’s view, what passes for quality in the art world is nothing more than a few people’s preference. When these arbiters of taste bump up against an artwork that’s outside their experience, they simply dismiss it as inferior, she said.

“Ethnocentrism in the arts is balanced on a notion of Quality that ‘transcends boundaries’--and is identifiable only by those in power,” writes Lippard in her controversial, recently published book, “Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America.”


“Such sheeplike fidelity to a single criterion for good art--and such ignorant resistance to the fact that criteria can differ hugely among classes, cultures, even genders--remains firmly embedded in educational and artistic circles, producing audiences who are afraid to think for themselves.”

These are fighting words. To use art to promote a political agenda--as Lippard routinely does--is to sully its purity, according to her adversaries, which include mainstream critics as well as the conservative old guard. To abandon hierarchical judgment in favor of democratic representation is to undermine the orderliness of art history and connoisseurship as they have traditionally been taught. And to insist that professional pronouncements of quality are not aesthetic truth is to deny the authority of the art Establishment.

None of these objections to her avowedly left-wing approach are new to Lippard, but in the Vietnam exhibition she confronts three raging conflicts: American guilt over the Vietnam War, the troubled relationship between art and politics, and a multiculturalist movement that strives to provide parity for minority artists.

“This isn’t art; this is politics,” shouted one member of the audience last Sunday after lectures by Lippard and UCLA art historian David Kunzle. “I don’t think they are two different things,” Lippard responded from the stage of Dickson Auditorium.

When another man advised the lecturers that “a less inflamed rhetoric” is needed to reconcile enemies and heal festering wounds from the Vietnam War, Lippard conceded his point but said she was obliged to express her passion. To do otherwise “would be emotionally dishonest, and that’s not something I want to do,” she said.

“It’s exhausting to be a leftist at this moment. It’s depressing to fight the same battles over and over,” Lippard confessed in an interview during her brief visit to Los Angeles. But after nearly 30 years of writing about art--more than 20 of them devoted to feminist, political or socially committed work--the 52-year-old critic fights on.

As the author of 14 books and hundreds of magazine pieces and a contributing editor to Art in America magazine, Lippard is never far from the art world’s spotlight. A compact bundle of intensely focused energy, Lippard has a friendly demeanor and a crinkly smile. She buys all her clothes at thrift shops and confesses to only one consumer vice. “I love earrings,” she said, sneaking a glance at the gallery gift shop--hoping to find some baubles she couldn’t live without--before having her picture taken among artworks in “A Different War.”

The show got off to a troubled start about five years ago. John Olbrantz, then director of the San Jose Museum of Art, invited Lippard to select works and write a catalogue for an exhibition on Vietnam, but he was fired by a board that reportedly didn’t appreciate his liberal ideas. “A Different War” finally opened in the fall of 1989 at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art in Bellingham, Wash. Independent Curators Inc. assumed the task of circulating the show to eight institutions. After leaving UCLA, the exhibition will travel to the University of Colorado at Boulder, Aug. 30-Oct. 5, and conclude at Washington State University in Pullman, Jan. 13-Feb. 23, 1992.

Organizing the exhibition was an enormous task, Lippard said. Although she was already familiar with much anti-war art by professional artists, the work of veterans was “a complete revelation.” She eventually developed a three-part show, focusing on protest art made in the United States during the war; art by veterans, mostly produced after the war, and recent works inspired by memories or made by artists who are too young to remember the conflict. She compiled a list of about 500 works, which had to be “painfully cut” again and again to produce the final roster of 100 pieces that were suitable for travel, she said. Limited funds and exhibition facilities precluded borrowing such large installations as Edward Kienholz’s “The Portable War Memorial” and Duane Hanson’s “Vietnam Scene.”

What appears at UCLA differs drastically from Lippard’s original vision. “I wanted a lively show. I wanted music. I wanted memorabilia,” she said. Instead she got “a very clean” installation and “a very modest little show.” Despite this disappointment, she is pleased that UCLA is presenting a fuller view of Vietnam-era art than any of the other venues. Accompanying “A Different War” in the Wight Art Gallery is “As Seen by Both Sides: American and Vietnamese Artists Look at the War,” a show of 80 works organized by C. David Thomas. Nearby in Haines Hall, Kunzle has organized two exhibitions: “Posters of Protest: A Graphic Dossier of U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam, 1965-1972” and “Posters of Celebration: Silkscreens by Cuban Artist Rene Medero Celebrate the Vietnamese Resistance.”

Lippard’s point of departure for “A Different War” is that the Vietnam War differed from other American wars “politically, militarily and in its outcome,” as she writes in the catalogue. For starters, “there were two wars at home: one between the hawks and doves within the Establishment, and one between the counterculture and the centers of power. . . . Within the isolated art world itself, there were other divisions: between those artists who felt art should remain untouched by social issues, and those who felt artists should enter the fray. The latter split--again--between those who felt artists should protest in or outside of their artwork.”

She tracks these conflicts, as well as the war’s impact on various echelons of American society, in her catalogue essays. Throughout, she deals with art as a means of communication, if not a functional tool for social change.

“We are taught that art is useless,” Lippard said. While she voices no objection to art that sits quietly in galleries and concerns itself with aesthetic issues, her interest lies in “socially committed” work that moves people to action. “Art isn’t supposed to be practical, but it’s great when it is,” she writes in the catalogue. In exhibitions such as “A Different War,” she views art as “a bridge between thinking and doing. Art can’t effect social change all by itself. It can provide an envisioning aspect,” she said.

Though she loathes “the idea of ranking art” and attributes her curatorial selections to personal taste, Lippard applies certain standards to art. “I believe in the power of ideas and aesthetic integrity. Artists have to be good enough to get their ideas across. Bad art is art that doesn’t communicate,” she said. As a self-described populist, she wants the public to get art’s message.

Lippard is so strongly identified with these views that she might have been born with them, but that is not exactly the case. She grew up in New York, Louisiana and Virginia, in a family of “good liberals” who concerned themselves with such issues as race relations, but the family has had heated arguments over the merits of her activism vs. their “gradualism,” she said.

A graduate of Smith College and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, she began writing about art in the ‘60s when Minimalism was in the forefront of aesthetic discourse. Never a formalist critic, Lippard originally cast her lot with the Minimalists’ reaction to the emotionalism of Abstract Expressionism and the hedonism of Color Field painting. “In a sense, Minimalism was functional art,” she said.

Lippard also wrote extensively on Conceptualism, which held that a work of art is not a physical object but an artist’s concept. The notion of art as a powerful idea that goes out into the world, rather than a precious object lodged in a museum, still appeals to her, though she now contends that most Conceptual work is so obscure that it has had no impact on the public. When she re-examines the art that seemed so important in her early years, it often appears that nothing is there, she said.

Nonetheless, this background in mainstream art writing established Lippard as a critic who could not be ignored. “I was lucky that I didn’t fall into politics until 1968,” she said. The most dramatic moment of her fall occurred in Buenos Aires, where she had been invited to judge a competitive exhibition sponsored by a plastics company. The sponsors had their own prize winners in mind, and when the jurors failed to rubber-stamp the official choice, the sponsors refused to pay for their lodging at the Ritz Hotel. In the midst of this fray, she met Argentine artists who had taken a stand she had never considered. “They said they were not going to make art until the world changes,” she recalled.

Back in New York, with a raised political consciousness, Lippard joined the Art Workers Coalition, which was formed in 1969 and became the most active group of anti-war artists in the United States. She also became deeply committed to the feminist movement, writing extensively about female artists and feminist issues. Lippard also credits painter Ad Reinhardt with shaping her course. “He was a very politically responsible person--one of few artists I knew who was sophisticated politically,” she said.

These days, there are more socially committed famous artists than there were 20 years ago, but their commitment is expressed in a general way, as in the work of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Those who name corporate names, as Hans Haacke does, don’t get museum shows, she said. Lippard also finds fault with museums for ignoring or diffusing artists’ social involvements. “We are taught that art has nothing to do with life,” she said.

Universities don’t escape her critical scrutiny either. She decries a lack of courses on public art--the kind of instruction that would encourage students to take their work into the world and reconsider their ideas in a social context.

Still, the Vietnam War has made some inroads that she finds encouraging: politics has found a louder voice in art, critical methods have been challenged and artists have expanded the context and audience for their art.

But now there is another war that invites artists’ response and gives “a tragic timeliness” to “A Different War,” she said. The Gulf War was also “different,” this time because press coverage was censored. “This war lacked images of people--Iraqis, Kuwaitis or even American soldiers. The effect on art is a dehumanized response. The reality of the Gulf War was kept out of our living rooms. We don’t know what art will come from the war, but hopefully good art is being made. It takes more time to make good art than it does to devastate a country.”