Art Talk: Mass vs. Class, Chapter 3,827

ON THE NIGHT THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS OPENED THEIR ACCOUNT AGAINST the New Jersey Nets, Kirk Varnedoe, handsome former chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was going mano a mano with Adam Gopnik, twitchy staff writer at The New Yorker, in an upstairs room at LACMA West.



"How do you think she puts her
bra on?" "I don't know, but I
hear arm-removal surgery is
getting cheaper." "Yeah, I'm
getting my legs done next
week." (Andromate CybOrgas-
Matrix sex toy, Erotica L.A.
6/7/02.) Photo by Ted Soqui


Hmmm. Even Gopnik, a ferocious practitioner of verbal one-on-one, ever on the prowl for an epigrammatic slam-dunk, admitted he'd rather be watching the basketball game. Alas, he and Varnedoe -- the Shaq and Kobe of art talks, they joked -- had been flown out to the West Coast to kick around such brain-ticklers as, What is a museum? What is the future of museums? Do museums need to educate or entertain? Should they be aesthetic storage-rooms for the few or art-themed fun houses for the many? Etc. Going conspicuously unmentioned was the fact that LACMA itself is slated for demolition, to be replaced by the somewhat vague imaginings of globe-trotting Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

So the table was set for an evening of what LACMA had advertised as "rigorous and playful debate," with Varnedoe as the "expert" and Gopnik the pesky opinionated "amateur." The room was filled to capacity with by several hundred people, and they seemed to know their museums. When Gopnik remarked that there wasn't a picture in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris that hadn't looked better in the Jeu de Paumes, there were nods and murmurs of agreement in the audience.

That the debate on the nature of museums was being held at all suggests a certain guilt in the upper echelons of the art world about what it is doing to its own institutions. Varnedoe called the Tate Modern in London "a Fascist building worthy of Mussolini," and both he and Gopnik agreed that the Tate Modern and the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao are not museums so much as architectural extravaganzas intended to be destinations in themselves. For Gopnik, museums must allow for intimate, personal experiences or they will degenerate into a branch of the entertainment business, with lines forever stretching around the block to see the latest "blockbuster" exhibition. Varnedoe, playing the pragmatist to Gopnik's neo-Luddite, agreed with much of what his friend and one-time collaborator (on the notorious Pop High and Low at the Museum of Modern Art) had to say but insisted that museums need to grow and accommodate the explosion of interest in all things visual among the public.

The contrast between the two men (both Canadians) was striking. Varnedoe, dressed in beige slacks and a tan jacket, had the relaxed, aristocratic air of a retired polo player about to sit down for his evening gin-and-tonic. Gopnik was much edgier. Wearing a dark suit that looked too big for him, he perched on the edge of his chair, legs crossed, hands folded as if to stop them from flapping uncontrollably, ready to pounce on the slightest lapse of logic in Varnedoe's discourse. Unfortunately for him, there weren't many. Varnedoe is the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award.

After about half an hour, the debate began to feel a bit stale, probably because real disagreement was lacking. The "problem" with museums is that, unlike football stadiums, they're much more enjoyable when they are at least half empty. By deliberately targeting a mass audience, curators are destroying part of what makes their institutions worth visiting in the first place. When you look at a painting, you don't want 50 people standing in front of you. If you have to crane your neck just to see the thing, you might as well go to a movie where at least you can sit down. Anyone who likes museums knows this. So although the conversation took some fascinating turns, at bottom there was little to argue about. "It's so crowded nobody goes there anymore" -- the ancient joke sums up the feeling of many about the state of the contemporary exhibition hall.

Only at the end did a moment of real drama seem possible. Someone in the audience asked the two men if, "at the risk of biting the hand that's feeding you," they'd give their opinion of Rem Koolhaas' proposed radical redesign of LACMA, which, with its clear plastic roof and open floor-plan, would transform the rather drab jewel of Museum Row into a kind of postmodern train station with art instead of trains -- spectacular, yes; intimate, no. "I'll let you take that question, Adam," Varnedoe joked, but then proceeded to make his excuses. Unfortunately, he said, he hadn't studied the other proposals enough to give an educated answer, etc. Gopnik also dodged the bullet, though more wittily. In an obvious reference to Koolhaas' planned translucent roof, Gopnik said that for anyone who had listened to his arguments thus far, his opinion of the project would be "transparent."

---Brendan Bernhard

COLLISIONS: The Guardian Angels of Melrose Avenue

IT WAS NEARLY 6 P.M. ON A THURSDAY afternoon and Melrose Avenue's Urth Caffe was busy as usual. I'd spent half an hour browsing through the books at the Bodhi Tree next door and was now sipping a Spanish latte on the patio, soaking up the sun. Then, overcome by that twitch from within which, for no apparent reason, alerts you it's time to get going, I packed up and headed to my Jeep Cherokee across the street on Westbourne Drive.

I let one car pass, then stepped off the curb and began traversing the crosswalk. Yeah, I spotted the SUV in the distance but I assumed the driver would stop. He didn't.

Instead, he slammed into the left of me at approximately 27 miles an hour. This part is all a blank, but according to the police report, I was hurled onto the hood before hitting the asphalt and getting "stuck under the right front portion" of the guy's Ford Explorer.

The driver did eventually stop, but only after "realizing that several people on the north sidewalk were waving and yelling," as the police report put it. By then he'd pushed me about 49 feet into the adjacent crosswalk. When I came to, the engine was roaring in my ears, the right tire was looming over me and a crowd of at least 50 had collected around me.

From my horizontal point of view, I could see what looked like a second knee protruding from my left thigh.

"What happened? Am I paralyzed," I remember whimpering.

Immediately, strangers began rifling questions to keep me from losing consciousness. I knew their aim so I answered back and managed to blurt out my boyfriend Mark's work number before the digits could fade from memory.

That's when one of my guardian angels walked into frame, rendering everything else fuzzy. His name was Michael. Later I discovered that he's a 37-year-old writer originally from Germany; at that moment I only noticed his soothing energy: the way he held my hand, smiled, whispered assurances and caressed my face.

Eventually, I recalled that moments prior to impact, Michael and I had been sitting silently next to each other, each of us reading a book. At the hospital he explained how he'd hung around at the café as if he were waiting for something.

There was also Tynne -- the 26-year-old singer who was trailing behind me. With her strong vocal cords, she belted out, "Stop, stop, oh my god call 911, stop."

She was the first one to run over -- even though she believed I'd deflated into a corpse. She's also the one who made the driver initially perk up. She visited too, bringing me a journal with her version of the events.

"When I saw Maryam, I thought to myself, this girl is so beautiful, she can stop traffic anywhere."

So much for that.

And then there was Ben, the owner of Mansour Rugs, a high-end Persian carpet store on Melrose who instantly tried to contact my boyfriend. He was so adamant about getting me the same orthopedic surgeon who'd operated on him that he drove to the hospital himself.

Fortunately, the crash unfolded right around the corner from Cedars-Sinai, one of the best hospitals in the nation. If I'd been hit in Hollywood, let's say, chances are the county would have given me a ghastly scar and a cumbersome cast. (Keep in mind I have no medical insurance. In Canada -- where I come from-- health is ä a god-given right.)

At Cedars, the consequences were simply an exorbitant hospital bill and a treatment that now means I'll literally set off metal detectors. The doctor placed a titanium rod and two bolts inside my thighbone. I also fractured my L-1 vertebrae, four ribs and bruised my tailbone. And I've somehow developed super nasal powers. In the hospital, my sense of smell became so acute I could sniff every friend and nurse who wafted into my room.

Considering the facts, it's a miracle I'm not a paralyzed vegetable. So who cares if I have to use a snazzy $130 walker and an elevated toilet seat for the next six weeks?

I am not even angry with the 47-year-old driver who claims the sun completely erased me from view. (The glare from his dirty windshield didn't help). Once the legalities are settled, I plan to tell him that I harbor no hard feelings. Besides, he is the one who will instant-replay the thud in his head and be reminded of the incident each time he glances at the grill I cracked. (It's ironic how it's not the facts surrounding an accident that matter in this country but the status of the person carrying it out. Meaning, if a suit from 90210 had hit me, I would be a million dollars richer. And if an illegal immigrant from Mexico without insurance were behind the wheel, I'd be shit out of luck. My driver fell somewhere in the middle.)

What does upset me, however, are crosswalks with their inadequately marked paint strips. They are not stop signs, nor streetlights. Two weeks ago, on my way home from the beach in Santa Monica, I noticed a novel crossing with flashing amber lights embedded in the pavement. It resembled an airport landing strip, and one would have to be blind not to see it. My first thought: Why aren't there more of these?

As it turns out, Mike Harrison, a commercial pilot by vocation and the head of the California-based LightGuard Systems, came up with the idea back in '91 after his friend hit and killed an elderly gentleman. Now "smart" crosswalks, which cost $30,000 per intersection, are being ordered for streets throughout the nation. In the Los Angeles area, they can be found in Glendale, Anaheim, Thousand Oaks and Santa Monica. There are two similar versions in West Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard.

But the ordering process is slow. As one LightGuard Systems employee remarked, "You're dealing with bureaucracy, unawareness and budget restraints. Truth is, until someone gets hit, the money doesn't go that way."

Well, perhaps I can serve as a someone.

--Maryam Henein

ON STAGE: NPR Soundbites

I SAW A SMALL FLIER PASTED OUTSIDE MY banklast week promoting National Corporate Radio, a one-act satire of National Public Radio. As a sometime employee of NPR -- and a regular listener who would rather not hear Ketzel Levine blather on about what kind of garden she would plant on the site of the World Trade Center -- I am always up for a little public-radio bashing.

Still, I usually steer clear of lefty anti-corporate rants, even if I agree with what's being said, because they're usually so boring. In fact, when the message on the answering machine taking reservations for the performance thanked me "for not selling out," I almost didn't leave my name.

The theater sat about 30 people and was packed on a Tuesday night. Onstage was a table with two microphones, and to the right of the table, a standing microphone. The show consisted of a cast of rotating reporters and commentators speaking at the standing mic while the two hosts, an old-style lefty (Nader in 2004!) and a New Democrat (Clinton forever!) bickered at the table.

The plot was rather silly, but it didn't matter. During the first reporter's story, there was a soundbite from a press conference in which someone pretending to be John Ashcroft suddenly said, "I wrote a song about the terrorists," and began crooning "Don't fuck with America/We're the ones who fuck with youooo." But probably my favorite moment was a speech by President Bush -- using his actual voice -- carefully edited so that he said, in his most gratingly sincere way: "When the Cold War ended, some predicted that America would lead the world to peace. They were wrong. I have directed my national-security adviser and my homeland-security director to develop a joyless world. I will set forth the commitments essential to victory in our war against peace and safety and innocent life. When all of our military can continually locate and track America's best people with surveillance from air and space, warfare will be truly revolutionized. Our cause is necessary. Our cause is just. And no matter how long it takes, we will defeat freedom."

The audience applauded at the end of this, as if it were a real speech. For a room of people for whom NPR is sometimes hardly better than Fox News, it was thrilling to hear Bush actually say what every liberal is sure he means.

Derek Iverson, a slight young man with a brown beard and wire-framed glasses, who plays the Nader-loving host in the show and edited the Bush speeches with a friend who is a professional dialogue editor, also went after Warren Olney (host of KCRW's national show To the Point as well as Which Way L.A.?) by writing some fake promos for the show. An announcer smoothly asked, "Are homosexuals fucking each other or is the state of Texas fucking them? Today on What's the Point?"

"He's a very good interviewer. I give him a lot of credit," Iverson said later. "But he's so objective it kind of freaks me out. I have to wonder if he has any opinion at all. Or if he's even human."

He paused for a second.

"That's not even an attack so much as an observation," he said.

Another performer, playing the host of Bookweasel, skewered the self-righteous geekiness of public radio with a rant against the movie version of The Lord of the Rings.

"As chancellor of the exchequer of the Elrond Society of North America, and vice chairperson of the annual Hobbits Day Blueberry Picking Festival, one might claim that I am a bit of a purist," he sniffed. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Most of the performers' energy, though, was devoted to the creeping centrism and corporateness of public radio, and the audience seemed energized by that message.

Outside, after the show was over, people were buzzing as if they'd just seen the hot new movie at Sundance.

I asked Sandy Marr, a woman with a feather in her long hair, what she thought of the show.

"It was fabulous," she gushed. She's an activist for Pacifica. She said that except for Pacifica, there is no reliable media source for the left. Not even the L.A. Weekly, she told me pointedly. That's why we're in the political state we're in, she said.

"People need to come out and support people like Nader," she continued.

I replied that it seemed to me that one of the interesting things about the performance we'd just seen was that the Nader-voting host is not, in the end, a hero. He's ineffectual, and can't save public radio or even himself. The satire seemed as much a critique of the left as of the right, I said.

She nodded vigorously but misunderstood what I was saying. "I have a lot of friends -- real liberals," she assured me, "and they voted for Gore, secretly."

--Nancy Updike


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