The other night I tagged along to a poetry reading at Arianna Huffington’s house. Arianna lives in Brentwood and is known, among other things, for hosting a modern-day political salon (I had never been before). If the Westside of LA is like a big high school – and in many ways it is, and in some ways not that big – then Arianna and her friends are like the smart, overachieving seniors who run the student council and star in the plays and put out the student newspaper and sit at the best, biggest table in the center of the cafeteria. If some people like to bitch about them, as some people are wont to do, it’s not like they give a damn.
The poet in question was Elizabeth Alexander, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and she was reading her poem ‘Praise Song For The Day: A Poem For Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration’. Many of the people gathered in Arianna’s home – including several of my companions — had been at the Inauguration and were hearing the poem for the second time. I – who followed part of the Inauguration on TV and other parts online – recognized lines that jumped out at me:
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
Any thing can be made, any sentence begun,
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp.
As servers circulated with trays of wine and canapés, the crowd arrayed themselves around the sunken living room, stood on the stairs, or crowded the entrance hall and craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the poet through the archway. “A really good turn-out for a poetry reading,” a friend remarked rather dryly, just as I was thinking how, if this had been held at the nearest Barnes and Noble, the throng would have been smaller (and not so well-dressed).
Agapi, Arianna’s engaging and charming sister, who’s published a few books of her own, informed us that Obama is only the fourth President in the history of the US to request a poem for his big day. Obama, it would appear, regards poetry as relevant and significant. This might be one of the reasons why people like me are so happy he’s in office, while others fear that he’s the real-life equivalent of Keyser Soze.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
The will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
Be real. You’re not living in the real world. You’re out of touch with reality. These are accusations leveled at people in the so-called ivory towers of art and/or academia — and also the gilded (metaphorically speaking, or at least some of the time) mansions in the hills north of Sunset Boulevard. Art, wealth and culture are linked, of course, because once upon a time the people with enough leisure to get and/or make themselves some culture did not have to work for a living. (This isn’t entirely true; many of America’s first women novelists became America’s first women novelists precisely because they had to work for a living. Then again, novels weren’t exactly regarded as highbrow, especially when written by women.)
You can’t make that same argument now, in a nation of people who have time to watch hours of television everyday, where anybody can go to a museum or listen to NPR or attend a concert or just watch one on TV. Art itself is democratic and egalitarian, yet its aura of elitism persists, and not without reason. You don’t have to stand in Arianna’s Spanish-style house listening to Elizabeth’s (and Obama’s) poem to know that, although it certainly helps drive the point home. Not all countries are like this: France comes to mind, where culture, style and philosophy are woven into everyday life, where how you dress becomes a direct reflection of how (or if) your mind works. America, though, as a still-young country that found its identity rebelling against its European masters (which, in itself, is not a bad thing) has reached a different conclusion. Not to mention that the French, as everybody knows, are snobs.
After the event at Arianna’s house, we headed down into Westwood Village: a neighborhood of cheap salons, boutiques and eateries catering to UCLA students, kind of like the scruffy younger half-sibling that the posh and family-oriented Brentwood has trouble relating to when forced to interact at family gatherings. A friend of ours – I’ll call her Ruby – had just concluded a series of art classes held through UCLA Extension, and the students were putting on a show. Unframed paintings leaned unceremoniously against their easels. Refreshments – soda in plastic cups, M&M cookies from Ralph’s – littered the table by the door.
I’ll admit to being biased, but I still think Ruby’s piece was best in show. Decapitated hammer heads lacquered in bright candy colors were welded in perfect rows on whiteboard. There was a clinical precision — a kind of sterile coldness — to the piece that reminded me a bit of Damian Hirst. The colors were playful and feminine, suggesting bottles of nail polish at a salon (a reference a woman was likely to get more quickly than a man, if he would even pick up on it at all).
Except there’s nothing playful or feminine about steel hammer heads, and the play between fun and bright, and cold and brutal, gave the piece a presence that made you want to look at it and keep looking at it. Frame the thing in a shadow box, hang it on a wall in a gallery, and it wouldn’t look like just another art student project. It would look like something someone might pay money for, while the gallery owner explained about the cold relentless business of the making of feminine beauty. Ruby, it seemed to me, was playing with materials and ideas in a way that cut the piece apart from the oils and pastels, portraits and self-portraits, surrounding it. Her piece had voice and perspective.
Or I just thought it was cool.
We concluded the night with an outdoor dining experience at Taco Bell. This was not by happenstance. A member of our party announced that she was craving Taco Bell, she needed Taco Bell, and we planned accordingly (a guy Google-mapped it on his Blackberry and we walked two blocks). It made me think of a saying I came across somewhere — Desire rules the world. A grand pronouncement to apply to my nachos and spicy chicken burrito, I know, and yet it seemed a demonstration of the principle.