A Vulgar Happiness
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By Marc Porter Zasada
BY NOW, ANGELENOS ARE USED TO occupying a troubling niche in the psyches of other people. Take your pick: "Lotusland," "Tinseltown," "The Sunlit Mortuary of the American Dream." Around the globe, artists use images of L.A. to amuse and terrify: they expose our vast suburban tracts and empty sprinklered lawns, our half-timbered Tudor mansions, and men wearing cashmere t-shirts.
They think we've taken a vulgar road in the pursuit of happiness.
For a month last summer, my family traded houses with an artist in London named George Barber. We got a charming five-story walkup, daily rain, centuries of history and Shaftsbury Avenue. He got our cloudless summer, impossibly wide streets, lack of cultural context, and heated pool.
While he was here, I'm sorry to report that George used our place as a safe house for guerrilla art. As he drove around L.A., he became obsessed with manicured plots of grass, along with those little signs from security companies and lawn placards warning people to "keep off the grass" or celebrating our many honor students. So he made up his own absurd signs, then trespassed to stick them on people's front yards, and snap photos. The results appeared in London's Gallery West during the fall, and can be seen again at London's National Theatre Gallery this March.
One sign reads: "DO NOT RING DOORBELL" and looms in front of a bungalow with peeling puce stucco. Another, placed outside a Westside cottage, shouts "WE ARE PROUD OF OUR NEIGHBORS" and shows a picture of a chummy gay couple. One fake security sign asks -ARE YOU AN UNKNOWN CREEP?" and another threatens "GROUND AND AIR SUPPORT" to protect a little patch of multi-colored impatiens.
One sign, hung on an ivy-covered picket fence reads "THANK YOU, WE ARE COPING WITH OUR LOSS" and shows a late labrador. My favorite proclaims: "WE ARE HAPPY. WE HAVE A HOME."
The exhibit notes read: "These photos are a neat fit between LA's natural weirdness as a city and Barber's own fascination with...people left to their own devices, people who have lost the sense of what's appropriate." George is not alone in thinking us barbarians. On the telly one night in London, I watched a show titled simply: "The Worst Excesses of L.A."
George claims that people he met here were "surprisingly sentimental about the brash alienation" of our fair city. They smiled and told him: "We've sold our souls, right? The sun may be shining, but it's totally without culture, right?"
And it's true that like most Angelenos, the Urban Man is not offended by the laughter of people in more civilized places. Nor do I waste time listing recent examples of high culture here. Like most, I rather enjoy playing an inappropriate barbarian, left to my own devices.
You see, I know L.A. still represents a vulgar, but crucial experiment in human history.
For centuries philosophers claimed that happiness was an unworthy goal for mankind. Truth, justice, poetry -- those were worthy goals. Happiness, they said, should come only as a lucky by-product.
Americans were the first to assert an unalienable right to pursue happiness. And by the 1880s, promoters of L.A. said this was the place you could come if you hadn't found it anywhere else.
Here, they said, you could ignore philosophy. You could stake out your own little patch of paradise, according to your own, unrefined tastes. You just had to put up a fence, hire a security company, and defend your sprinklered lawn against robber, robber baron, flood, drought, riot and earthquake.
In time, said promoters, L.A. might get around to poetry, culture, and the respect of Londoners...though only as a lucky by-product.
A hundred years and 10 million lawns later, we still don't know if the experiment will succeed, and yes, there have been a few disappointments. But meanwhile... please observe the signs: Keep off my grass, and don't ring the doorbell.
Copyright - 2005 by Marc Porter Zasada, all rights reserved.
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