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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
12.
Arthur thought he’d fixed a date for dinner with Helen sometime during "the first few days after New Year’s." It never came off. Helen left a message on Arthur’s phone at the magazine that she needed to postpone, but couldn’t or wouldn’t say exactly why. Arthur gave her a couple of days to re-ensconce herself in her office at Castle / Cartwright, and then telephoned. Her voicemail answered. Upon hearing Helen’s lovely voice, albeit recorded, and at extremely low fidelity, Arthur thought, What the hell, I’ll hang myself out to dry anyway. He asked explicitly -- bordering on fervently -- for another occasion on which to dine. Then he said what the hell to himself again, and decided to do a round of the galleries.

On the cold day he chose to tread through Chelsea, the galleries, as dependable as reality TV, offered up yet more of Arthur’s anti-favorites, plus some newly imaginative ways of presenting bad photography. The three or four artists Arthur saw would find a piece of paper with something already on it -- a flyer for a shoe sale, an ad for replica professional football jerseys, practically anything -- and then draw on them, like angry junior-high-schoolers sentenced to detention study hall, with a greasy crayon or blunt pencil. More such paper was pasted atop the drawing, more drawing slashed across the paper, and so on, for three or four layers. The authors, who in two cases were recent M.F.A. degree-holders, seemed to be angry about the way "society" (no more specific a culprit than that) treated one or another "marginalized" group.

Elsewhere, conceptual images -- mostly typography, actually -- were adhered to finely sanded plywood panels about the size of, well, a dentist’s diploma. This particular form of art emanated from the minds and machines of Mensa-wannabe male artists who seemingly desired to distance themselves -- as very cool theorists -- from their own art objects (these objects) by theorizing about them within the object. The bad photography -- material for an astounding number of shows -- consisted of indecipherable or teasingly pornographic Polaroid photographs push-pinned in huge grids across an entire gallery wall or two. The favored subjects, as far as Arthur could tell, were heavy leather runway fashion shows -- a phenomenon he scarcely knew existed beforehand. And he couldn’t figure out this sudden rage for the outmoded Polaroids, except that perhaps younger artists were readily finding the obsolete, discarded cameras in dumpsters outside their Brooklyn studios.

At the penultimate gallery on his freezing trek, Arthur encountered a hushed, spare exhibition of very labor-intensive, very clever, very tricky hard-edge abstract paintings. He thought of taking some notes -- to take to a meeting to lobby for a review in the magazine -- but as soon as he flipped the cover on his reporter’s notebook, a sixth sense latched onto the paintings’ all-too-common truth: they were physically crafted by hands other than of the announced artist. Arthur pondered their dizzying intricacy for a moment, and thought, "Jesus, one mistake and his poor studio assistant has to start all over again."

All, however, was not lost: in the very last gallery Arthur visited, an exhibition he liked. The artist was a total unknown, a Romanian immigrant and taxi driver who’d been doing what he called "Holy Object" paintings for thirty years. He took something small that he thought was beautiful but overlooked in the rush of modern life, such as the printer’s color test block printed very tiny on a hidden flap in cardboard packaging for graham crackers. He glued them -- neat, absolutely flat, and dead center -- to a large sheet of smooth watercolor paper (you could see the vertical and horizontal placement axes, rendered in 6H pencil) and, with exquisite design and craftsmanship, surrounded his jewel of detritus with -- in the words of the plastic-sheaf’d press release on the reception counter -- a "suitably reverent visual context" of concentric rings of pale watercolor bordered with almost invisible colored pencil lines. Arthur was impressed by the artist’s obsessiveness and beguiled by his Zen. This and Chakira Wilber, he thought. Maybe there’s hope after all.

Buoyed, Arthur treated himself to a taxi back to the magazine. Not only was there nothing shaking, hardly anyone was present. So he walked over to the Modern Museum, which was still open for another hour. Arthur didn’t so much look at art as he looked at the people looking at the art. They looked at the art, Arthur noticed, quickly and only semi-attentively, as one would look at a curiosity like a car with four flat tires, or a discarded stuffed animal in the gutter. Nobody seemed particularly moved, or astonished, or intellectually engaged. Of course, Arthur reminded himself, any one or more of those things could happen to the viewers later, when a work of art worked its belated magic. And the same sort of apparent failing could have been attributed to older, more traditional works of art -- in the Met, or the Louvre -- as well as the more recent goods in the Modern Museum. In Arthur’s experience, people didn’t exactly stand dropped-jawed or weeping in front of the Old Masters, either.

But against the claims made in the Modern Museum’s brochures for the operative length, breadth, intensity and high political / social / moral purpose of the more contemporary art in the museum’s galleries, the audience-grabbing performance of the aggressively homely paintings, ratty sculpture and overstuffed examples of "installation art" was pretty weak. All the highfalutin, self-heroicizing, pseudo-deepthink smack printed in the brochures (available for free in discreetly placed clear plastic holders in most of the museum’s galleries) struck him suddenly as completely deluded.

How then -- why then -- all these people in attendance? Easy, it dawned on Arthur: newish, flashy architecture, a snazzy gift shop, a café two notches up from the corner deli, an upscale Manhattan neighborhood and, perhaps most important, a feeling that you were involved, however fleetingly and obliquely, with "culture," a knowledge that at least you weren’t spending your money in a topless bar (or whatever the shameful equivalent for women would be). Sure, the art was hermetic, dreary and hectoring -- particularly the "installations" -- but at least the refreshments were better than the gummy six-buck popcorn and four-dollar sodas at the local cineplex.

Publish that, Arthur, he said to himself. Make a book out of it. Maybe Castle / Cartwright would publish it. Maybe Helen…

When the museum closed, Arthur hurried back to his office, to see if Helen had left a message. None. He called her again. This time, Helen was in her office, and sounded almost happy to hear from him. They made a date for dinner. Arthur was ecstatic. He felt he was once more mature and sophisticated in the matter of women. Well, possibly.

*     *     *
"Jesus Christ, Marsha," Arthur shouted the next day, "Who gives a flying fuck about the nth drug arrest of some rock chick who used to be married to another rocker, only he was more famous but OD’d, and now she has her own band if only the bust doesn’t cause them to cancel its tour?"

"HoneyPot is a very good band," Marsha said, neither removing her eyes from her monitor nor ceasing to chew her gum. "Kerri says they’re very good, even better than their hype. They’re part of our culture, Arthur, the one you and I live in. That’s what the culture section of this magazine covers." Marsha snapped her gum for emphasis. Arthur smelled cinnamon.

"I believe it’s called the E+ section now," Arthur answered icily. "What we cover is something called E+, whatever the fuck that is."

Marsha leaned back in her ergonomic chair and pushed the gum with her tongue to the side of her mouth. But she continued to gaze at her computer screen like a painter who’d stepped back from her easel. "You get the lefty professor points," she said, "for discovering -- news flash! -- that journalism is practiced by large capitalist companies who do it for profit and, to that end, feed the public what the public wants rather than what you sensitive eggheads think it needs. And I get the sensible aunty points for pointing out that as imperfect as the system is, it gives a guy like you an opportunity to opine about art to an audience vaster by far than that for all that weirdo modern art you purport to love. You get paid nicely to do it, too. Our respective points cancel each other out. We’re even, Arthur. But as you know, the house takes pushes."

"What I know, Marsha," Arthur said loudly, "is that we both know all that shit. We’re not talking about my not appreciating the platform the magazine gives me to de facto evangelize about serious art. I appreciate it, Marsha, I really do. And I appreciate the salary, too. What pisses me off is that my platform gets suddenly chopped up or shrunk without a warning or even a casual hint. Look, I need 750 words, minimum, to make this review work. Cutting me down to let Kerri’s two-page top-story slop over onto my single page gives me less than five hundred. And it’s all just to give more space to a music story that isn’t even about fucking music. "

"It’s about news in the music business. Be an adult, Arthur."

Arthur started to walk out of her office, when he had a thought. Turning back toward Marsha, whose eyes were still fastened to her flat-screen, he said, "I finally figured it out!"

Marsha cocked her head to one side as if to say, wordlessly, "Well?"

"The ‘plus’ in E+, I finally figured out what it means," Arthur said with a grin. "The ‘plus’ means ‘bullshit.’ That’s what we cover, Marsha: entertainment plus bullshit."

Marsha returned her gaze to her monitor. "No, you’re not a lefty professor type, Arthur. I was wrong. You’re a fucking wise-ass-undergraduate-student-newspaper-assistant-sports-editor-whose-nickname-is-Porky-type."

That conversation was the high point of Arthur’s week. The next day, the Mullahs commenced a third attempt to institute an italicized "bottom line" -- a brief, judgmental sentence set in boldface at the end of all reviews. That or stars, as in "**** (Four stars) – Kerri Mitchell." Maybe the ‘plus’ in E+ didn’t mean bullshit, after all, Arthur thought. It more likely indicated simple idiocy. Stars! Would the originality never stop?

The first try at stars took place sometime during Arthur’s sophomore season at the magazine. The subject was brought up lightly, jokingly, aw-shucksly, at one of the "open" weekly story meetings. There was a hearty laugh from the proles -- deeper and heartier than a university faculty-meeting laugh, but with more real fear in it -- and the idea quietly retired to a corner and died.

The second attempt occurred a several years later, when Marsha was the new kid on the block. One of the Top Editors -- Arthur couldn’t remember who; he or she was in charge of his department, plus a few other areas, like Modern Life (the Mullahs couldn’t bring themselves to call it, in the interests of contemporaneity, ‘Postmodern Life’) and "Sports and Games" (whose writers squabbled ferociously over who got to abscond with the promotional copies of sports video games) -- just issued an e-mail fiat one week prior. Marsha’s signature was hardly dry on the W-4 form when the stars showed up. Poor Marsha -- she just assumed stars were S.O.P., no questions asked. That acquiescence earned her an instant background-buzz reputation among the culture writers as a bit of a stooge for the Mullahs. She didn’t really deserve it.

At three a.m. on a closing night the Mullahs caved. Everybody who was writing a review that week -- except Alex Whitman, who’d been doing music business reporting and subbed for Kerri when she was out of town to work on another "in-depth" profile of yet another formerly drugged-out rocker on the cusp of comeback -- wrote right to the space limit, leaving no room for the stars. If some were inserted by an editor, the writers eliminated them again and filled the space with a few more words. Finally, the writers were summoned upstairs to Mullahland for "a conversation."

A union-negotiated rule stated that the magazine had every right to run a writer’s story in whatever form the final edit took; but the writer had the right to kill his or her byline. An unattributed story was recognized, however, by the sharper sector of the readership, and certainly by the competition, as a) only nominally reliable, and b) a possible sign of deeper editorial turmoil. An unattributed story was something to be avoided. Unusually united for once, the writers reminded the Mullahs of this. The Mullahs prudently chose to avoid it.

Lately, however, an oddly nerdy subaltern art director had been attending the weekly E+ story meetings. This was in addition to the department’s regular art director, who sat as far down the table from Marsha as she could get. The visitor sat behind and slightly to the side of Marsha, who cranked her neck around every so often to confer with him, apparently, about some esoteric layout consideration. When Candace Burque -- in town for a week and, as usual, asking bothersome ethical questions -- queried Marsha about the new guy, she was told the Mullahs were in the preliminary stages of another "total redesign" of the magazine. The visiting art director, Marsha said, wanted to see exactly how our stories were generated, so that the total redesign could be sensitive to it.

The writers were terribly relieved. There had been three or four total redesigns in Arthur’s experience, and each resulted merely in some exquisitely nuanced faring and truing of a display font, a color tweak here and there, a few new thicker rule lines (or thinner, depending on the season). That was it. Much more was at stake with stars. And the Mullahs, it turned out, had gotten smarter.

Marsha said casually at the story meeting that day that the mockup pages of a new E+ layout style would be pinned up in the department conference room later in the afternoon. The writers should all take a good look, she said, and convey their opinions to her, opinions that she would take. . .

Hold it, Candace said. What if we want to send our thoughts directly to the Mullahs? Uh, fine, Marsha said, and made the terrible mistake of a reflex nod to the visiting art director. Instantly, the writers knew his real purpose. He might have called himself a neutral observer of their operational methods, but they would have called him "Quisling to the Mullahs." Before one push-pin had penetrated cork in the conference room, Ken Banter had gathered the writers and packed them into his office like Sixties college kids in a phone booth stunt. He asked that they resolve there and then to lock arms at the barricades and tell the Mullahs, Non!

"You younger people weren’t here when the union was so weak it was practically a management police force," Banter said. He was sitting cross-legged atop his desk, wearing bedroom slippers. Alonzo Briggs was forced by the crowding to stand with the edge of Ken’s desk pushing into his thighs; he was much closer to the old white man than he wanted to be.

"The union got strong, and you’re the beneficiaries," Banter continued. "But now the union is getting weaker again. All it can negotiate in ‘this business climate,’ as the Mullahs like to say, is slightly less painful give-backs. Money matters favor the Mullahs, and the real suits, the double-breasted pin-stripe boys, above them." Banter braced himself up on his hands and scooted his skinny bottom back a few inches. Briggs breathed easier.

"But we still have our principles," Banter said, suddenly louder. "We still have the integrity with which we write our stories, and the vigilance about how they go into print. The Mullahs and the suits can’t get a give-back on that. Unless, that is, we give it back to them ourselves. And that’s just what we’ll be doing if we let them shove those goddamned stars down our throats!"

"Or up our asses, Ken."

"Thank you, Candace," Banter said. "Always happy to have my points more pungently put."

Much against his wisdom-gained-from-experience (that speaking up at a meeting like this at best merely lengthened the meeting by the time it took one to say something), Arthur spoke.

"Excuse, me, folks," he said, lifting his heels off the floor and rising on the balls of his feet. "I’d like to add another reason -- one not lifted from ‘The Joe Hill Song Book’ -- as to why we should fight this. Those stars will give the reader yet another reason not to read what we’ve worked so hard to write. You’ve got bigger headlines and longer sub-heads than we used to have. And they reveal practically everything about the story. You don’t have to read the story anymore to get the critic’s verdict. You don’t have to care any longer how Kerri, say, came to her opinion of [Arthur paused, knowing she was looking at the back of his neck]. . . of that new HoneyPot album. With stars, you just look to the bottom of the story and say to yourself, ‘Oh, Kerri Mitchell gives it four stars, so I guess I’ll buy it.’" Arthur stopped, to let the point sink in.

"Is that what we want?," he then asked exhortingly. "Do we want our pathetic little [Arthur paused again]. . . five-hundred-word reviews rendered even more irrelevant by those fucking little stars at the end of them? I sure as hell don’t. But maybe it’s because I’m not just doing thumbs-up or thumbs-down, or one star or four stars. I’m trying to explain serious art to readers who aren’t nearly as knowledgeable going in about art as they might be about HoneyPot. And to do that, I’ve got to have readers actually read the words I write. That’s why I stand with Ken, and why I’m ready to go to the mat with the Mullahs over this."

Several other people said several other equally ringing things. When the orations had ceased, the writers stood around like vertical sardines for a few minutes, asking themselves, "Shouldn’t somebody make a motion to be seconded or something?" No, of course, not. We’re writers, not autoworkers, they thought as one. So they filed out of Ken’s office and went back to their own.

By the end of the nominal workday, the mockup pages still hadn’t appeared. When the department receptionist unlocked the conference room the next morning, however, there they were. Two of the mock reviews ("Now is the time for all good men. . .," repeated until a page was filled) were garnished with stars -- two and a half on one, and four on the other -- and the third was left unblemished. The other make-believe E+ stories weren’t reviews, so stars were irrelevant. Each of the writers who ambled in during the day to have a look was -- Arthur guessed -- made a little more hopeful by the one review without the stars. It meant the Mullahs were hedging, perhaps even leaving themselves an out. "When we got a concrete idea of how they actually looked on the page," he could hear one of them saying, "we started rethinking the whole idea -- purely from the standpoint of the total redesign, of course."

On Friday morning, the mockups were gone. The nerdy art-director-informer neglected to attend the customary second E+ meeting of the week, the one at which ideas for the following week were tossed around. Presumably, he was huddled with the Mullahs, telling them that, yes, they were very astute to abandon the stars -- purely from a total-redesign standpoint, of course. Or not. Arthur and the other writers had no idea if or when the stars, through whose little cosmic hearts they had probably failed to drive wooden stakes, would roar out of Mullahland and re-plant themselves upon the magazine’s precious, non-mock-up pages. Though uneasy, the writers were in a bit of a better mood because Marsha hadn’t mentioned the stars at the meeting. She closed, however, with something conceivably worse.

The Mullahs and the "Tops," she said, were going on a four-day retreat in St. Croix. Their flights would be departing late Thursday afternoon two weeks hence, so that would mean an early closing of the magazine, and the most senior writer in each department would be assigned mop-up editing while the bigs were unpacking their Caribbean sunblock. Ken Banter, of course, was E+’s guy. The purpose of the retreat, Marsha said, was to work on the "content portion" of the "total redesign." Arthur thought: Would this amount to a rethinking of the rethinking of the total redesign, or just a simple rethinking, with no one-and-a-half and a full twist?

And St. Croix? All this redesigning, the writers had heard in the hallways, had to do with sagging newsstand sales and complaints from major advertisers that the magazine was getting to be too stodgy a vehicle in which to carry their messages to the prized "younger, more affluent reader." Money, in other words, was getting tighter. With money so tight, Arthur thought, wasn’t there a big motel with meeting facilities in Hoboken right across the river, that’d serve just as well as some Caribbean paradise with clay tennis courts?

Marsha had been requested to make a presentation in St. Croix on "The Next Generation in the Arts." The E+ writers had done this kind of thing any number of times previously, and the usual and common-sense method was to have each writer come up with an annotated list of five or six about-to-be-stars in his or her special field. It worked well enough with movies, TV and pop music, but became increasingly unrewarding -- for Marsha, and for the prospects of whatever preview was being concocted -- when it came to the other, more esoteric arts. Few around the meeting table knew who the suggested comers among young novelists were; fewer still had heard of the proffered on-the-rise stage actors, playwrights, sopranos or violin soloists. When Arthur’s turn came, blank stares and quizzical smiles greeted his picks to click in the art world. Absolutely nobody in the E+ section had the slightest glimmer of who these people were or, in spite of (or, Arthur always worried, perhaps because of) his short pitch for each, why what they did was worth looking at.

Marsha felt Arthur’s pain. Or so she told Arthur. To the others, she announced that the reason for trying out a new device for assaying exactly what new stars of the arts was to generate "fresh thinking" that would appeal to younger readers, and a "greater geographic spread" that would appeal to the magazine’s many subscribers stranded between the Coasts. The conceit this time would be "regional kingdoms." It was unclear to anyone in E+ whether Marsha had thought up this horror herself, or if it had been laid upon her by the Mullahs.

Each writer was assigned one of the following: "The Manhattanite Empire," "The Left Coast," "Greater Texas," and "The Heartland." In order to get from the writers their "broadest perceptions," Marsha said, they’d each populate their respective kingdoms without regard to individual expertise. To further enlarge the pool of eligibles, she added, any geographic connection, however tenuous, was valid. Arthur, for instance, was given "The Heartland," and instantly picked the rising transvestite neo-punk band, Queen Anne and The Ladyfingers because its bassist hailed from his mother’s hometown, Moline. Arthur had gained possession of this arcane musical fact only because he’d forgotten to take Jonathan Hirsch’s still-unread anthology with him into the john after lunch. The only available reading matter -- barely reachable with the toe of his shoe on the floor of the adjacent stall -- was a pop music magazine left behind by a former summer intern who’d been kept on as a reporter. The salient item leapt from its open pages to Arthur’s eager eyes.

Kerri was immediately pissed at Arthur for "stealing" the Houston-based band from her assigned "Greater Texas." She spent an hour on the internet digging for art facts of a similar scoopish nature, and discovered that Chakira Wilber had, in spite of showing first in Chicago (uncontested capital of "The Heartland"), attended graduate school in Austin. Kerri snapped up Chakira for her fiefdom and e-mailed Arthur a notification of her appropriation. It turned out to be a lot more difficult, however, for Kerri to write fifty clever nominating words for Chakira than it was for Arthur to rephrase some press release nuggets to make a shorthand case for The Ladyfingers. Kerri was still working on Chakira when the deadline for this seriously extracurricular exercise arrived and passed. Kerri’s inability to fake it stalled the whole enterprise while, in Marsha’s panicking mind, the St. Croix-bound airliners were already being cleaned and readied to accept passengers.

Marsha stepped into the doorway of her office on the Wednesday night before departure to the retreat and yelled, "All right, folks, this is a draft! I can edit it on paper on the plane! Just get something to me, and pronto!"

Although Arthur had his ducks in a row (his strategic response to a horseshit assignment was, customarily, to be sarcastically diligent about it), his office computer suffered a glitch. He couldn’t get his copy "into the system" from the machine in his office, and so had to run back and forth down the hall to the office that Candace -- back home in L.A. now -- used when she came to New York. With Arthur bringing up the rear, the writers produced the raw material for the presentation just in time for Marsha to print it out while she applied a last-minute coat of lip gloss before heading to the elevator and, ultimately, St. Croix, with her very expensive rolly. Kerri blew her a kiss as the metal doors closed and said, "You go, girl!"

Kerri didn’t see Arthur waiting for another car. He didn’t want to ride down to the lobby in the same capsule with Marsha and contract her contagious anxiety. "‘You go, girl?’," he said to Kerri. "That might be a tad passé for me, but it’s positively prehistoric for you, isn’t it?"

"Fuck you, Arthur," Kerri said, sincerely.


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.