Sunday, July 8, 2012 / 6:15 pm

Levitated Mass: Some Thoughts on the Rock

I do not care for this megalith about which I bitch.

by Jim Washburn

Mass, levitated

I haven’t seen “Levitated Mass” in person. I live in Orange County, and, hence, do not need to experience or know anything to form an opinion.

My opinion is that I do not care for this big rock. I care even less for the critics who care for it, which is probably only fair, since some of them care even less for my ilk, the great unwashed.

First, why do I not care for this rock? I suppose it is because I have seen a great many rocks, large and small, generally in their natural habitat, where one is perhaps predisposed to like them since you’ve gone to such a lot of frigging effort over hill and dale to get to where they reside.

I have stood atop huge blocks of marble in the quarries of Carrara. I have beheld the mystical rock formations of New Mexico. I have seen the gaily artificially colored pebbles in a child’s aquarium, and I say to you, this “Levitated Mass” rock is just a damn rock. You would not have gone trekking to Riverside County to see it, not even if Jesus’ face had manifested on its surface.  I do not know that this damn rock has gained a thing by being transported to downtown Los Angeles to sit atop an equally damned ditch.

You can walk under this rock, see, to experience what only lichen and James Franco have experienced before. And then you can walk sideways through the Haunted Shack, pan for gold and take a log flume ride through the Calico mine.

I’m just revealing my bumpkin-ness here, because “Levitated Mass” isn’t some crass attraction; it’s art.  I mean, would Times art critic Christopher Knight have written “quiet dynamism inflects a decidedly sepulchral scene” about the boulder rolling down a manmade slot in Raiders of the Lost Ark, even if the jungle crypt setting was ultra-decidedly sepulchral?

Knight likes being Levitated, not wholeheartedly, just enough to piss upon the fire of those who don’t, as he did in his July 1 “Culture Monster.” 

He dismisses out of hand the public’s “tedious wailing over cost,” jumping right to the dunces who just don’t get it; who gripe that said rock shows no proclivity for levitation, physically or spiritually. That, Knight says, is “just another form of the wheezing, century-old suspicion that modern art is a hoax, which the complainer is now exposing. Tell it to Van Gogh, who annoyed almost everyone.”

Bringing Van Gogh into the discussion adds incendiary zing to the argument, sort of like dropping “Hitler” into a chat about the 2012 election. Well, let’s drop Hitler into this chat. He was an artist, too, whose paintings and attempted opera only met with scorn in his lifetime. If he’d had a Knight to champion his misunderstood early works—who knows?—maybe Hitler wouldn’t have moved on to his later works, which also annoyed almost everyone.

By which I’m just saying, it’s a stretch, this Van Gogh thing. How does it bear on the matter, except to add the equally aged wheeze that something is art when only the rarified few get it? How can Knight be so sure that he’d appreciate Van Gogh if he’d been around then? And if poor, struggling Van Gogh had seen “Levitated Mass” trucking down his rutted lane, I rather suspect he’d be shitting angry haystacks over the thought of  $10 million and so much attention being lavished on a rock.

For every singular genius like Van Gogh who was initially overlooked, whose work was too raw and emotionally demanding at first blush, there must be 1,000 clever bastards who think they are artists, yet their work doesn’t connect because it is precious, self-indulgent sputum whose grand insight or ironic juxtaposition of elements isn’t worthy of a four-panel Nancy cartoon. Being modern doesn’t make it good art any more than being in the Byzantine style does. Most artists blow, that’s just the sad story of mankind.  and the majority of art

I don’t know what else “Levitated Mass’” artist, Michael Heizer has done—that would require informing myself—but I did read in the Times that he first conceived of “Levitated Mass” in 1969. That was the same year Jimi Hendrix conceived of his “Band of Gypsys” album, but he didn’t stop there; he also brought it to fruition, using only his fingers and about $3,000 of musical equipment. And that was art writ large, a scarifying new notion of musical composition incorporating a grandly expanded musical vocabulary as propounded by James Marshall Hendrix his very own self, since he didn’t have time to wait around for funding or for someone else to facilitate his dreams.

A lot of what makes art art is having to work with limitations. You’ve got a chisel and a stone: create a man. You’ve got two-dimensions and some balky paint: capture the world. You’ve got six strings and a Uni-Vibe: birth a universe and then explode it with sound.

Werner Herzog had to work double-shifts in a steel mill for two years, subsisting on peanut butter, in order to fund the sort of movie he wanted to make, and he’s doubtless a better filmmaker for it. When, a few movies in, he made “Aguirre, the Wrath of God “for $800,000, the result looked like $30 million, plus $20 worth of indigenous hallucinogens.

The best art of my generation was unfunded. For well over two decades, James Brown and his bands painted lasting, pulsing visions of black America, and did it nightly for hundreds of nights a year. Lightnin’ Hopkins told about life using a department store guitar to paint in the scenery. In the 1960s, comic book artists came up with dynamic new ways of expressing motion and conflict, many of them earning less in a year than Roy Lichtenstein would make off just one of his ironic purloinings of their craft, because he was a recognized artist, as opposed to all these other schlubs who had to sink or swim in the commercial marketplace to get their art across to their fellow man.

One of my favorite quotes is George Harrison’s introduction to his autobiography: “I suffered for my art, now it’s your turn.” Much, probably too much, has been made of the notion of the suffering, tortured artist, but there’s something to it. Working through adversity, making something that’s bigger than the limitations you have to work with, that’s part of the sad, wonderful mess that makes us human, while art that’s created by throwing big gobs of money into an airy notion will probably be missing something vital.

So maybe it is not so lowbrow to be talking about money in relation to “Levitated Mass.” Plus, at a time when most people aren’t being fairly compensated for their work, if they have work; when our social fabric is fraying for wont of capital; when we and our institutions are up to our earlobes in debt, yes, one does have cause to ask why the hell are we spending $10 million to take an insensate rock for a drive?

(OK, it’s a megalith, which is the name for a big rock that’s been dipped in importance. The rocks at Stonehenge, for instance, are megaliths, because druids once believed they could sync their iPhones there.)

 LA’s megalith was paid for by private funding. It’s not your tax dollars being frittered away, but it’s dollars nonetheless, and it calls our priorities as a society into question that we can afford such a huge fancy when so many among us are homeless, without even a rock to crawl under at night.

Knight sees “Levitated Mass” as a boon to the economy, writing, “Pumping millions into the local economy for worker salaries, industrial materials, civic fees and other expenses doesn’t strike me as a negative attribute—especially in these straightened times.” 

By that thinking, we could levitate ourselves out of the recession if we’d only drive enough big rocks from place to place. That’s sort of what the WPA did, except when the money was spent there, you had useful dams and roads to show for it.

I’m not sure that the best way for LA to assert itself as a global leader is by becoming the global leader in pointless megalith repositioning, but maybe it’s worth a try. How about it, Mr. Knight, want to start the ball rolling and order a nice 680,000-pound megalith for the front yard?  


Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.


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