That's how UCLA's Judy Mitoma describes the situation facing today's artists working in traditional cultures. When the libraries of the ancient world perished in fire, so did the works of many writers and thinkers, lost forever. Today the modern world faces the same kind of threat, as cultural heritages are destroyed or debased, and regional diversity is suffocated.
Mitoma, the director of the Center for Intercultural Performance in UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures, describes the situation facing traditional artists as "a state of crisis. Artists find themselves under enormous economic and political pressure." Often government sponsorship is abandoned in a shift to a market economy; artists are marginalized, receiving little support or recognition.
"In their search for work, regrettably, many turn to the tourist industry. Viewed as symbols of culture, their work is often presented as decorative and entertaining diversions. Most threatening of all," Mitoma says, "new generations see no viable future in working in the arts or preserving their cultural heritage."
Commercial success brings its own problems. Mitoma uses the example of national dance companies whose program offerings are chosen to appeal to American tastes. "Local artists are eager to imitate these famous companies and, as a consequence, there is a codification of style, a rigidly set repertoire and a negative effect on creativity and artistic development in those countries," Mitoma explains.
Mitoma sees a role for educational institutions in supporting traditional cultures and creating a new kind of cultural exchange based on mutual respect. "International students bring with them cultural traditions that are respected by the department and their student peers," Mitoma says of her department, the first in the U.S. devoted to World Arts and Cultures. "We do not ask them to imitate our values, aesthetics and techniques."
As director of the Asian Pacific Performance Exchange, Mitoma is able to put her ideas about cultural exchange into practice. "Exchange begins as people teach each other, then collaborate and create together, all along the way learning about their differences and similarities. Intercultural collaborative exchange gets at the core issues of culture and has a clarifying and empowering effect for artists."
Judy Mitoma is continuing her work and in 2005 she produced and broadcast a feature-length documentary "Songs for the City of Angels", which features the interactions of local and international artists in sites around Los Angeles - (Updated 1/07)