Update On LACMA, Michael Heizer And The ‘Levitated Mass’-Modern Art And The Public


Originally, I had posted a piece on LACMA’s Levitated Mass, by the rather reclusive land artist, Michael Heizer.  The installation is a 340-ton rock (‘megalith’) in front of the museum, suspended over a carved slot which is deepest below the rock, and which the public can pass under as they notice the many supposedly metaphysical contrasts it inspires (the tension between weight and lightness, nature and culture, solid and line etc).  See the video above.

Presumably, your mind can think these thoughts, or it can think other thoughts.  You can be in your own individualized space during this process, or you can consciously be in the space of others as people mill around in front of the museum, gathered around a large, suspended rock.

What did Heizer intend?  What did he achieve technically?  What role does the Levitated Mass have to play in the public life of Angelinos?  Was LACMA’s presentation for commerce or contemplation?


As Robert Hughes and others have noted, modern art has been trying to compete with radio, T.V. the movies, pop culture and often technology for its role as explainer and interpreter to the people, as central to their lives and to public life in order to pass on the core values of society.   Yet, the artist has been an isolated figure, just outside of society, for much of the past few hundred years of Western Art.  A process of individualization has occurred.

Does art have a role to play in morally improving you?

From LACMA’s site:

‘Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from megalithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering.’

That’s a rather bold claim.  It might be better to say that it’s one modern, individualized Western artist’s take on prehistoric stone structures, and other prehistoric projects from a primarily technical point of view, like Stonehenge or the Nazca lines in Peru.

Those old prehistoric structures that inspire him likely came with all sorts of ritualistic purpose, local gods, spiritual and transcendental claims, and potential human sacrifice and other barbarisms.  See Werner Herzog’s “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” for a similar meditation.


As for Heizer,  he’s been working since 1972 on a sculpture in the Eastern Nevada desert, which was originally called ‘Complex One.’  It’s morphed into his life’s work, called City.  It’s very large. It can’t be moved.  You can’t reproduce it.  It represents a break from traditional sculpture. It can’t be put in a museum and it’s not clear that it has a function.  See more on Hughes take on it from his series, “Shock Of The New” which includes some aerial shots (from 00:45 to 5:30):


I have to confess that seeing that structure upon the wide open emptiness of Eastern Nevada is comforting for the familiarity it brings.  It’s a little bit of order upon the unknown, and the design, or lack thereof (about which a man may wonder), within Nature herself.  I think this is why a military installation out in the desert can captivate the imagination as it’s been known to in Hollywood and in the public mind (dreaming of aliens and conspiracies).

To expand on that theme, Wallace Stevens might shed some light.  He was an American poet on the hinge between romanticism and modernism:

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Wallace Stevens

You’ve changed all of nature with just one jar.

What do you do with an uncivilized, wild land?  Import European learning and literature “atop” it?  Christian tradition and the Natural Law? Import the triumph of the Western mathematical sciences and technology?  Import its movements of the arts and the individual artist?

You can’t help but do this.


So, is modern art supposed to improve you morally?

What originally drew me to the piece was politics and arguments over the public square, not so much the art itself.  There’s been some negative press about the Levitated Mass due to the spectacle of its presentation.  They hauled the rock in from its quarry outside L.A. on a specially made (and expensive) vehicle and draped it in protective garb.  This probably united people as much as anything else; witnessing the logistics of moving a huge rock such a distance.

With the current California budget crisis and California’s structural political problems, and the ways in which California and all that big dreaming has gone bust of late…does it really need another boondoggle?

What monument or ideas are those folks out in California gathering around anyways?

I think it’s important to highlight the gap between the achievement of the artist and those who would present that artist or his work to the public.  There is harm either can do to the other, as it might make the artist’s work just another forgotten public sculpture or diminish his incentives.  It might put taxpayers on the hook for something of questionable public value.

Trying to morally improve the public is what can give some people (I often think of NPR, many philanthropists, many a docent) a noble, if not righteous purpose in life.  At some point, though, it can become an argument of “shoulds” and “oughts” and what is actually for the good of the public, and which ideals and people lead others in the public square, rather than one of art.

Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

Related On This Site:  L.A.’s New Public Art Piece ‘The Levitated Mass,’ Or As The American Interest Puts It: ‘A Moving Rock’

Denis Dutton suggested art could head towards Darwin (and may offer new direction from the troubles of the modern art aimlessness and shallow depth…the money and the fame) Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

Denver’s Devil Horse may be flirting with kitsch: From The Wall Street Journal: Denver’s Mustang Or ‘Devil Horse’…and I like his work:…Joan Miro: Woman

From Grist.Org Via The New Republic Via The A & L Daily: ‘Getting Past “Ruin Porn” In Detroit’…Marketplace aesthetics in service of “women”: Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty: Pascal Dangin And Aesthetics… Roger Scruton In The City Journal: Cities For Living–Is Modernism Dead?Brasilia: A Planned City

What are these people doing with art?:  Often combining them with a Left-of-Center political philosophy as they are at NPR for popular consumption.  On this site, see: From ReasonTV Via Youtube: ‘Ken Burns on PBS Funding, Being a “Yellow-Dog Democrat,” & Missing Walter Cronkite’Repost-From NPR: Grants To The NEA To Stimulate The Economy?

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