I'm naming this blog Arts Lust. My cousin Roger claims to have done a deep-diving market survey that proved it had far greater hit-appeal than my first idea--Arts with Al. He cornered a marketing executive we met at a party. As I stood helplessly by, he asked him to assess Arts Lust. He liked it. In branding, he said, one looks for "tension" between two concepts. Yes, he said, "people who Google 'lust,' might be more into porn than culture." Still, he said that "you want a name that sticks with people, and Arts Lust will stick."
I sipped my white wine, tumbled another handful of seasoned nuts into my mouth, and nodded. What neither of them knew was that I once met a guy named Art Lust.
He said it was his real name, and I believed him. I grew up with people who spoke German.
Before I ever held a dictionary, I knew the word Lust meant desire, not necessarily the carnal kind. It can express a wide range of urges, from that for a simple walk to wanting to hear music by a specific composer--"Ich habe grosse Lust Mahler zu hoeren."
And here was Art Lust, who I met in Venice, California in 2001.
I was a devotee, in those years, of a poetry center called Beyond Baroque, on Venice Boulevard. Poetry has always spoken to me. The guy who ran Beyond Baroque then, with lots of intelligent energy and passionate regard for history, was Fred Dewey.
Fred, who remains a friend, can keep his eye on a goal for a long time. When others feel hopeless, don't even imagine the flight from hopelessness, he manages.
The hopelessness I'm thinking of was physical. It was the pain starting at the edge of one's thighs and aching upward to the mind. It was created by the seats at Beyond Baroque. They were lined up in the smallish theater, used for poetry readings, concerts and films, folding metal seats. One looked forward to hearing that reading by the poet Jerome Rothenberg; the stories from David Antin, monologue improviser; the screening of an animated painting by some early LA film-maker.
But you had to sit on those cold chairs.
Beyond Baroque is housed in the old city hall of Venice, a white-painted, mostly wooden building that has the stark austerity of a Midwestern Baptist church and the airy quality of a California Craftsman bungalow wrapped into on. One climbs broad steps into a cool, high-ceilinged foyer. To the right opens a door to the black-box theater. One day, I wandered in out of the sunshine pouring down from the great rocking horse sky of coastal Los Angeles (I still wonder why Tennessee Williams called it that, though I'm pretty sure he was thinking of eternal childhood innocence). I was seeking Fred, probably just to talk arts and politics, our subjects. I turned into the theater. Something was going on. There was something new in the near-dark.
Neat rows of lovely theater seats, seats with cushions, seats from another era, rose on raked levels.
I instantly wanted to sit on one. Watch, hear: Jerry Rothenberg! Come back with your poems! Read to us about that fellow COKBOY who "like Moses in the Rockies who stares at California spooky in/the Jewish light/of horns atop my head great orange freeways of the mind/America disaster/America disaster/America disaster/America disaster..."
David Antin, give us your fabulous stories! Like the one about some relative--if my memory is right--who played chess and almost beat a great master until he concluded the winning move was inelegant. I'm going back to a story I heard twenty years ago. I may have the details wrong, but recall that last-moment choice between the losing of winning and the winning of losing.
There was a form working in the light limpidly weaving through the theater from one or two stage spots overhead, working hard with screwdriver and wrench. He kept his head down when I asked where the seats came from.
"Outside the Santa Monica Court House," the kneeling figure said. "Fred found them."
Quickly counting, I exclaimed: "He found 65 seats!"
"They used to be in a jury room."
"And who are you?"
"I'm Art Lust," he said, testing the firmness of an aisle seat with two strong arms.
He seemed so in-tune with what he was doing that I felt talking to him betrayed the gift of his effort. I watched for a while, and left. I eventually found Fred and asked how he wrested the seats from the court house. He said he was driving his old Volvo toward Santa Monica and was passing the Santa Monica Court House, when he noticed--"it was like a dream"--a pile of perfect seats tossed beside a dumpster under a palm tree. I had a sort of freelance beat for the LA Times, writing whatever I wanted about the world of books in LA, an independent publisher one day, a new group of novelists the next. Beyond Baroque was one of the city's main venues to hear poets and writers read. This revolution in seating, I judged, amounted to a milestone in LA cultural history. Poets, writers, film-makers, musicians, performance artists would face audiences whose enlightenment no longer depended on suffering. But when I asked Fred to repeat his drive in his Volvo with me, just as it had happened, he imposed a condition.
"I want you to write that I'm not completely happy about these seats."
This was typical Fred. He had strong values, unconventional and insightful, and held to his right to express them despite all obstacles. "Go ahead," I said, expecting the inevitable twist in perspective.
"I worry they will make our audiences too comfortable," he said.
"What!" I yelled. "That's nuts, Fred!"
"People shouldn't come to hear poets to be comfortable," he said. "I feel that those metal chairs were just about right. They kept you on the edge of your seat. You stayed awake. You kept thinking."
"That's true," I said. "You kept thinking about how uncomfortable you were."
Our debate never stopped, even as we got into his Volvo and Fred re-enacted his Stanley-meets-Livingston moment. We rolled the windows down and he shouted: "There's the dumpster! I stopped and called Art! I said, 'Art, we've got to get these seats before they disappear.'"
Art, it seems, eventually hauled away the seats he was now implanting with such total care. Art had the ability of seeming both very tense and calm at the same time. I have to believe he was himself an artist, musician or poet. He wore a lot of black. Rings, as I recall, hung from his ears and lips. Black hair stood out in alert, groomed-ungroomed fashion. After the seats were in, when poets wanted lighting adjusted over the podium, Art was there. He flicked the switches, turned dials, brought lights up or toned them down from the little room beyond the last row of new seats.
Then came the artist, the start of a human voice.
And so, now that I've named it, what will I say in this cyberspace theater--this blog?
I can't predict what will happen any more than Fred knew he'd find those seats. My years as a reporter have been governed by a straight-forward drive to talk to people who knew more than I did on subjects I cared about and to share what I learned with others. Along the way, of course, talking to people who live out loud, who communicate openly, intelligently, boldly what they feel and think one learns a bit about all that. I enjoy writing about critics and have written as one. Sometimes, I explore issues of media and politics. But it comes back to expression, how art is made, the continuously engrossing crossing between silence and sound, nothingness and visibility.
I ask Fred to accept my references to him in the spirit of creative hope I found at Beyond Baroque during his 15-year, recently ended tenure.
I thank Art, too, and want him to know I'm thinking of him.