This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Art + Activism

Copyright © Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Peter Sellars, professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures and a 1983 recipient of a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, is renowned for his innovative, often politically charged productions of classical operas, theater and film worldwide. At UCLA, students flock to his classes "Art as Moral Action" and "Art as Social Action."

The embodiment of artist as activist (even his famous upended hair seems to be challenging the status quo), Sellars kicked off the department's Art + Activism lecture series on Jan. 23. Standing before a packed audience in Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater, Sellars began: "It's totally cool that this series is happening."

In a presentation that seemed part planned lecture, part stream-of-consciousness, Sellars educated and enlightened, cajoled and beseeched budding artists to "show up and speak up."

Art is about "creating a space in the world that doesn't exist," Sellars said, but which very much needs to. Taking aim at the current state of world affairs, he said the arts must be involved in politics because "at the moment, political movements are missing in action and need a place to happen."

Sellars said he has been disappointed by "the failure of the arts of the last 25 years to in any way humanize the country we're living in. None of our art has been good enough." Pointing to a soaring world poverty rate and what he called "the open viciousness of public life," he told his mostly student audience, "What your generation is dealing with is so shocking. … This is something to think about and deal with in your work."

A scene from the American Repertory Theatre production of "The Children of Herakles," staged by Peter Sellars in Cambridge, Mass.
Copyright © Photo by Richard Feldman

Debuting in 2002 in Bottrop, Germany, and moving on to seven other cities, Sellars' adaptation of "The Children of Herakles," a classic Greek play written by Euripedes in about 430 B.C., illustrates how activist art can stimulate profound change. Sellars used the play as a jumping-off point for portraying the struggles of immigrants and refugees worldwide. The play offers the tale of the children of Herakles, who must flee for their lives but are banned from every city they try to enter except Athens. Sellars' version featured actors who were actual refugees residing in each of the cities in which the play was staged.

Off stage, his production made a point of incorporating dinners and other opportunities for the refugees and local authorities to meet and talk.

"Believe me," Sellars recalled of the 2004 production in Vienna, "it was the first time the minister of the interior of Austria had dinner with three African refugees living in the streets."

These dialogues, he said, helped shift people's perception of refugees; they were no longer seen as "people who could be generalized about. Now they were three real people with three very real stories.

By taking part in this process, he said, people "get beyond who they think they were … and see the world in a different way.

"And it happens because it's an art project," Sellars said. "Because the minister of the interior says, 'Oh, it's an art project … I'm going to have dinner with artists.' " Ultimately, Sellars said, "Art is creating a space for people to meet. Most people are waiting for an invitation."

The Art + Activism series is a joint program of the UCLA Art|Science Center and the Art|Global Health Center at UCLA, with their respective departments, Design | Media Arts, and World Arts and Cultures.

For more information, see A streaming video of Sellars' lecture is available at

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