Leisure Class

Rhonda Lieberman on two “Arts & Leisure Weekend” talks

New York

Left: Art Spiegelman. Right: Rem Koolhaas. (Photos: Joseph Sinnott, New York Times)

I’d been sick in bed with a cold and was excited to get out of my houseclothes, so I agreed to take the baton from my colleague Peter Plagens and check out two more “TimesTalks”: Art Spiegelman (The Graphic Novel’s Unlikely Hero) was chatted up by former New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath; and Rem Koolhaas (The Prophet of a New Modern Architecture) was interviewed, or, rather, prompted by the paper’s architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff. The discussions were set up like Charlie Rose-ish “conversations” in front of “TimesTalks” signage and videotaped with a flower arrangement strategically placed behind each speaker’s head. While I waited for the discourse to commence in the plush new CUNY auditorium, multiple TV screens along the aisles added to the global-branding-trance ambiance, sedating me with soft jazz like boarding music on a plane. Ads for Sprint and California Closets pulsated repetitively, lulling me into a state of receptivity wherein Benetton, Koolhaas, and the “Paper of Record” soon merged into one cultural blob I sucked down along with my Diet Coke. Scanning the capacity crowd of Upper West Side types, I was amazed and touched that so many of the good people one sees schlepping the Times around on Sundays turn out to be such culture vultures. If the Times is the synagogue of enlightened liberal upper-middlebrow culture, this was like going to services; the interviewers, rabbis of the cult of Success. On my way out I passed a Borders concession where a dryboard announced, “Now signing: Terry Gross and James Lipton.” Middle-aged groupies calmly waited on line. Not least exciting about the whole thing was the brochure with headshots of so many Times bylines that had been hitherto disembodied for me. Now I finally know what Anna Kisselgoff, the dance critic, and Lynn Hirshberg, the style and showbiz profiler, look like.

Spiegelman smoked during his interview. Like his frankness and slightly pudgy untidiness, his lighting up onstage in a nice auditorium was very retrobohemian. One felt the frisson of good old-fashioned artistic license in action. The nicotine obviously helped. He was a hilarious storyteller and totally inspiring re: his creative process. Of the plethora of new graphic novels he enthused: “You need to have really large amounts of shit for the flowers to grow.” If Spiegelman was a haimisher hedgehog burrowing into his own psyche and insanely labor-intensive process, Koolhaas was an urbane fox and interdisciplinary smartypants—both beneficiary and peevish critic of the “star architect” phenomenon. A tall, severe structure in (Prada?) black, Koolhaas’s long, gangly limbs rendered his normal-size chair puny as he leaned toward Ourroussoff, eager to head off any misrepresentations. He opened the talk with a clever graphic—a map of the world with the Yen sign, the Euro sign, and the dollar sign spelling out Y-E-S—and announced that we’re in a postideological age in which money is the only value. I had the same reaction to Koolhaas that I always do: He’s so smart, I kind of want to work with him; then he’s so slippery, it leaves me feeling icky. His research and projects are dazzling, but what rankles is the strangely righteous aroma of “demystification” he gives off when he is actually a mega-example of the celebrity/branding/global-capital cults he’s supposedly “exposing.” “We have a fundamental crisis of architecture,” the prophet pronounced. “It used to be a representation of the public good. Now it’s a free-floating vacuum: We architects only serve individual values and the interests of individual clients.” The architect of the Prada store, surely a shrine to a brand, complained that “the label of celebrity is superimposed on a system of producers . . . and obscures the value of a building.” On an aesthetic level, I especially like his upcoming Hermitage renovation, which respects the weird aura of the museum’s decrepitude. With a great eye for incongruity, he showed a slide of one of the museum’s major works—an important early Malevich painting that’s installed behind a ridiculous velvet rope, sandwiched between picture windows festooned with not-nice, ruched curtains. Seen in its historically accurate yet mildly comical mise-en-scène, the famous black Suprematist square was certainly made “new” for me.