PARIS — The main new attraction in this city of famous landmarks is a big ugly hole in the ground. Visitors to the legendary Louvre pace the arcade leading to the museum entrance and ignore pushy African vendors to stare in the gaping hole with mixed curiosity and dismay.
This unlovely dig, full of dinosaur earth-moving machines, is the principal reminder of France's massive Le project Grand Louvre --masterminded by President Francois Mitterrand himself. The goal is to expand the quarters of the great museum and bring it all up to date. Architect I. M. Pei is the master designer of a plan to put a large mall underneath the Cour Napoleon and plant a 65-foot glass pyramid on the surface.
The plan has detonated controversy in all quarters. Everybody seems to be happy about the prospect of the ministry of finance moving out of the Richelieu wing that borders on the rue de Rivoli so that the collections can have new galleries, but observers are worried that the pyramid will appear too modern and that the underground structure will look like a shopping mall in a Metro station.
Recently, a visiting L. A. critic was granted a tour to see how the project is progressing. He arrived an hour early, so to kill time he strolled down the quai of the Seine to ruminate.
Whatever else may be said of the Louvre project, one must admit that it mirrors the stupendous scale of contemporary culture. When we think of debt it is in terms of unimaginable billions of dollars. Hunger is measured in terrifying millions of souls starving in Africa and its solution involves more multimillions of people giving uncountable dollars for amounts of food that can only be measured in mountains.
The circumstances make one wonder if, for example, the current international fashion for dining out in a kind of ritualistic worship of food is not a reaction to an instinctive suspicion that all these grandiose numbers really mean that the planet's herded hordes of humans are using up its resources at a rate where soon no amount of anything will be enough to slake voracious appetite. Maybe we are consuming on such a colossal and frenzied scale out of general and unacknowledged fear.
Maybe not. Why be gloomy? The whole grandiose phenomenon is as easily understood as a general celebration of technological civilization at its apogee as it is as a symptom of overblown culture on the brink of extinction. Could be both. Nothing so big can be simple.
Whatever is behind it all, its effects are crystal clear in the arts. Nothing attracts much attention that is not on about the same scale as Saint Paul's cathedral or the great pyramids of Giza. If it's musical comedy, it has to be on the order of London's "Starlight Express"--where jaded audiences are barely kept amused by a large cast on roller-skates whizzing about on elaborate ramps whilst pretending to be trains. If it's a rock concert, nobody quite gets cranked up until it takes on the dimensions of Live Aid--where the whole electronically plugged-in world becomes the audience via satellite.
It is all so enthrallingly awesome that it is easy to forget to ask what becomes of the individual artist in the vaulting caverns of the contemporary aesthetic. Well, if he must have attention on a par with everything else he becomes Christo and drapes a canyon or wraps the Pont Neuf. The other alternatives seem to be to either honorably settle for old-fashioned human scale or to become involved in some sort of collective effort where individuality still counts.
That last sounds self-contradictory but it comes in response to a vision of Los Angeles that swam into the mind's-eye of the traveling critic who had been contemplating the seasoned magnificence of London and Rome as well as Paris. Each is encrusted in legend and myth and has a host of instantly recognizable landmarks that fuse into a collective visual image of the city.
Los Angeles has legend and myth in plenty and quite a few trademark images like palm trees and the Hollywood sign but they don't fuse. The critic stared gloomily into the Seine, realizing that his hometown is invisible to the mind's eye. All it sees is our magnificent invisible light that makes the tackiest street look beautiful on a nice day. What Lotus Land needs is a project as visually audacious and as apt as the Louvre dig. But what?
Slowly there materialized the familiar image of the Victor Clothing Co. building in downtown Los Angeles with its immense blue bride and groom and recently painted blazing montage of the '84 Olympics.
That's it. Mural the buildings. Paint a huge mural on every dowdy wall in downtown Los Angeles. Heaven knows there are enough of them. Call in Terry Schoonhoven, Kent Twitchell, all the artists who did freeway murals, add the East Los Streetscapers and just paint the bejesus out of the place. Twitchell could do the heroes of the town and Schoonhoven its fantasies of itself while the others chime in with its folklore.