The Arts Games

PERUSING THE FARE OF THE 1996 Olympic Arts Festival -- the big cultural she-bang running in Atlanta concurrently with the athletic competitions -- I couldn't help thinking of tailgate parties. No one who attends one of these movable feasts ever remembers very clearly what he ate or drank. And yet these parties are inextricably part of the ritual of going to football games. It's the same with Olympic arts festivals. They were mandated by Baron de Coubertin when he revived the Games a century ago. Every host city whips up a cultural sideshow to accompany the Games and then, well, you do remember those remarkable arts offerings in Seoul, in Los Angeles, Barcelona? Neither does anyone else. But on they roll.

The funny thing is, this year could be different. Not because, as the press release tells us, this is the ""largest multidisciplinary'' arts festival ever held in the South, with more than ""25 exhibitions, 20 public art works and 225 performances.'' (You almost expect a category for fastest soliloquy by a melancholy Dane in an open-air amphitheater.) And not because of the once-in-a-lifetime montage of great works brought in from museums around the world for a three-month stay. Rather, it's the local stuff, the cultural equivalent of fried chicken and potato salad, that makes the most lasting and favorable impression.

Ever since H. L. Mencken dubbed the South a cultural ""Sahara'' in 1917, Southerners have been fighting back. They have underwritten symphony guilds, erected arts schools, funded art galleries . . . and yet, the whole arrangement lacks genuine passion. In the South, the fine arts often seem like nothing more than a trophy spouse -- something to brag on but not necessarily to love. When Southerners do embrace the arts, it's generally other people's arts they claim to love. But as for art created in their own backyards, they still lack confidence.

The big show in the Olympic arts lineup is ""Five Rings'' at the High Museum. A collection of more than 125 works of art from all over put together by guest curator J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery of Art, the ""rings'' are emotions -- love, awe, anguish, joy and triumph. To illustrate these feelings, Brown has imported art works ranging from Henri Matisse's ""The Dance'' (II) to a mask for the Japanese Noh drama to an effigy urn from Mexico. And he's spanned the centuries as well, from ancient (a 13th-century-B.C. limestone carving from Egypt of Akhenaten and Nefertiti playing with their daughters) to up-to-the-minute (a video installation by Bill Viola). The problem is, by the time I'd waded through the Turkish ceramics, the Picassos, the van Goghs, the icebergs of Frederic Church, the avalanche courtesy of Turner, I felt less inspired than just plain drowned in spectacular greatness.

Also, Brown was stuck in my ear. Before the tour, everyone is handed a cassette player with Brown's taped guided tour. What he's saying in those self-hypnosis-tape tones is not much more than ""Isn't this great art?'' This ringmaster never lets you forget that you are looking at important stuff that's good for you, something that will improve you. But, boy, does it take the fun out of looking at art.

But the worst thing about ""Five Rings'' is its vague, family-of-man generality. While I listened to Brown I kept hearing the cranky voice of Gen. Tennessee Flintrock Sash, the centenarian Civil War veteran in Flannery O'Connor's story ""A Late Encounter With the Enemy.'' Regaling listeners with tales of the time he was a guest at the movie ""preemy'' in Atlanta, the general bragged, ""It wasn't a thing local about it.''

The show that ought to be showcased in the High Museum, the show that best exemplifies the South's unique contribution to art, has been relegated to a lesser space in City Hall East, a venue that's harder to find but worth the trouble. ""Souls Grown Deep,'' an enormous collection of vernacular art -- what used to be called primitive art -- by Southern African-Americans is the show to see in Atlanta. Enter through a front yard re-created right down to the dirt floor, but a yard transformed, with broken tombstones, sprinkler heads, bedsprings, paintings, baby-doll parts -- and all of it rejiggered by artist Lonnie Holley into a phantasmagorical vision as surreptitiously coherent as a dream. The rest of the show is not quite so overwhelming, but every piece is a wonder. Roots painted to look like faces, driftwood, burned televisions, roller skates, porch furniture cut apart and refashioned into strange abstract sculpture, or iconic people and animals cut from bits of sheet metal. Making art out of ordinary stuff -- trash, really, the flotsam of daily life that we all see but don't see -- these artists offer a rebuke to our lack of imagination. But it's done with such finesse and the results are so surprisingly beautiful that we forget to complain. Robert Rauschenberg recently said that seeing ""yard art'' like this when he was growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, helped inspire his assemblages of the '50s and '60s, and that statement underscores not only the uniqueness of this work but also its sense of visual sophistication.

Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts is another local arts establishment that could have used a bigger push front and center. Visitors who don't know better could easily dismiss this attraction as mere kids' stuff, when in fact it is one of the most exciting companies in American theater. Jon Ludwig's new version of ""Frankenstein,'' replete with traditional hand puppets, shadow puppets, live performers, performers wearing puppets, a live band and programs that come encased in barf bags, is a highlight. Ludwig's eerie production marries Mary Shelley's vision with New Orleans's voodoo and gives a brand-new twist to the phrase ""Southern Gothic.''

""The American South'' exhibit at the Atlanta History Center is largely a by-the-book walk-through of Southern history, but the physical paraphernalia, including a section of the lunch counter from the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth's where the 1960 sit-ins took place, give a corporeal boost to the imagination that no text or lecture can ever quite convey. And here especially, the eccentricity, the nuttiness of Southern culture shines forth delightfully. When Little Richard erupts with ""Long Tall Sally'' on the video monitor, Mencken's desert blooms. Pop music in the South is just a step away from folk culture, and while pop may have displaced high culture in other parts of the country, in the South it was the culture, sophisticated and diverse enough to nurture everyone from Louis Armstrong to the avant-garde composer Conlon Nancarrow.

Stuck in traffic and cursing the heat, a lot of visitors to the Olympics will be tempted to agree with Flannery O'Connor, who said, ""My idea about Atlanta is get in, get it over with and get out before dark.'' But she wasn't counting on the Olympic-arts promoters, who have given visitors a lot of good reasons to hang around. They could have been bolder about giving Southern artists a bigger share of the spotlight, but even in their timidity, they have showcased enough top-drawer Southern culture to satisfy the most demanding esthete. The only thing they could have done to ensure a bigger audience would have been to hang banners outside the galleries like the ones that once festooned movie marquees, where the letters dripped icicles and read, IT'S COOOOOOL INSIDE.