Kurt Andersen

THE BIG PICTURE: Andersen reviews a student’s work in Pasadena, where he’s charged with providing context. (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles Times)

For a visionary, Kurt Andersen is keeping it pretty low-key.

The writer is sitting quietly in blazer and jeans in front of a class at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. He's not just a visiting professor but the school's visionary in residence.

The class' students, with their retro hats, black duds and horizontal stripes, could be making a French New Wave film or rehearsing the latest edition of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They're actually putting together a publication called Wrap and Andersen is advising.

They display their pages -- one spread involves a play on the names Rimbaud and Rambo, another shows Jesus riding a unicorn -- while two design professors offer critiques. Mostly, Andersen listens intensely, gazes closely at the pages and offers brief comments like "Works for me" and "It looks cool, I've gotta say" in a flat Nebraska voice known to listeners of his public radio show "Studio 360."

Andersen has written an essay to kick off the publication. "The theme I picked," he says, alluding to Mark Twain, "is that history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes." He likens America in 2009 to Britain circa 1909 and calls China "the new us."

To an outsider, the class seems detail-obsessed and hardly dynamic. But part of what Andersen does well is listen, and his New York magazine columns on politics and culture are often the result of what would be called great cultural eavesdropping. These days, his undergraduate training studying economic history makes him an apt guide to the moment.

"Kurt is so valuable because he's such a keen observer of culture," says Nik Hafermaas, Art Center's acting provost. "He puts phenomena in historical context, which is very important for our students: It allows us to reflect on what we do."

Nicolette Vilar, a 27-year-old senior from Los Angeles, describes Andersen's role in the publications class as "an overall thought stimulator. He more than anything pushed us to come up with our own ideas," she said. "The class discussions were very free-flowing and fun. As a teacher, he let us think for ourselves."

Andersen, 54, says he doesn't have a strategy or methodology -- "I just keep my eyes and ears open and try to figure out exactly what I think and why I think it" -- but he's the rare scribe who can write a convincing big-picture piece about where the culture is headed. And where it's headed now is right up his alley.

The view from here

Rather than being a bold or radical thinker -- OK, a visionary -- the Omaha-born Andersen is really an interpreter, a synthesizer, a historian of the now. (He's also, with his 2007 novel "Heyday," an actual historical novelist.) The "we" he uses in his columns lacks Pauline Kael's insistent pushing of her readers: He's a wry, cool-voiced assessor, not a cultural crusader. Part of what he tries to do, in his radio show and journalism, is provide shared reference points -- whether within rock music or fine art -- that add up to American culture in all its variety.

He's also smart enough to express ambivalence for his choice as the second-ever visionary, following cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling. ("In 2005," Sterling wrote, "I had the coolest job title in the world.")

Relaxing the day after the publications class at a shaded picnic table, Andersen talks about what he's doing at the college to earn his keep. He's spent the morning speaking to students and faculty in the school's auto design program. He's looking for material for his radio show, which comes no closer to L.A. than Oxnard or Palm Springs.

"It's a funny thing," he says. "I've never quite been in this position: how flattering to be called the visionary in residence. How embarrassing to have to tell people I'm the visionary in residence."

He's advised a studio on local social problems, where students were charged with solving a pressing issue as well as marketing their solution. He put together a lecture series called "The Big Picture" that's brought writers and thinkers to campus, including Steven Johnson of "Everything Bad Is Good for You." And he helped moderate a summit on sustainable mobility, a big issue on campus. "There is no job description -- I kind of make it up as I go along."

More broadly, he's trying to immerse himself in the life of the school as well as Greater Los Angeles. He moved to New York, where he co-founded Spy magazine in 1986, soon after graduating from Harvard, and he's not been out of the city for more than a few weeks since.

Immersed in SoCal

He jokes that he's a "New York snob" in some ways but not in regard to Southern California. He's enjoyed the chance to live close to nature, dwelling with his wife in a rented Rudolph Schindler house in Studio City. Thanks to traffic, he's listened to more radio than in any other period of his life. He has taken in a wide range of local culture, enjoying a tour of modernist architecture, LACMA's "Art of Two Germanys / Cold War Cultures" show, "The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam" at the Steve Allen Theater and the Grand National Roadster Show at the L.A. County Fairplex in Pomona.

He's been enjoying restaurants like Osteria Mozza, Lou and Palate Food+Wine and sent enthusiastic tweets about his visit: "once they figure out teleportation (and, ok, preventing quakes and wildfires)," he wrote in one, "there'll be no reason not to live in southern california."