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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
14.
Arthur’s job had its perks, and every once in a while they came up big. Karl, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, was one of the first to learn -- through the husband of a wife on the Board -- that the Modern Museum would soon announce a billion-as-in-B-dollar capital campaign to build and endow an entirely new midtown edifice. "We need a profile of the director -- supposed to be one helluva fundraiser -- ahead of the curve," he told one of the Mullahs, who told Marsha, who told Arthur. The upshot was that Arthur found himself in the Air France business-class lounge, waiting to board a flight to Paris, where he’d fasten himself like a pilot fish to the Modern Museum’s director while the director did some advance sucking up to the European culture press.

Arthur had always gotten horny in airports, especially waiting for the outbound leg of a trip to begin, and particularly on his way to anywhere in Europe. The Continent was a fetish with him; he thought it was the fount of everything, at least everything he cared about. At some point in his undergraduatehood, Arthur had a chance -- or, more accurately, he had the chance to take the chance -- to interrupt college and run off to Europe with a buddy for a year, possibly longer. But he chickened out at the last minute, and lost the cultural equivalent of (as he saw it) an intense, bittersweet affair with a worldly older woman. Arthur settled for staying on in America, amid gum-popping cheerleaders and vomiting frat boys, to get his bachelor’s degree in the normal eight consecutive semesters. Ever since that failure of nerve, the smell of an Italian train station, or a small nighttime purchase in a French droguerie, or walking down a residential street in a German suburb was sure to give Arthur a dose of the Romantic (with a capital R) willies. The anticipation of any of those things felt almost as good.

*     *     *
He awoke at twenty to eleven in a whorehouse-elegant room on the fourth floor of the Hotel Brighton in whatever ungodly expensive arrondissement of Paris the Modern Museum had picked for its press briefings. Arthur’s magazine’s increasingly parsimonious travel budget was protected, while its prohibition against writers’ story expenses being paid by anybody except the magazine was simultaneously skirted, by the Modern Museum’s offering select members of the press not a forbidden free junket, but merely a "deep discount" on airfare and lodging. The subsidy from the French tourist office went to the Modern Museum, not to the magazine for Arthur’s expenses. The magazine’s hands were clean.

By the time Arthur had caffeinated his brain and treated his stomach to several small but fatally rich pastries, it was noon and time for work. He forwent what his colleagues in the press said was a fabulous swimming pool at Le fitness, on the top floor, with a terrific view of the quartier.  Although he’d brought a larger suitcase than he usually preferred in order to accommodate running togs and shoes, he also failed to take a run through the Tuileries. Arthur most likely wouldn’t have exercised anyway, since he was vain enough to want to look vaguely cool as he broke a sweat. Jogging through the streets of Paris in a T-shirt and shorts wasn’t cool as it was in New York, and doing such a thing it at lunchtime was considered absolutely barbarian. Blaming his sloth on oversleeping, though, was easier to live with than admitting to counterproductive vanity.

The reason Arthur overslept was simple and vulgar: he’d stayed up quite late watching television, under the rationalization that he needed the sound of French around him at all times if he were ever to hope that he might someday be able to function here in the mother tongue of this glorious city. Arthur compounded the mistake with an adrenalin buzz gotten from trying to follow a pretty good policier with no subtitles, and then trying to mitigate the agitation with a melatonin. The hormone, unfortunately, didn’t take effect until daylight.

Since Arthur’s landing a couple of days previous, he’d worked practically non-stop. Admittedly, not everything he did in his work would qualify as real, honest "work" to a real, honest American working stiff. Checking into to a Michelin-starred hotel, imbibing very good coffee at an informal, late morning press reception, and hearing the director of the Modern Museum give his podium spiel over a lunch even better than the morning coffee, probably wouldn’t have merited the label "work" in the opinion of, say, a coalminer or traffic cop. The next day’s interview with the director -- which should have qualified as legitimate labor in practically anybody’s ledger (if only because getting a straightforward answer out of the guy was blood from the proverbial turnip) -- was long and, in the final, edited analysis, very useable. But the interview didn’t arrive easily.

At the last moment, the Modern Museum’s accompanying flack said that surely Arthur must have realized that the invitation to be a fly on the wall at the sit-down between the Modern Museum’s director and his equivalent at the Centre Pompidou, to discuss the Pompidou’s taking "Cataclysm & Cutness’s" sequel three years hence, was a mistake.

"Surely," he said (Arthur refrained from interjecting one of his automatic idiocies, "Please don’t call me Shirley), "you must have known that all matters at such high-level affaires de culture are strictly off the record and confidential, as it must be when two of the world’s greatest museums enter into serious negotiations."

As Arthur had suddenly acquired bigger balls (suddenly performing for an imagined, onlooking Helen, was he), or had merely gotten more cantankerous as he aged, he spoke brusquely. "You made a serious deal," he said, "that the director signed onto. My magazine and I took you guys at your word. The fact that one of your bigger swinging-dick board members caught wind of your letting Arthur from that news magazine penetrate the Cone of Silence, and said to the director, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’ is not my problem. But as I’m a realist, I know that I’ll never get your Class A security clearance. So I’m willing to be recompensed in other goods. I’ll settle for ninety minutes with the director. Just the two of us and a tape recorder."

The flack said, "Gee, I don’t know." Once he’d conferred for thirty seconds with his boss, who took a smarter, broader view of things, he returned chirping, "Of course, of course."

After the interview and another superb lunch courtesy of the same entities underwriting his room, Arthur got a call from Marsha. "Arthur," she said, "at last night’s preview meeting the Mullahs had decided to bump up your profile of the Modern Museum’s director to a ‘folio.’"

Talk about coming back from the near-dead! Arthur thought. His scheduled piece had been cut down from a three-page lead story to a single spread with a full-page photograph of the director that bled all four sides, and then further down to a single-page with one follow column on the next. Now, he’d been jacked back up. If cover stories were the Major Leagues a folio was triple-A ball. As a very-early-morning (in New York) messenger of glad tidings, Marsha earned a reward of a sneak preview of the interview, from the lips of the interlocutor.

"The day after I sat through his recital of the standard Modern Museum infomercial over lunch," Arthur said, "I got an hour and a half face en face with our illustrious director.  So I had sufficient time to prepare to argue with him, if I caught him bobbing and weaving. And he did, a little. My point, though, is that the interview has plenty of red meat in it. I can hold four-and-a-half pages, easy."

"Three-and-a-half," Marsha said so clearly she could have been speaking from the bathroom immediately behind him, adjusting her pantyhose.

"So it’s just a fucking Class B folio, then," Arthur said petulantly.

"It’s an E+ folio, Arthur," Marsha said. "Front-of-the-book’s go four and a half, sometimes five. You know that. They do statesmen, dictators, and Congressmen caught with call girls -- who ‘talk exclusively to us.’ Celebs in the arts, even movie stars, rate only four, unless the public is simply dying to hear their side of a scandalous story. Has your museum director been caught doing any hanky-panky? That might get you another half-page."

"His whole job is hanky-panky," Arthur said, "but in a way that you probably wouldn’t understand."

"I’m tempted to say ‘Try me,’ Arthur," Marsha said. "But in my opinion, a man who runs a chain of department stores, or who runs a movie studio, or who runs a museum, are the same man. They’re men who run things."

"Whatever," Arthur said, strategically letting go. "It’s a good story in any case. The interview is very chewy, and I’ve got the roadsign written exactly, in my head. I will do you proud."

"You’re such a team player," Marsha said with a locker-room nudge in her voice.

Arthur accepted her sarcasm in the jokey-friendly way it was offered, and felt good.

After hanging up, he took a bath, read the Tribune of London’s book review section, and indulged in more coffee, this time in a silver pot delivered to his room. (He had no choice; first-rate French hotels didn’t have bottomless pots on a hotplate in the lobby, or 24-hours Korean delis right down the rue.) Then Arthur got to work on his story notes.

He was stoked. He even found himself planning to attend the final day’s Francophone press presentation by the director, this one to a bunch of French travel-and-leisure writers. Maintaining the Modern Museum as an international tourist juggernaut ranked higher on this trip’s mission list, Arthur guessed, than persuading the Pompidou to rent the Modern Museum’s probably awful show. (While the original "Cataclysm & Cuteness"exhibition may have been a disaster with the critics, it was a box-office smash; anyway, the French would turn out in droves, regardless -- if only to sneer.) People went to the Modern Museum, the director knew, not to see art, but simply to have gone to the Modern Museum. The Modern Museum’s dirty little secret was that its director knew that the ticket-buying public didn’t give much of a shit what kind of exhibitions it put on. The Museum itself was the show, always.

When the profile of the Modern Museum’s director appeared in the magazine, illustrated with a clever photograph of the director posing in front of a Mondrian while wearing a Starry Night necktie, the Mullahs loved it unconditionally. Their enthusiasm stemmed, however, solely from the story’s subject. Arthur’s substitute-Mullah nemesis thought the director was an "absolutely fascinating character." Arthur, too, thought the guy was fascinating -- because he was so utterly devoid of fascinating qualities. The director evidenced no irregular edges, none. He was about five feet nine, standard height for an executive male, in his early fifties, standard age for the same sort of fellow. Clearly, he went regularly to the gym, and kept his professionally whitened but otherwise natural teeth in very good shape. He brushed his thick, short, silver and subtly wavy hair straight back. While avoiding the most obvious groaner clichés, the director nevertheless spoke in prepackaged homilies that he delivered with absolutely convincing pseudo-sincerity. In an over/under bet on how many times the directory would use "extraordinary," "incredible" or "amazing" in any given soliloquy, the smart wager, Arthur thought, would always be "over." But Arthur also recognized that the director had probably forgotten more art history than Arthur would ever know. In the course of writing the profile, Arthur came to think of his subject as The Stepford Director. But Arthur also came to regard the profile as an outstanding bit of art writing, one of his best.

Alas, no writer at the magazine ever threw a no-hitter. In spite of the Mullahs’ ultimate enthusiasm for the profile, Arthur’s critical pitching was rocked in the editing for at least one extra-base hit. "Ah, the old weather opener," the substitute Mullah said in the initial marginalia. "When you can’t think up an appropriate establishment shot and you’re in some glam foreign capital, the easiest way in is through melancholy drizzle or glorious sun. C’mon, Arthur, you can do better than that."

Fuck ‘em, Arthur thought when he return-e-mailed the story in the first editing go-’round; he and stuck to his meteorological guns. He felt melancholy. Low, grey clouds were sliding by his window, touching a couple of church towers and achieving the speed of off-peak automobile traffic. They pulled a rain in after them -- "heavy at times is expected," said the radio in French he could partially understand. The hotel room grew very cold. Arthur wore his sports jacket to keep warm while he wrote. He shivered. He missed Helen, though there was little, in the tangible sense, to miss. He’d ask for a dinner date, she’d put him off, he’d ask again, and they’d go out. She’d give him a nice but still somewhat formal kiss, squeeze his hand and say something like, "This was really nice, let’s do it again." But she didn’t invite him in.

*     *     *
Arthur never thought he’d see the day where the Mullahs came to him and requested his authorship of a piece that would require the magazine to spend another considerable chunk of travel change. But they did. That’s how Marsha told it, anyway.

"Arthur, I don’t know what kind of secret salsa you put into that profile," Marsha said, standing over the seated critic with her arms akimbo like a punitive mom who, down inside, still loves her little grass-stained miscreant. "I mean, I’ll admit it was good -- you at the top of your game. But Upstairs wants -- I repeat, wants -- you to do another quite soon, and regarding something that likewise gets you on the road."

With the idea that what he’d  write would be suitable for both the domestic and European editions of the magazine, Marsha, with the express blessing of the Mullahs, sent Arthur to London and a couple of Continental cities, with a stop in Dublin on the way back. It was too expensive a trip to have been concocted just to get him out of the way of the ongoing Battle of the Stars, which had recently boiled up again when the telltale symbols were "inadvertently" suffixed to Candace’s latest movie review. (Kids, can you spell B-e-t-a-V-e-r-s-i-o-n? thought Arthur.) And he hadn’t been that much of a good boy lately. A disquisition on a Courbet exhibition (serviceable enough for the magazine’s readers to earn a "Makes me want to run right over and see it myself -- Karl") was all he’d contributed to the most recent several issues.

This reward for the profile of the Modern Museum’s director -- if that was what it was -- remained something of a mystery. "Take in that "Monks and Monsters" exhibition of medieval manuscripts at the British Museum, and stop by that new Contemporary Celtic Museum in Dublin -- we’ve got a lot of faithful Irish-American subscribers," Karl said in an e-mail, copied to Marsha. She then sent Arthur her addendum: "You must be living right, Arturo. There’s a big Brit package in the works, maybe a special issue, and they want you in on it. So dig, dig, dig and don’t spend too much time knocking back intermission gins-and-tonic in the West End. The M’s are going to want a pound of flesh for this perk, so do your goddamned job. And, oh, have fun. -- Marsha."

Arthur waited for his flight in a cocoon of such British comforts as all the London newspapers, departure announcements in civilized, modulated voices that sounded buttressed by several university degrees, and made-from-scratch Virgin Marys (or, as the Brits called them, "Bloody Shames"). One of Arthur’s few operative superstitions was not drinking alcohol while waiting to take off. Not that he went airborne unanesthetized. Two little tranquilizers snuggled in his sport jacket pocket. An old girlfriend had given them to him in more affectionate times. The pills were probably past their "best downer buzz if used by" date, but Arthur thought if he took both of them at once, they’d knock him out en route. As the privileged business-class travelers were escorted past the huddled masses waiting in line to board coach, the pills began to dissolve in Arthur’s stomach.

The tranqs worked perfectly. Arthur awoke refreshed (albeit unbreakfasted) only when the plane’s tires squealed onto the Heathrow runway. After a shave and a shower in the doppelganger London lounge, he hopped the tube to Piccadilly. Arthur’s plan called for a round of Mayfair galleries before lunch, then back to the Royal Arts Institute for the press preview of a retrospective of some allegedly neglected "School of London" painter heretofore lost in the shadows of Bacon, Freud, Kitaj, and Hockney. Arthur hoped the overnight reviews in the British papers were noticeably tepid. If not, Arthur knew, Karl (who read the entire Tribune of London daily, online) would have Marsha hound him at the hotel to get an interview with the artist. And there was a no more insufferable interviewee than an aged alcoholic British artist with a grudge against the New York art world, for Christ’s sake, for somehow preventing his true greatness from being known to the rest of the world.

Cork Street was filled with fatuous exhibitions by overrated artists Arthur had seen in abundance in America. It was also lined with a lot of new Mercedes, Porsches, Jaguar (pronounced "Jag-you-are" by their drivers) two-seaters, and big BMW "saloons." Expensively dressed people, nominally fashionable but visually awful in that manner that only the English could master, strolled the neighboring streets, periodically and demonstrably flapping shut their cell phones, apparently to let the commoners passing by know that they’d just placed very, very large "buy" orders with their brokers. Des femmes d’un certain âge in their company dawdled during such interruptions to gaze at designer clothing and, occasionally, antiques in the shop windows.

It all mildly pissed Arthur off. But then, he lived with a constant interior radiation level of "mildly pissed off." That was the reason, Arthur thought, that lately he just plain didn’t get a lot of art in the edgier galleries that a person of his art-world experience, moderately high intelligence and, if he did say so himself, industriousness, should have comprehended. In frustration, Arthur argued with the art while he looked at it. Too busy arguing with the art, he failed to get it.

The question on the street at that moment, however, was why displays of social inequality and undeserved privilege pissed him off. He regularly encountered the same thing -- minus the old-school-tie snobbery (going to Harvard meant a lot less in America than going to Oxford did in Britain) -- in New York. Arthur lived, professionally and passionately, in a world where it was taken for granted and without moral opprobrium that serious contemporary art was the plaything of ostentatiously rich people. So his rancor wasn’t about art. Was it about simple, gut-level politics? Was a kind of economic acid-reflex causing some undigested grad school Marxism to bubble sourly up in his conscience? Arthur didn’t think that was the case, either. These days, he took everything he could with several million grains of salt. Besides, he was more than a bit of an Anglophile. He readily accepted the horseshit in BBC English mysteries, for example, much more readily than he did American television network crime drama horseshit, and for no other reason than it went down better when coated with a British accent. Finally, Arthur realized that he was still in a bad mood because of Helen. And his bad mood was worsening because he was starting to have more than a mere inkling about why she’d been so tentative toward him.

Arthur went to bed at ten and woke up at nine the next morning. For no reason he could immediately pinpoint, he felt quite anxious. As soon as he plugged in the hotel coffee machine, preparatory to getting into the shower, he thought of Helen. Then he remembered the list of places and people he was supposed to visit in London over the next couple of days. It seemed an easy enough list to prance through expeditiously, but still, as always, Arthur felt the frisson of the journalist’s "what if"? What if he got lost on the tube, and didn’t make an appointment? What if the interviewee had changed her mind and wouldn’t talk on tape after all? What if he’d somehow screwed up his calendar (he’d done it before, many times) and the museum he needed to go to was closed for an obscure bank holiday? What if all his discipline collapsed and he self-destructively spent the whole day in his costly hotel room, watching British television and reading the tabloids in the bathtub? And worst, what if no writeable ideas occurred to him? What if, out of all this material, he returned to the magazine with an unrevivable blank?

None of that happened. Arthur trod dutifully around the great city, from the British Museum out to the newest, most allegedly transgressive galleries in sketchy neighborhoods where the locals said "Norf London." He interviewed two museum directors (and -- amid eye-glazing recitations of information that could just have easily been gotten from their institutions’ membership brochures -- obtained precisely one usable quote from each). He talked to two dealers and three artists -- a group of five in one sitting, in a chicly downscale pub. He saw four museum exhibitions and twelve gallery shows. He even carved out an extracurricular evening at the theatre, seeing one of those scalding, the-way-we-live-now British black comedies, about which he could say when, a couple of years later, it arrived on Broadway with a cast of minor movie stars, "I saw the original production in London." Arthur was so busy he managed to think about Helen only every fifteen minutes or so.

*     *     *
In Munich, the Alte Pinakothek overwhelmed him: the famous Albrecht Dürer self-portrait, the Rogier van der Weyden altarpieces, and such wonderful early German painters as Stephan Lochner, who hadn’t crossed his mind since an undergraduate class in Northern Renaissance art. There was a grand roomful of hilariously virtuoso Peter Paul Rubens (wonderful in the separate parts of show-offy painting, wretched in the overblown whole), a couple of Frans Hals, a real Leonardo, three achingly sweet Raphaels, some early Italians (Fra Angelico, Fra Fillipo Lippi) and then at the end, inexplicably, a roomful of Max Beckmann. The next day, at the Lenbach Palais, with all the Franz Marcs, Wasily Kandinskys and Paul Klees, plus -- one of the unexpected pleasures of this trip -- he viewed work by some minor early 20th century expressionists he’d never heard of. Pure nourishment for his aching soul, bruised as it was by the absence of Helen and the presence of his journalistic duties (faithfully discharged) concerning a new Holocaust memorial and an interview with the repulsively self-aggrandizing artist who created it.

The German language, with which Arthur was only war-movie familiar, made him appreciate even the miniscule utility of his mostly forgotten French. The sound of German -- Arthur could barely bear to look at it in print in any fuller form than newspaper and magazine headlines -- made him want to flee immediately back to the States and re-study French very, very hard. Not that Arthur didn’t like Germans. They were mostly healthy, clean, and sensibly dressed -- even, comparatively, their tattoo’d, pierced and studded Legions of Lost Youth -- although they were thicker through the middle than most Latinates. Their English, which most of the younger ones and about half of the older ones courteously spoke to him, was cool, textbook-learned and, if one listened carefully, tinged with defensiveness. Germans knew they were being looked at, constantly scrutinized, that every tourist’s glance contained the question, "What did you do in the war, Granddaddy?" This was simply the way things were, however, the way they’d been for about sixty years, and Germans seemed to accept that the unspoken accusation would recede only at the pace of a melting glacier. Perhaps, their officials hoped, the construction of an occasional memorial to one aspect or another of the Holocaust would hurry along the perception of national rehabilitation a tiny bit. So they’d build memorials and stage somber unveilings. But there was no real enthusiasm in it.

And why should there have been? Although the sheer scale and evil of the Holocaust demanded that national penance for it never end, life -- that is, the amoral process of old people dying off and young ones being born -- determined that almost everybody in the country, certainly the artists whose work Arthur looked at, had been born long, long after Hitler had himself immolated. What about Americans like me? Arthur thought. He spoke the American English bequeathed to him by mildly racist parents and grandparents only a generation or two removed from the slaughters of Indians on the Great Plains and in the Old West. He had American appetites and American tastes; his mind was wiseass-skeptical in that decidedly American way, and he enjoyed the subliminal but always pulsing idea that he was automatically someone special in the world simply because he was an American. Arthur certainly didn’t think he should have to pay for the qualities of his American mind and tastes by living under a constant guilt for crimes committed by his forebears. A string of readily available, although only roughly applicable, rationalizations served his denial: "We all come out of the head of somebody’s dick," "All money is dirty money," etc. So why, he thought, should Germans have to pay for their cultured ways, their intricate language, their great artists, and their sense of superiority (was it worse than his?) with an ongoing guilt for an atrocity that was their grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ fault?

Before leaving Munich, Arthur dutifully took at day to look at the contemporary stuff around town and tape-record a beerhall conversation with four younger German artists whose names had cropped up in a spate of Chelsea group shows a while back. Ute Something-or-other had shown a pretentious installation, typically space-eating, with an idiotic firm-grasp-of-the-obvious second- (or third- or fourth-?) generation feminism. It was about "the stove" and featured whiney comments about the kitchen, women’s work, and was put together in that crappy display / advertising / photo-art way of trying to say "I’m transgressive, aren’t I?" Of the four, she talked the most, smoked the most, and drank the most beer on the magazine’s tab. She also looked enough like an outlaw version of Helen for Arthur to steal glances at the nipple rings pressing through her blouse. Arthur took the images back to his hotel on this final night in the city and achieved some momentary release with them. Most likely, he could have taken Ute herself, but that would have been cheating.

After a week of staying in overpriced hotels and eating three restaurant meals a day -- with an extra glass of wine at two, the one that Helen would have drunk -- Arthur came home fat. Or feeling fat. The company of traveling international businessmen with their cell phones and attaché cases, their pigging out in the business-class lounges, their beer tits and global guts, had worn him out more than working on his stories.

*     *     *
"My, aren’t you the jet-setter," Marsha said to Arthur when he came into the office directly from the airport, looking all foreign-correspondenty in a wintery loden coat and fedora. He didn’t quite know how to take her remark, since she’d been a full party to putting him onto the jets in the first place. Was he supposed to have swum back?

"Part of my perks," Arthur said, trying to be blasé. "Movies, Candace can see anywhere. The same goes for the other critics and TV programs and bestselling books. For all the neglect it suffers at this magazine, art still has to be experienced in the flesh. So -- zoot alors! -- Arthur must be sent to where the art is."

Arthur thought it was downright masterful of him to mention the magazine’s attitude toward art when it had just spent a considerable sum to freight him overseas to look at some. ‘Twas Ken Banter, Arthur remembered, who had told him to manifest such ingratitude every once in a while. "That’s what Top Writers are expected to do," Ken had said. "If we don’t, the Mullahs will think they’ve made a mistake -- promoting someone not quite arrogant enough for the job."

Marsha was wise to the gambit. "Lucky you," was all she said to Arthur when she got up to usher him out the door.


PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery. The archive for The Art Critic can be found here.