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Victim Art 

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Dear Letters Editor:

We feel compelled to respond to Laura Molzahn and Achy Obejas's review of Pepatian's Familias in the Reader (Friday, May 19). Familias was presented May 11-13 as a work-in-progress at the Dance Center of Columbia College. We write not to defend a piece which speaks for itself, but to protest the ways in which Molzahn and Obejas have distorted Familias in the service of a broader attack on art which engages community in the process of its creation.

There is a Puerto Rican saying that goes "El pillo juzga por su condicion"--the thief judges by his own condition. Molzahn and Obejas's review of Familias would be suspect on the grounds of its internal contradiction and misrepresentation alone. These critics complain that Familias is both unclear and too straightforward; that it tends "to underscore the most tragic images of Latinos," yet is also too idealized and hopeful. They charge that the piece neglects the reality of single motherhood in the Latino community when two sections of Familias are devoted precisely to that experience.

Such inconsistency and error are by no means the only signs that Molzahn and Obejas are pursuing an underlying agenda at the expense of an accurate and constructive review of the work. Much like Arlene Croce's polemic in the New Yorker against what she calls "victim art," Molzahn and Obejas have used the space of their review of Familias to launch a defensive attack against art that, as they say, "actively involve[s] "the community' in "the process."' Characterizing such work as "art therapy," they trivialize recent productions by Bill T. Jones, Liz Lerman, Donald Byrd, and Jane Comfort, and single out Pepatian's Familias as the season's worst offender. We find it significant that Molzahn and Obejas have chosen to make their case against community-based art on the back of Familias, a work that speaks to Latino experience. Their disrespect is palpable and pervasive. They characterize our organization as "a small group from New York headed by a Puerto Rican husband-and-wife team"; charge that we don't know the Latino community; and insinuate that in creating Familias we have been motivated by funding opportunism.

After over a decade of creating, presenting, and supporting art that emerges from and speaks to Latino experience, we find such suggestions to be as laughable as they are offensive. What might be considered truly cynical is the way that Molzahn and Obejas have used the critical space of their column to polemicize against art that doesn't attempt to divorce itself from social contexts and relevance. Molzahn and Obejas's art-for-art's sake rhetoric never seems more derivative or empty than when, following Croce's lead, they charge that Familias renders itself critically unassailable by its "nonartistic origins." Would Molzahn and Obejas really want to disqualify contemporary family and community life, personal history, and human experience in general from the realm of potential "artistic origins"?

Pepon Osorio

Co-Artistic Director

Merian Soto

Co-Artistic Director

Kate Ramsey

Managing Director

Laura Molzahn replies:

Our review identified Familias as typical of a trend but by no means singled it out as the "season's worst offender."


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