‘I Am Combing,’ She Whispered, ‘Los Angeles Out Of My Hair.’ Did America Stagnate Economically Around 1972 And Has Its Cultural Avant-Garde Increasingly Become Nihilistic?

Regarding the above conversation between writer Bret Easton Ellis and mathematician Eric Weinstein:  Both men tell coming-of-age tales as Gen Xer’s during the early 1980’s;  a glamourized, somewhat nihilistic youth culture and a deep personal freedom.

I’ve been to L.A. a few times (Raymond Chandler kept me going when I was far away from my language) and David Hockney has captured some of the light and landscape of that particular place.

We all have likely have some contact with Los Angeles through the movies, and particular stylized visions of it:

It can seem vapid and empty; fake and dark.

Sometimes, the hills burn:

‘I am combing,’ she whispered, ‘Los Angeles out of my hair.’

Here’s Tom Wolfe, referring to Californians in this piece by Michael Anton:

‘Noyce was like a great many bright young men and women from Dissenting Protestant families in the Middle West after the Second World War. They had been raised as Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, United Brethren, whatever. They had been led through the Church door and prodded toward religion, but it had never come alive for them. Sundays made their skulls feel like dried-out husks. So they slowly walked away from the church and silently, without so much as a growl of rebellion, congratulated themselves on their independence of mind and headed into another way of life. Only decades later, in most cases, would they discover how, absentmindedly, inexplicably, they had brought the old ways along for the journey nonetheless. It was as if . . . through some extraordinary mistake . . . they had been sewn into the linings of their coats!

Does L.A. or the music made there even have a center?:

More broadly, in interacting with many Millenials I often find myself thinking: What the hell happened to a rough and ready sense of independence, freedom and responsibility? Am I alone in my deeper sense of patriotism, gratitude and a skepticism regarding the new, emergent rules?

Freedom of Speech!  America!

Whatever,’ comes the reply.  ‘We’ll see.

Am I just living in a post-60’s and post-Boomer bubble myself?  To some extent, yes.

Generation Birth Years
Silent Generation 1925-1945
Boomers 1946-1964
Gen X 1965-1979
Millenials 1980-1995
Next 1996-

Weinstein’s argument as I understand it:  Something fundamental shifted around 1972 in American economic and institutional life.  It’s when a previously more explosive rate of economic growth stalled.  Since that time, most folks within our academic, cultural and political institutions simply haven’t adjusted.

It’s harder to get into many housing markets now, and it’s harder to compete with global labor for jobs and academic positions.  Our current politics is a clown-show (for many reasons). Much stagnation has ensued, and many of our current institutional hierarchies might just possess dark, unspoken ponzi knowledge at their hearts.

The sooner you got in, the better off you are.

If such a theory be true, these conditions can easily erode a basic sense of fairness, institutional trust and continuity.  This could allow more space for the postmodern and nihilist drift both men discuss, and the growing desire for (S)elves looking for (C)ommunities and rules.  EQUALITY now.  More space for Socialism.  Anarchy.  More space for a retreat from the public square into one’s family and church.

Such a theory just might also stroke the egos of people who think of themselves as relatively independent, such as myself.

Dear Reader, I’ve got to watch out for that.  I like to think of myself as ahead of some curves.


‘Increasingly the research seemed to show that interventions by government, universities and industry in the US labor market for scientists, especially after the University system stopped growing organically in the early 1970s were exceedingly problematic.’

A few more thoughts and personal experiences as an undergraduate English major which support the theory:  There were plenty of talented undergrads, sure, but there were also clearly not enough slots to develop and mature their talents within the institutions.

A writing MFA?  Don’t be a sucker.

The older the professor, usually the more rigorous and focused the teaching.  The higher the expectations and the less existential questions of pedagogy there were.  Fewer ontological questions of Self in the World emerged as confessional blank verse and personalized syllabi.

Later on, briefly (you should be as happy as I am I’m not a lawyer), I saw legal education displaying similar troubling trends, even though law requires a clearer logical and objective rigor:  All the top-tier law grads were vying for teaching spots at second and third-tier law schools.  If you started at a second or third-tier law school….good luck.

Don’t be a sucker, now.  Find your (S)elf.  Freedom is next.

Do We Need To Make Stuff Again?-From Joel Kotkin: ‘The Real Winners Of The Global Economy: The Material Boys’

Full piece here.

‘Something strange happened on the road to our much-celebrated post-industrial utopia. The real winners of the global economy have turned out to be not the creative types or the data junkies, but the material boys: countries, states and companies that have perfected the art of physical production in agriculture, energy and, remarkably, manufacturing.’

Urbanists love to hate Joel Kotkin, as he has offered them much in the way of criticism.  At the New Urbanist website, I found the following quote:

“Only when humans are again permitted to build authentic urbanism — those cities, towns, and villages that nurture us by their comforts and delights — will we cease the despoiling of Nature by escaping to sprawl.”

So much for the suburbs and the economic freedom and opportunity to live in them and get your kids into the best school possible.  I can’t blame people for wanting alternatives from L.A.’s notorious sprawl, but it’s good to see Kotkin has at least hit a nerve when he’s called both merely a ‘media pundit’ and an ‘Irvine company shill.’

In Seattle, they’ve secured some funding for Yesler Terrace.

Here’s Kotkin again:

‘The growth of basic industries also creates demand for high-end business services — everything from architects and investment bankers to data-miners, advertising, and public relations firms — concentrated in such places as San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Boston.’

We need energy, and perhaps we need again to stay competitive.  Perhaps we’re not just in a global world united by technology, where we will control the knowledge and creativity, able to manage the best international institutions possible.  Perhaps despite the benefits, those summits for rich people to come together and solve the world’s problems aren’t all there is to it (remarkably like the Eurocratic vision).  We’re also in a competition for resources.

Kotkin is again throwing some cold water on the vision of some people:

Greens and activists who want to control and regulate the energy sector according to their understanding of nature.  Or they at least will control much lawmaking and the political process through activism, while directing massive amounts of federal taxpayer money to developing this vision (chosen and controlled by politicians whom they favor).  Whatever’s going on with the climate, they’re usually willing to overlook the political waste, corruption, higher costs of gas and basic services and fewer jobs that could make us like Europe, without many of the benefits.

The products of modernism and modernist architecture.  Some modernists believe in utopian and semi-utopian visions of the future, or simply, a better world where people should be rounded up and live happily according the visions of a few artists, architects, and city-planners.  They don’t like the suburbs too much.

Collectivists, humanists and multicultural types who like a broad, ‘equality of outcome,’ definition of democracy and believe there will be room for everyone, all races and classes, in the new urban environment (more like European social democrats) if just the right people are in charge.

Anyone with a monied, career or professional, personal or identity-based stake in this vision.

Think I’ve got this wrong?  Let me know if you disagree with Kotkin’s numbers or his interpretation.

Here’s Kotkin’s book, ‘The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.

Addition: See the comments at Alexandria.

***A least Tony Hsieh, in Las Vegas, is putting up his own money and his own connections to create a more livable Las Vegas as he sees it:


Related On This Site: Underneath a lot of the social sciences are other ideas, about how people should live and what we should do: From Joel Kotkin: ‘The Suburbs Could Save President Obama From Defeat’Joel Kotkin Via Youtube: ‘Illinois Is In A Competition’From The WSJ: ‘Joel Kotkin: The Great California Exodus’Joel Kotkin At Forbes: ‘Is Perestroika Coming In California?’

Are these the enemies of the future?: Virginia Postrel At Bloomberg: ‘How The Elites Built America’s Economic Wall’

See Also:  Briton Roger Scruton perhaps also wants America to be more like Europe, less rootless, wasteful, and tramping the flowers.  In modernism’s place (souless airports, blank modern facades speaking only to themselves) Scruton suggests Leon Krier’s New Urbanism and a return to more Classical architectureRepost: Roger Scruton In The City Journal: Cities For Living–Is Modernism Dead?

Brasilia: A Planned City and Review Of Britain’s “Lost Cities” In The Guardian

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?

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

Full piece here.

Perhaps you haven’t heard about the Levitated Mass at the Los Angeles County Art Museum:

‘…an artwork by Michael Heizer comprised of a 456-foot-long concrete-lined slot constructed on LACMA’s campus, upon and at the center of which is placed a 340-ton granite megalith. As visitors walk along the slot, it gradually descends to fifteen feet deep, running underneath the megalith before ascending back up.’

This is L.A., but…still.  Our author at the American Interest wonders:

‘It would be interesting to know whose idea was to move the 340-ton rock from a quarry (at a distance of almost a hundred miles) to the Los Angeles County Museum—an operation costing millions, necessitating extra police forces to deal with the traffic problems caused by the slow progress (five miles per hour) of a gigantic truck (“196-wheel transporter”) specially made for this project.’

Wonder no further:


Well, at least it was paid for by private donations.  Even so, a great nation deserves great art.  This piece fills a spiritual and cultural void at the heart of the Angelino multicultural experience, creating a communal space (absence) in which the public can find meaning through public Art by incorporating Nature itself (a large rock…prescence) into their rootless, isolated, traffic-weary daily lives.  It is a mass for the masses!

While passing under the megalith, it may slowly dawn on some Californians that what seemed like levitation or another mildly interesting new art installation actually has a terrible weight to it, and could potentially crush them to death.  This may even inspire fear or resignation (like the California debt burden), or perhaps like the Hajj it will become a pilgrimage destination, even uniting people in a state of passive reverence for something so mildly holy (as only good, secular, public Art projects can do).

There was also a gala opening for the rock as though it were Oscar night.  From the American Interest:

“In the final analysis, moving this rock to a museum may be seen as an apt symbol of the cultural/aesthetic relativism that has of late engulfed much of our society. Admiration of the rock also illustrates a rare agreement between elite groups (such as curators and benefactors of museums) and ordinary people about what should be regarded as an object of art. Perhaps most importantly it reflects a growing incapacity of many Americans to distinguish between events which are appropriate occasions for reaffirming social bonds and experiencing exhilaration and those which are meaningless and wasteful spectacles.”

Indeed, but I suppose that’s up to the people of Los Angeles to decide.  They may like it.  The L.A. Times blog writes more here (comments are worth a read).

See also:  Tergvinder’s Stone, a poem by W.S. Merwin.  Maybe you could see this coming.

Addition:  Apparently not everyone recognizes an attempt at postmodern public art blurb satire when they see it.

Related On This Site:  Via Reason: ‘Salvador Allende’s Cybersocialist Command Center’…Left of Center politics and art: 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?

Joan Miro: WomanGoya’s ColossusGoya’s Fight With Cudgels

Philosopher Of Art Denis Dutton of the Arts & Letters Daily says the arts and Darwin can be sucessfully synthesized: Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

How might Nietzsche figure in the discussion, at least with regard to Camille Paglia.  See the comments:  Repost-Camille Paglia At Arion: Why Break, Blow, Burn Was Successful…Here’s Nietzsche scholar J.P. Stern on Nietzsche’s anti-Christian, anti-secular morality (Kant, utilitarians), anti-democratic, and anti-Greek (except the “heroic” Greek) biases…

Nothing that Allan Bloom didn’t point out in the Closing Of The American Mind: Update And Repost: ‘A Few Thoughts On Allan Bloom–The Nietzsche / Strauss Connection’

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