of the Art
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Sociologist David Halle has never been one simply to interpret how people feel about controversial art. He actually goes out and asks them.
By Meg Sullivan
Illustration by Scott Laumann
About eight years ago, David Halle found himself wearying of studying art and art collectors. So the UCLA sociologist launched his own culture war: He banned art from his home.
Now blank walls greet visitors to the Manhattan apartment where Halle, the founding director of UCLA's LeRoy Neiman Center for the Study of American Society and Culture, spends three days a week with his wife, Louise Mirrer, and their 12-year-old son, Malcolm, and 14-year-old daughter, Carla. (Twenty-year-old Philip is away at school in Pennsylvania.)
The move was not met with great enthusiasm at home. "We had some pretty nice art, so I was crushed when David decided it was banal," says Mirrer.
But to Mirrer's relief, the walls aren't always blank. There are the periodic slide shows during which Halle flashes large images of artworks on the walls. "It makes for interesting conversation," she says. "I resisted at first, but David convinced me that we're displaying much more interesting art now than when we had fixed paintings on the walls."
It's the kind of compromise that typifies the bicoastal scholar's penchant for looking at art in unconventional ways. Marshaling exit polls, demographic surveys and other yardsticks of the social sciences, Halle is known for bringing startling clarity to a realm usually dismissed as ineffable: how people feel about art.
"The main way to study art and culture is interpretation, which is what critics do," explains William G. Roy, a UCLA colleague in the Department of Sociology. "They assume the general public is going to react the way they do. But David finds out how the general public actually thinks and lives."
Halle, for example, nabbed headlines with the results of a study he conducted during the 1999 Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a show that drew the wrath of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani because it included a portrait of the Virgin Mary by British artist Chris Ofili that incorporated elephant dung as an artistic medium. (Others among the 42 artists represented in the exhibition included Damien Hirst, known for his works composed of preserved slices of animals that are presented in sealed, formaldehyde-filled containers, and the brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose multi-bodied, multi-body-part figures explore a bizarre world of sexual identity.)