“Levitated Mass”: Art or environmental crime?

The main component of Michael Heizer’s (quite literally) monolithic art piece, “Levitated Mass” rolled through Southern California last week on its way to the L.A. County Museum of Art.

The 340-ton granite rock took 11 days to travel from a quarry in Riverside to its final destination on LACMA’s campus. Museum visitors will be able to view the piece from the perspective of a 456-foot-long “slot” dug in the Earth, from which the megalith appears to rise. The installation is planned to be completed by this summer.

Trundling along a circuitous route of side streets at about 8 mph, the shrouded boulder on its specially built 196-wheeled transport intrigued locals and was accompanied down Wilshire Boulevard by a sizable entourage. The final effect was, as LACMA Director Michael Govan describes it, “a big public spectacle.” To a much wider audience than most contemporary art reaches, the 21 feet tall stone again posed the eternal question, “what is art?”

It’s not really fair to judge a work of art before its completion, but that didn’t stop most critics in this case. The sheer grandiosity of the project – the engineering and administrative logistics, the nightly slow motion parade through 22 cities, the $10-to-$20 million price tag – provoked new conversations about the validity and significance of Earth Art, an art tendency that has been around since the late sixties. Earth Art, as practiced by artists such as Robert Smithson, James Turrell, and Andy Goldsworthy, involves the artist making a monumental aesthetic impact on the landscape by moving, removing, or changing parts of it.

L.A. painter Mark Vallen lampooned the excess of “Levitated Mass” on his blog, “Art for a Change,” by offering up his own smaller version, a 100-ton boulder, for just $1 million. With the $9 million in “savings,” LACMA can “… help create a critically needed first-rate arts curriculum for Los Angeles school children, put into action an expanded artist residency program, and have enough left over for the purchase of artworks from contemporary artists having a hard time due to the economic downturn.” The title of Vallen’s lesser rock? “Alleviated Masses.”

Vallen definitely has a point about the dire situation of arts education in L.A.; the Los Angeles Unified School District has threatened to eliminate all funding for elementary school arts education this year. The state of the State’s arts funding isn’t much better. The California Arts Council – the public arts organization for a state with over 38 million people – has a budget of just $5.6 million, about half the cost of “Levitated Mass.” 

LACMA sounds defensive when answering the FAQ “How can LACMA Justify This Expensive Project When the Economy is suffering?” They argue, “A great deal of the privately raised funds for Levitated Mass has gone directly into the local economy,” through hiring construction crews, transportation workers, and fees to local governments. In other words, a sort of public (art) works project funded by the one percent. But why be so proud of an arts patronage system that is really an expression of the noblesse oblige of the well heeled? Shouldn’t a democratic society have public art that is (gasp) publicly funded? How about letting the rich “give back to the community” by paying their taxes?

When you step back and look at LACMA’s corporate sponsors, you can see that the museum is, in a sense, publicly funded. Among the donors are TARP fund recipients Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Chase Bank.

Kevin Drum, a blogger on the Mother Jones website, reveals unprogressive views on art when he dismisses “Levitated Mass” with the familiar refrain of the art crank: “at this point, I think all these guys are just laughing at us.” In other words, all this crazy new art is just a scam to make money and make us regular folks look stupid. A self-described “ordinary schlub,” Drum repeatedly defends his blinkered opinion by declaiming his ignorance of art (“I don’t know about art and I don’t pretend to”)!

Yet, he isn’t “an ordinary schlub,” he’s a writer for a major liberal publication, being paid to give his opinions. He says, “I don’t expect anyone to take me seriously,” yet here he is, offering up his thoughts, which we have to presume he thinks are valuable – or maybe he’s just laughing at us. It’s as if someone who knew nothing about baseball watched a game, and then wrote a column complaining about how the players just ran around mindlessly in circles.

He says, “Installations like this [divorce] the art world from the vast majority of modern-day audiences.” But can he name an art piece from the past decade that’s gotten this much attention? Drum’s arguments boil down to the philistine cliché, “I don’t know about art, but I know what I like.” But it is precisely the art that begs the question, “Is it art?” that is frequently the most interesting and challenging.

The most trenchant critique of “Levitated Mass” comes from KCET.org’s Char Miller  on the “The Back Forty” blog. Miller calls the piece “the prostitution of nature,” and basically accuses Heizer of defiling the landscape with his art for the past forty years.

Miller points out that one of the original purposes of Earth Art was an attempt to de-commodify art by making art that couldn’t be housed in a gallery or museum. It wasn’t bought and sold; it was to be free and open to those who took the time and effort to view it. However, since the sixties and seventies, thinking around the environment has changed. The negative human impact on the environment to the point of crisis has caused many to question the appropriateness of Earth Art’s intrusion on, and possible disruption of natural systems.

For Miller, Heizer’s art represents a throwback to the “chest thumping” drive to conquer nature: “his maximalist impulse is paired with an imperial reach,” combining patriarchal egotism with state of the art technology and engineering to create “a world in suspension.” Miller illustrates the dark implications of Heizer’s work with this ominous quote from the artist: “In the desert, I can find that kind of unraped, peaceful, religious space artists have always tried to put in their work. “

Maybe “Levitated Mass” really is the ultimate monument to our times. A threateningly colossal megalith with no visible means of support is a perfect metaphor for the end times of capitalism. Hanging over our heads, the oppressive power of capital, impending environmental catastrophe, and the peril of economic collapse represented as an immense pyramidal mass.

Like the stone monuments of the obsolete civilizations it references, “Levitated Mass” is an instant relic of a profligate regime, a suitable headstone for a dying culture.

Photo: “Levitated Mass” rolls through Lakewood, Calif.