Los Angeles Times

Brainstorms brew in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

It was a balmy night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Hundreds of Angelenos were gathered on the roof deck of LACMA West after a debate about the changing role of art museums. Comedian Steve Martin was there, too: no arrow through his head, no dancing like King Tut, just one of the crowd. Now he was waiting, and waiting, to talk to his friend Adam Gopnik, an intense, erudite New Yorker writer who'd been one of the night's featured speakers. Gopnik was surrounded by fans, some there to praise his book "Paris to the Moon." He was talking, waving, shaking hands as if he were running for office.

His tweed-jacketed debate partner, Kirk Varnedoe, a former New York Museum of Modern Art curator whose manner is as country club cool as Gopnik's is jumpy, was mobbed as well. No one, on the other hand, was bothering Martin, who stood by patiently and silently, eventually pumping Gopnik's hand, politely apologizing for not having more time and taking off.

The evening, an installment of LACMA's more-or-less monthly Institute for Arts and Cultures, captured a kind of counter-L.A., a subculture in which professors, curators and out-of-town writers are the celebrities. Along with Writers Bloc, a Westside author-interview series, and the literary events at the Richard J. Riordan Central Library, these evenings can become a kind of intellectual Beatlemania, with restless lines of fans, tickets selling out early and speakers sneaking in and out through adoring crowds.

While these events might seem populated by a coterie -- LACMA's tend to be packed with the sort of high-minded crowd that devours the New York Review of Books -- they're open to whoever calls or shows up first. Intellectual life, after all, is too important to be left to professional intellectuals.

There's a niche for almost everyone. Writers Bloc tends to draw a younger audience, one more attuned to Hollywood, detective fiction and the series' heavily British roster of writers, while Beyond Baroque, the storied Venice literary hall, often draws the graying members of the Beat and punk generations to its poetry-heavy program. This is, after all, where the nucleus of the band X met. (Bookstore readings, private salons and writing workshops are well represented in town, but that we'll leave for another story.)

The Southland's venues for public debate are as wide-ranging and fragmented as the region itself. Over the next week, there will be several high-profile discussions and lectures, including one led by Gore Vidal, exploring issues related to the situation in Iraq. Or consider the Hustler Hollywood monthly series at which topics such as censorship and politics, how to be -- or how to surrender to -- a dominatrix and readings by erotic novelists attract a diverse crowd leaning toward women and club-goers. These would probably not be the same people who go to Irvine to hear libertarian and heartily pro-capitalist lectures on "Why Christmas Should Be More Commercial" at the Ayn Rand Institute. Or those who went to Caltech recently for a speech on "The Physics of Star Trek." But they might be.

Los Angeles has no shortage of ideas. But there's a special excitement, in a city defined by its private life, when they bump into one another in a public venue.

On a cool day last month, about 60 people crowded into a small gallery dominated by Jeff Wall's enormous illuminated photograph, "After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Preface." The photograph, which re-creates a scene from the novel, showed a black man in a cluttered apartment, his ceiling wired with hundreds of lightbulbs.

Surely the briefest, and among the most accessible, events around the city are these Lunchtime Art Talks at the UCLA Hammer Museum, breezy 15-minute lectures on a single work of art. Besides the usual museum-goers, on this day three men in business suits were taking part of their lunch break from Smith Barney brokerage firm to listen to chief curator Russell Ferguson describe Wall's piece. In a thick Scottish burr, Ferguson located the piece in history -- both photography's and the artist's career.

"It's a gas," Roger Hall, a young financial planner in tortoise-shell glasses, said of the series. "I would never look at that photograph if it had not been for a talk like this." After the lecture, they introduced themselves to the curator, praised his speech and headed back to the office.

"It really surprised us," says museum director Ann Philbin, who has increased the public offerings at the Hammer since arriving from New York in 1999. "We didn't think of the people in these surrounding towers as our audience. But boy, did they catch on." The Hammer offers several series, including a Conversations series, which pairs thinkers or artists from different worlds.

"I've found people here enjoy openings more than they enjoy being in quiet rooms with art," says Philbin. "People in Los Angeles really need the opportunity to be around people interested in the same things they are. Constantly in New York you're in a pedestrian situation, or on a subway. Here, you're alone in a car. So here people go looking for activities where they can be with other people."

Lunchtime Art Talks aren't the only ones linked to an exhibit or a cultural offering. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which typically offers free pre-concert lectures, has been working on a series of events around Latin American themes. The Museum of Contemporary Art, like most museums, regularly schedules art talks, at which art historians and curators lecture on current shows. Similarly, the Skirball Cultural Center -- which also hosts non-Jewish writers and thinkers -- recently completed a batch of lectures and films related to its exhibit on Jewish life in the American South. And the Getty has something, exhibit related or otherwise, going on almost every day.

Other series exist to right political wrongs. Yaron Brook, director of Irvine's Ayn Rand Institute, recently launched a lecture series that draws as many as 600 people and differs from the usual left-liberal tone of Southland intellectual life. "The idea is to bring our perspective to current events -- a perspective that is not being heard in the culture," Brook says. "On multiculturalism and environmentalism, the mainstream party line is usually very politically correct, even the Republicans. But we're very anti-multiculturalism and very anti-environmentalist."

A recent lecture looked at the crisis of corporations like Enron, arguing that the nation needs less, not more, corporate regulation; upcoming speeches will consider the dangers of postmodernism in academia and how contemporary art has lost its way. The Atheneum series at Claremont McKenna College also offers an important forum for conservative thought, with speakers ranging from journalist David Brooks to left-leaning theorist bell hooks.

Author Jonathan Franzen ("Corrections") was in town not long ago reading from his new book of essays. Louis Menand spent an evening describing how American pragmatism was forged on Civil War battlefields. James Carroll dropped by to discuss the strained relationship between the Catholic Church and European Jews. They were all part of perhaps the city's most well-rounded venue -- the Central Library's author series in which writers come to town, on the publisher's ticket, to promote and sign a book on a weeknight. There is also a moderated series on Sunday afternoons, "Words in the World," at which writers and thinkers discuss larger issues than their latest book.

The audience often factors in strongly. Nancy Milford went to the Central Library to discuss her acclaimed biography of libertine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in late 2001. But the biographer was caught in traffic and reached downtown L.A. an hour late. While waiting, members of the audience went onstage to recite Millay's poetry, many from memory, and two offered a short reading of one of her plays.

At another Central Library event, Patti Smith appeared to read from a book of song lyrics. Besides reading from the book, she brought a friend armed with an acoustic guitar and performed some of the songs that made her the Rimbaud of punk rock. Louise Steinman, cultural programs director at the Central Library, laments that as the city's offerings have gotten better, traffic has gotten worse. "Transportation is such a factor," she says. "There are wonderful things on the Westside that I would love to go to, but I can't figure out how. A lot of the places people hear intellectuals and writers have their own [neighborhood] following because people get it into the rhythm of their lives."

The intellectual version of "Oprah" but with more explicit sex can be found at Hustler Hollywood. It's the answer for those who prize a spontaneous side of intellectual gatherings, who argue that Los Angeles needs events that cut through the formality of academia.

"The real stars are the audience members who show up," says Stan Kent, an English-born aerospace engineer and erotic novelist who runs the Hustler series. "They enjoy the fact that they can sit in an uncensored environment and say anything they like. Audience participation is highly encouraged; it really livens things up."

On this particular night, leopard-skin-clad sex therapist Dr. Susan Block appears before a crowd that could've crawled out of the Viper Room. Kent, in a Carnaby Street waistcoat, serves as combination moderator and lion-tamer, leading Block and the audience into discussing whether to invade Iraq, whether prostitution should be legalized and their own definitions of monogamy. (No, yes and pretty flexible, it turns out.)

The spiky-haired Kent has brought in scholars to speak about censorship and the history of sex, among them Berkeley professor Mel Gordon, who discussed his book on the sex life of Weimar Berlin, "Voluptuous Panic." "But we've had trouble getting the academics to come to Hustler," Kent says. Similarly, when he asked the Democratic and Republican parties to send representatives to discuss censorship around the 2000 election, both balked.

While it's not an issue for the Hustler series, some events reek of academic mustiness: Lectures at the universities and museums can be positively deadly to those outside the field of specialty.

"I love intellectual life," says Frances Anderton, a KCRW-FM (89.9) producer and host who moved to town from London in 1991. "But I prefer it in a spontaneous, organic way, like debating ideas over drinks." Some formal events in Los Angeles, she says, "can feel a bit earnest, like medicine. They're 'good for you.' "

Spoken Interludes, a monthly series at the Tempest Supper Club in West Hollywood that's built around dinner, cocktails and authors reading briefly from works-in-progress, aims to be intellectually serious but without the ponderous feel of a lecture. A recent Sunday found novelist Yxta Maya Murray, Hollywood mail-room chronicler David Rensin and three others sharing a stage. "The difference with these salons," says author Carolyn See, "is that you can drink. You dress up, you eat and you flirt like it's a party. The authors have like seven minutes: It's snappy and beautifully put together."

Perhaps the most unpredictable series in town is LACMA's Institute for Art and Cultures. Paul Holdengräber, the institute's impresario, dropped out of academic life after working as a young comparative literature professor at the University of Miami and tiny, elite Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

These days, he favors less cozy gatherings. Some take on the tone of intellectual duals, as when conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and opera director Peter Sellars sparred over the merits of Stravinsky. He's also offered forums to painters R.B. Kitaj and David Hockney, author Susan Sontag and Museum of Jurassic Technology founder David Wilson. He keeps the debate heated and the room on the small side because he thinks intimacy is important.

Holdengräber is an excitable guy, incapable of getting through an evening without quoting Oscar Wilde or playing a Weimar cabaret song if it relates to the night's topic. Detractors call him glib and trendy. But when the evenings work, they're like early "Saturday Night Live," messy even when they're brilliant.

Andrea Grossman and a corps of friends and family run the Writers Bloc series. Her taste is less rarefied than Holdengräber's. While intellectuals and high-art types in town often talk about making peace with pop culture, she's been able to thrive at the intersection of Hollywood and the literary world.

Grossman has hosted English novelist Martin Amis interviewing detective writer Elmore Leonard and brings Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen through repeatedly. Some of her evenings, which are held at the Writers Guild, the Museum of Tolerance and other Westside venues, draw "black-leather-jacket Hollywood types," as she puts it, as do her occasional screenings.

But Writers Bloc hardly avoids serious topics: One event collected literary and film people including Wim Wenders together to discuss Kafka and read from his work. Earlier this year, she paired "Guns, Germs, and Steel" author Jared Diamond with radio commentator Warren Olney. The science writer began by wondering what might have happened if Native Americans had sailed across the water and stomped Renaissance Europe: "Why aren't the last remaining Europeans living in the Alps and the Pyrenees?"

See calls Writers Bloc her favorite local series. "Already people are playing poker with $15 stakes," she says of the ticket price. "So you get people who are devotees; they know more about the author than the author does."

There's an art to all of this, of course. To Jack Miles, a Getty advisor and writer who has been on both sides of the long table, radio veteran Olney is the model host for intellectual events. "He's like a man on the street, but a smart man on the street," says Miles, recently part of an Olney-hosted panel whose title, "God: Problem or Solution?" has the interviewer's characteristic crispness. "And he invites, by his manner, answers that are not sound bites but not too wandering. I find I'm more likely to be coherent and not so verbose."

Los Angeles has been a witty and intellectually serious place for decades, at least back to the days when Albert Einstein was living in Pasadena, émigré filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder were newly arrived and much of the city's intellectual discussion was in German. Michael Silverblatt, host of the syndicated radio show "Bookworm," points out that many of the screwball comedies of the 1930s -- an early peak for the city's life of the mind -- were as dexterous as London's salons. "The verbal pyrotechnics were fascinating," he says, arguing that the films reflected L.A.'s private life. "Movies became a public version of a private Hollywood party."

Silverblatt laments the fact that the city, these days, is overrun with intellectual gawkers -- "people who show up because they want to see what J.T. LeRoy or Bret Easton Ellis look like" -- but says the offerings run thick and deep.

The myth of the Southland's shallowness, of course, persists.

"The only thing wrong with intellectual life in L.A. is that people keep asking if there's intellectual life in L.A.," New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger said before speaking at a recent LACMA debate. "The last remnant of provinciality is asking that question."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times