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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
19.
When Arthur opened his office door he saw a note on his chair. It read:

PLEASE BE REMINDED THAT EVERYBODY IS EXPECTED TO BE IN THE OFFICE ON WORK DAYS, UNLESS EXPLICITY EXCUSED TO WORK ON A STORY.

The culprit -- or rogue -- wasn’t Marsha, or one of the Top Editors Arthur was familiar with. It was, he found out, a new top editor who’d just signed on from one of the business weeklies to ramrod the new "Money & You" section. At least they didn’t call it "$+," Arthur said to himself. The guy was another one of those tall, fortysomething Ivy Leaguers, like the fellow who signed off on hiring Arthur back when: a three-piece suit and a backpack with a squash-racket handle protruding upward like an antenna, as if he were Neil Armstrong on the moon communicating with the lunar orbiter. Apparently, the new top Editor had been killing time wandering the halls in search of business that was none of his. When Arthur charged into Marsha’s office, waving the note and asking, "What is this shit?" he was greeted with a glower.

"Ordinarily," Marsha said, "I’d have some sympathy for you. I’d even tell Stephen Garrett -- I presume you haven’t been introduced -- to keep his nose out of my writers’ affairs. Which I did after Kerri, Ken and a small host of others came in here earlier with the same complaint. But you, dear Arthur, are on my shitlist, with a capital ’S.’ Would you like details?" Since it wasn’t really a question, Arthur took a seat.

"Karl almost killed your lead story," she said, "because the illustrations were lousy." Arthur said nothing in immediate response. It was too minor to apologize for, he thought, but a bit too much to argue about. Marsha, as Arthur knew she would, continued:

"I thought I’d made it clear enough to you that, in the new re-design, pictures would be an even more important part of the story -- as well as the goddamned story pitch. That means that you’re supposed to stay on the photo editor’s ass to get a good shot, that you’re supposed to ride herd on the art director to make sure that she uses that good shot. Especially when I’ve got to be out of the office when they’re doing the first run-through."

"You went to the gym, Marsha," Arthur said, ill-advisedly. "So I figured things were all set to run smoothly."

"Yes, Arthur," Marsha said, rising from behind her desk and stepping around it toward him, "every once in a while I need to get the hell out of this loony bin and do thirty minutes on a treadmill to get my sanity back. That doesn’t mean that everybody is supposed to disappear just because Mommy isn’t around to make sure the kiddies do their homework."

"I didn’t split," Arthur protested. "I was here pretty well into the night. I was here long enough to see that you weren’t coming back."

"How old are you, Arthur?"

"I’m just about to turn. . . What’s that got to do with anything?"

"You sure are dumb for your age," Marsha said. "In the first place, you come charging in here about to blow your top about somebody else -- not me -- playing hall monitor, and then you promptly do the same thing to me. It’s a wonder you didn’t leave a note on my chair."

"O.K., score one for Marsha," Arthur said. "Are you calling me on the carpet for one tiny hypocrisy?"

Marsha ignored that feckless point. "In the second place, Arthur, after the gym, I had to go to the theater to check out a preview of a musical for Ken. He was suffering a little digestive problem, and couldn’t make it. But the real issue is that you’re always pissing and moaning about the Mullahs not paying any attention to art stories. Then, when I drop one in your lap, and a lead story at that, you go all wussy on me. . ."

"Wait a minute, that’s not. . . ," he tried to say.

"Yes, Arthur, you’re a wuss," Marsha said. "You don’t want the photo department or the art department to look cross-eyed at you. Well, that squishiness almost had Kerri running back here late last night to resuscitate some story on. . . Christ, I don’t know. . . some Miami techno band or something. All because you didn’t do your goddamned job, and there was going to be a goddamned hole in the section."

"My job. . ."

"Your job, Arthur," Marsha said, "used to be to turn in serviceable prose about art exhibitions that about a hundred subscribers, at most, would read. That was in the old days. These are the new days. And in the new days, your job is to sell the goddamned story, and make sure it stays sold by punching up all aspects of it, including the illustrations. When you fail to do that, especially on a story I fought like hell to get you, and then come waltzing in at noon on a closing day, you go right to the tippy-top of my shitlist."

"Marsha. . ." Arthur began, knowing she was going to bulldoze right over whatever he thought he was going to say.

"I don’t want to do a movie lead story every week!" Marsha shouted. "I don’t want to do a pop music feature every week. I don’t want my only alternatives to be television features and bestseller novel features. I want to run art stories whenever I can. But art stories are especially vulnerable because the Mullahs don’t understand them. They don’t understand why anybody in E+ thinks we have to do them. They don’t understand anything but Rembrandt, and they think modern artists are weirdos who make the magazine look ugly. I know they’re wrong, and I try to explain to them why they’re wrong in those tedious meetings upstairs. But I don’t have the ammunition I need to fight for art stories. You’re the goddamned expert, Arthur. It’s your job to get in there and pitch the goddamned art stories. And it’s your job to make sure an art story that’s been pitched and sold stays sold."

Marsha stood over Arthur like a drill sergeant. Guilt pressed him deeper into the cushions of her office couch. She waited for him to respond, but he knew that anything he could possibly say would come across as an excuse. So Arthur remained silent, waiting for Marsha to finish the indictment. She did not disappoint.

"It’s your goddamned job, Arthur, and you’re letting it be eaten away. Haven’t you noticed that they haven’t replaced our classical-music-slash-dance critic? And it’s been two years since Howland died. Haven’t you noticed that they’ve folded theater into the book reviewer’s portfolio? They cover big-budget musicals only because Karl’s wife drags him to them, and then they do it with poor ol’ Ken, who writes the same goddamned review every time. Anybody this magazine can possibly get rid of, Arthur, they will. Times are tough. Money is tight. The magazine barely turns a profit. There are rumors it’s going to go on the block. If they sell it, I can guarantee you the new owner will be more philistine than our current one. They might cut out art altogether, and you’d be on the street. Tell me, who’s more unemployable than an unemployed art critic?"

"There’s the union to contend with," Arthur said in a small voice.

"You haven’t heard the rumor about the union, either, have you?" Marsha said. "There’s talk of de-certification to make the magazine more salable. You ought to drop in more often , Arthur, if only to catch up on what we old biddies are prattling about around the watercooler."

"There’d be a fucking strike," Arthur said in a somewhat larger voice.

"A strike by writers at a magazine that’d welcome the chance not to re-hire strikers?" Marsha laughed. "That’s a good one."

Arthur got up and walked out of Marsha’s office -- wordlessly, to show her that he was still pissed off but slowly, too, to demonstrate that he’d heard her and wasn’t leaving in a temperamental huff. Downstairs, he found the layout for his salvaged lead story posted on the page-proof board. The two illustrations were well-placed on the opening spread (the story continued only for another half page thereafter) and made the subject seem both profound and timely. But the pictures had been chosen in accordance with the almighty "How will it look on the page?" and were totally misleading. He went over to the art director’s desk and asker her if there were any chance at all that the layout could be changed. "Set in cement," she said, without looking up.

Hours later, Arthur was back in his office, attending to Karl’s picayune fixes, when Marsha opened the door. She entered, stood behind him, tousled his hair, clapped him on the shoulder, and left. No words. But Marsha, like Martha Graham, sometimes preferred to dance what she had to say instead of saying it.

Arthur grabbed some of his mail, along with a letter opener, and took the elevator down to the lobby. At the newsstand near the building’s entrance, he purchased a copy of the Tribune, then carried everything west a couple of blocks to The Dingo Diner -- run by an Aussie couple -- and sat down to read as many gallery press releases as he could stomach (their hyperbole could unintentionally make Velázquez seem like Thomas Kinkade), and the midweek art reviews. In the Tribune, Arthur was surprised to read, Carol Gascoine had had another exhibition -- before the dry-wall putty could hardly have dried in the nail holes from her previous exhibition at FleaMarket, it seemed to Arthur -- at a different gallery. It was praised to the skies by the Tribune’s chief art critic, who’d apparently rethought her supposed conflict of interest.

Gascoine’s new, digitally altered, big C-print photographs were described as "severe, but deceptively spiritual, portraits of her husband, two daughters, and other people who have inspired the artist." The chief critic continued: "Ms. Gascoine takes the social inventiveness of Cindy Sherman and couples it to the formal rigor of the new German photography. The result is far more than the sum of its parts. Ms. Gascoine adds something so ethereal to the mix that one is forced to call it a certain je ne sais quoi. She achieves a real human intimacy -- a quality sorely lacking in almost every Chelsea exhibition that this critic happened to see on this particular perambulation of the galleries. Ms. Gascoine runs a considerable risk, of course, in taking her work in this new direction, since her previous show, at FleaMarket, was such a resounding commercial success."

The next day, Arthur went to the Modern Museum. It had recently opened one of those current-state-of-drawing exhibitions whose open-mindedness as to what exactly constituted a "drawing" was so permissively cavernous that, from a pool of seventy-four works on view, only twelve rectangular sheets of paper with something marked on them with charcoal, graphite or ink, appeared on the gallery walls. The show was all self-indulgence, with most sheets of paper and expanses of wall displaying only a few faint traces of the human hand, many of which looked risibly like mayonnaise stains. Arthur could have -- should have -- guessed the exhibition’s flaccidness from its lugubrious title: "Syllogism and Syntax: The New Linguistics of Drawing." At least the alliterative standards of "Cuteness and Cataclysm," Arthur thought, had been maintained.

Arthur trotted upstairs for a quick, not-for-reviewing-purposes perusal of a "career survey" (read: not deserving of a retrospective, but too highly hyped to ignore) of Jared Wallbanks, an American artist hideously well-known and constantly feted in Europe. He was to the entire Continent what Jerry Lewis was to the French -- a favorite whose fame signaled an inexplicable collapse of cultural judgment. Wallbanks was the most physically extravagant (meaning nothing under fifteen feet wide) of those painters who were said to "interrogate" the material minimums of painting. Translation: Nothing much to look at beside the greenish tan of acres of linen canvas. Wallbanks’s vaporous exhibition made "The New Linguistics of Drawing" seem positively baroque.

There had been a black-tie dinner-and-preview of the Wallbanks show the week before, and Arthur had attended the dinner part. The artist, a persistent "radical" in his early seventies, dressed and acted as if it were still the early seventies: ponytail (albeit white with washes of smoker’s yellow), bell-bottomed black jeans, a solid red square-dancing shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps, a bolo tie with a huge turquoise slide, a fringed black leather frock coat, and cowboy boots with silver metal toe protectors known to his cohorts as "cockroach killers." The artist’s discarded but nevertheless loyal ex-wife was present, along with their two grown -- yea, middle-aged -- children. The artist’s current wife, a frizzy-haired graduate student in New Mexico, where the artist had built his massive second home and studio, was also on hand. Arthur overheard the artist say to the chief critic of the Tribune, "Yes, that’s true. I’ll be showing some video next season in Düsseldorf. It’s quite a move for me, but I’ll be showing paintings in London at the same time, so the public will see that the issues I’m confronting in both media do remain constant."

Everybody with major juice in the art world had been there -- museum people, dealers, and many of his fellow critics. He represented the magazine well enough in the conversation at his table (Number Six, numbered hierarchically). But Arthur had always been enough of a realist to know that he was invited to these digs as a function -- conduit to a mass media outlet -- rather than as a writer of a certain ability and particular style. He was a turnstile, not a person, and he actually took some pleasure in realizing it. The resulting clear-headedness relieved him of the pain of taking any slight or frustration or anxiety personally. Arthur’s only question at these galas was, "Is it mainly warm noses up cold asses, or the reverse?"

Arthur had arrived for the dinner just in time to be seated and therefore too late to tour the show beforehand. And there were simply too many assholes -- or people who thought Arthur was an asshole -- present for him to want to meander through the galleries after coffee and dessert. So he’d left without viewing the work. After seeing it this time, Arthur knew that if he’d reviewed the show in the magazine, and had Marsha and Karl let it hit the page (very unlikely) as the screed he would most certainly have submitted, the small fraction of the magazine’s readers who bothered with Arthur’s infrequent art reviews would have wondered what the hell was eating him to make him so nasty in print. "The guy must be having love-life trouble," a few might have speculated.

That night, Arthur wrote in his notebook:

"There is a difference between contemporary art that’s art and contemporary art that isn’t. And the difference is simply that real art made in this day and age (and since, say, 1860) has at its core some kind of existential angst or doubt or troublesome self-consciousness. (The mere presence of that quality / essence / thing does not, mind you, make something good art; there’re an awful lot of sincere, troublesomely self-reflective artists out there who still produce mawkish crap.) Un-real art -- what I call ’artoids’ -- doesn’t have it. In other words, all the in-the-audience’s-face, overproduced, slick, loud, big, complaining, ’issue’-oriented stuff that constitutes the majority -- or at least the plurality -- of the work in contemporary galleries today, isn’t art. It doesn’t have that existential core; it’s simply bohemian commercial graphic design or pseudo-transgressive department-store window-dressing, aspiring, at best, to ’edgy.’ It’s as neurotically other-directed as Richard Nixon, although frequently in the guise of the Dali Lama. In other word’s, it’s empty, just as a Tribune editorial is empty compared to a good poem."


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.



 




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