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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
24.
A nice, civilized phone call from Helen, at work in her office, broke the news to Arthur that he’d lost her to Tom Mannheim. He was terribly hurt, of course, and confused. Arthur had been aware all along that he was a little old for Helen -- although, in the art world, there were many seemingly viable couples with age disparities greater than theirs would have been. But to be X’ed out of her life in favor of a chunky sculptor -- you could easily see he’d put on a quick twenty pounds once he’d been booked for the show at David Thornton -- with a vengeful wife and two needy children lurking in the wings was, well, fucking incomprehensible.

And to think that in conquering the almost infinite odds of writing about Tom’s un-household-word, short-duration, non-traveling, non-museum, catalogue-less exhibition, Arthur had probably handed Tom the little extra bit of aura he’d needed to win Helen. But Helen actually thought -- she told Arthur on the phone, laughing (!) about it -- that she suspected  that he’d tried in print subtly to diminish Tom in her eyes by making him a laboratory specimen of the decline of recent art. Arthur protested that not only was he a fucking professional who’d never sully his criticism with such a personal agenda, but that he wasn’t nearly smart or subtle enough to be the evil genius she was making him out to be.

The paradox was that although serious criticism of contemporary art was hard as hell to get into the magazine, once the Tom Mannheim story was written and filed, Arthur had experienced relatively little editing trauma other than delay. To most reviews, the editors gave just a lick and a promise, but with "reported stories" or big-picture analysis, it was always a trial. Marsha, standing in for "our reader" -- that mythical character with a year of junior college, a wife and two kids, and an unreconstructed taste for lawn flamingos -- wanted catchiness, jocular superficiality, and fake attitude. Once Arthur got by Marsha -- ’twas only the fact-checking that kept it in her queue until late on closing night -- Diane MacEvilly’s second edit for the Mullahs was, surprisingly, a piece of cake. Ms. MacEvilly prided herself, in effect, on standing in the schoolhouse door, trying to make sure that nothing funny, inventive, or even give-the-reader-credit-for-connecting-the-dots insinuated itself into any piece under her aegis. This time, however, she’d rolled over practically without a peep. In the end, she and the other Mullahs probably figured, "Who’s going to read this gobbledygook anyway?"

"Then we’ll just have to agree to disagree about your story," Helen said to Arthur.

Arthur might have said goodbye at that point, or he might have just summarily hung up without a farewell. It made no difference.

In the weeks following, Arthur quickly produced an art-auction news story about a third company -- not Sotheby’s, not Christie’s -- with millions in French money behind it, trying to crash the big time against the big English houses and their amassed billions. Then he wrote another news story (if that’s what the magazine wanted more these days than criticism, then fuck it, he’d give it to them) on collectors circumventing those same auction houses, and their pound-of-flesh commissions, to sell art directly to each other though an internet market called MasterGavel.com.

Arthur got back on a more serious track with a long feature on that octogenarian Pop artist, who had an upcoming retrospective at the Modern Museum. The artist lived and worked on the Upper East Side in adjacent townhouses linked by the demolition of interior walls. Outside, lots of septuagenarian ladies walked small white dogs. Arriving for the interview, Arthur was met at the door by one of the artist’s young assistants, who bore a distinct resemblance in physiognomy, costume and composure to the late James Dean. He ushered Arthur to a little courtyard through whose French doors Arthur could see another room, quite formally appointed with leather Corbusier chairs, a black glass coffee table containing stacks of big hardbound catalogues of the artist’s work, and a small de Kooning painting on the wall. It was a little chilly in the shadowed courtyard. Arthur hoped that he and the artist could do the interview in that fancy room, which in spite of its un-homey appearance, Arthur presumed would be warmer.

They did and it was. The artist kept Arthur waiting in the room ten minutes, then entered apologizing, although hardly profusely, for "oversleeping." He was smaller than Arthur remembered him from public appearances, but his squinty chubbiness, good posture, and custom-made, pajama-like flowing shirt and soft trousers made him seem twenty years younger than he was. He said he’d had to attend a Modern Museum soirée for its Collectors Council the previous evening -- "to help them decide which of my early major works they’re going to acquire on the occasion of the exhibition, and it took a few too many brandies to arrive at a decision."

Would Arthur like some coffee? Certainly. "Randy, two cappuccinos. Sugar? No. And use the organic two-percent milk, please."

Arthur tried the humble confession gambit to get the interview rolling. He told the artist that he had followed his work so closely, and for so long, that his thoughts about it were so complex that he hardly knew where to begin.

"Well," the artist said with a wry smile, "then I certainly can’t help you."

The interview went on like that -- a Zen wrestling match with the Cheshire Cat -- for a couple of hours or more. The resultant three mini-cassettes contained only one or two newsworthy deep background items, and a single useable quote. "God probably gave us art," Arthur mused on the cab ride back to the magazine, "so we could avoid personal contact with artists."

The visit with the eminence also prompted Arthur to write in his notebook that night:

"This ain’t a terribly original riff on the midgets-on-the-shoulders-of-giants, but what the hell. The historical Michelangelo (who happened to be a genius) was given the opportunity to make the Great Big Statement, with Magnificent Esthetics, and pull it off for the benefit of both the Popular Audience and the Historical Consensus. That is, society, patronage, materials, technique, permitted stylistic parameters and restrictions all converged harmonically to allow him to make what he did of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. A little later, Rembrandt (a genius, too) couldn’t quite pull off the Michelangelo royal flush and had to settle instead for a kind of lower-value straight flush. A wonderful hand to hold, certainly, but the position of more secular, burgherized artists in a less ritualistic, more mercantile society just didn’t allow for the feat of artistic grandeur that Michelangelo could pull off. Cézanne -- much later -- had an even less propitious set of circumstances; the best that his genius could get him was a plodding, self-imposed, specialized-audience-only career project outside the taste of the Popular Audience. Yes, it was (partially) salvaged by his contemporary painter-friends digging it and by the Historical Consensus, but the best that Cézanne could get -- unless there’s some radical revision of the (for lack of a better term) canon -- is a spot in the ’painter’s painter’ hall of fame, and not inclusion in the Greater Pantheon of Culture. With, say, de Kooning and Pollock, the scope of what history makes available in terms of the best that a great painter can do is diminished even further. The galleries wholly devoted to them at the Modern Museum lay even farther outside the Greater Pantheon of Culture. With Abstract Expressionism, the intelligentsia gave up on modern art. Ask any English professor with an endowed chair who Barnett Newman is.

"By the time we get down to contemporary gallery fodder -- even the ’hot’ painters, even the resilient abstract painters and sculptors, even the sincere resilient abstract painters and sculptors with their best work for the best patrons in the best showplaces on their best days -- are artists for whom the historical situation has dished up this shriveled maximum opportunity: to be a moderately significant hair on a moderately significant pimple on the butt of moderately significant serious culture.

"A painter or sculptor has three choices in dealing with this unfortunate predicament: 1) Give up and cave in to becoming a video, installation or neoconceptual artist in the vain hope that a lot of machinery, a room-size production, and theoretical window-dressing will allow what he (or she) does to regain the cultural resonance that Michelangelo, or Rembrandt, or Cézanne, or even de Kooning had (drawback: fat fucking chance); 2) Pretend, without admitting pretending, that it’s still 1912 or 1936 or 1949 or even 1966 and that all that’s needed to make painting or sculpture a big deal again is simply to act like painting or sculpture is still a big deal and has never been anything less than a big deal; or 3) ’Take the bull by the tail,’ as W.C. Fields once famously said, ’and face the situation.’ That is, keep on painting or sculpting in the assumption that, in a reasonable, civilized world, painting would be a big deal, but that in the real world it’s not, and that there’s nothing in the immediate present or near future an artist can do to turn the cultural tide.

"If Norma Desmond painted or sculpted today, she might say, ’I’m still big; it’s the art world that got small.’ She’d be aware, of course, that five-foot canvases smeared with tubed oil paint, unveiled to a few defenders-o’-the-faith in walk-up galleries with hissing radiators, are no longer a match for installations of forests of plasma screens in one of those glam-architect-designed palaces in Chelsea. Norma would mean, instead, that the art world has gotten small in the way that the movie business had: poetically -- a formerly serious subculture bloated like a rotten peach into a glossy entertainment business. Indeed, the visionary artists of yesteryear are now sharky professionals, evangelist dealers are now haute couturiers, scholarly curators are now glad-handing Blackberry networkers, and collectors have morphed from connoisseurs into market speculators. And critics, God bless us, are now just fucking flacks."

When he was younger, Arthur had been a little afraid of new art and artists. Nominally, not all new art and artists, but on some level, yes, maybe a tiny bit afraid of them all. The sensation: an unpleasant apprehension, something that’s supposed to be pleasurable (seeing art, meeting artists) regarded with trepidation. Why? Because Arthur might turn out to be a stupid rube in its presence. Not "exposed" as one, or "thought to be" one -- that was a social fear, and different -- but experiencing the feeling of inferiority in the face of out-of-his-league sophistication, arcane or mysterious or dangerous knowledge, new ideas that seemed wrong to him, but which he couldn’t refute in his mind. It could have been simply a feeling of loss of control -- the loss of the confidence that, sure, he could get his head around the current art world and the latest stuff in it.

Arthur used to get the feeling especially during studio visits for interviews of well-known artists. But it also came upon him at certain gallery openings. A highly regarded sculptor once told Arthur that every time he went to a show by a younger artist, the last thought in his head before he crossed the gallery threshold was always, "I hope this is shit." Fairly frequently, even crit visits to graduate students’ cubicles prompted fear to rise up in Arthur. The ultimate causes, Arthur knew, lay deep. He came from lower-middle-class parents who had mammoth inferiority complexes concerning anybody with more money, security, or position than they did. He carried that inherited complex into his adult, professional life. He needed the artist’s approval of him as much, if not more, than the reverse. And Arthur was a physical coward, who always feared that an inadvertent insult could lead to a punch-up. And so on.

Once, when Arthur was still an impoverished freelance writer, he went out with a bunch of artists after a symposium for drinks at a restaurant. They fell into a "deep" philosophical discussion about art and life. Arthur’s contribution was a disquisition on the freedom in abstract painting as confronting the absurdity of an existential universe -- rather standard stuff and, perhaps, quite out of date. At his conclusion, the famous feminist installation artist at the table looked at him with the gaze of a shrink to a patient who isn’t progressing under treatment and said, "Arthur, what you’re feeling is just male power having to let go."

Later, he complained to a fellow impoverished writer about feeling stupid that he’d left himself so open for that left hook to his chops, and the other writer said, "Arty, never talk about important stuff with assholes."

Still, Arthur missed the fear. He couldn’t remember when he first noticed it was gone, but in his last several rounds of the galleries, it had been absent. Arthur suspected that he’d simply been around the block too many times.

*     *     *
From his office window, Arthur couldn’t tell whether the splotch really consisted of the actual remains of brains on the street or not, but all signs pointed to it. He could see, in the near-dark below, a human body lying in the street, on its side, quite still. Three cop cars were parked down the block from it, closing off two lanes of uptown traffic, and a bunch of cops were standing around the fallen figure. One of them dragged a white bicycle from next to the dead man to the curb. No ambulances had arrived on the scene yet, but a small crowd of people watched from the opposite side of the street. Arthur could also see two lines, more or less straight, parallel, and a few inches wide each, running from the figure’s head diagonally across the world ONLY, which was painted in thick white traffic paint. Then he noticed that the lines were actually more wiggly-straight, and that, in the cop-car headlights, they seemed to be red.

A fire department emergency medical van finally showed up. A couple of men in reflective vests got out, reconnoitered, and placed a sheet over the corpse. The next day, on the glass doors to the magazine’s building, announcements were posted that said the police were seeking witnesses to a hit and run. Arthur turned around and walked into the street while traffic was stopped for the light, to the spot where the body had lain. The pizza-crust stain at the head of the bloodstains was shaped vaguely like an artist’s palette.

*     *     *
A lecture invitation in Arizona mercifully got Arthur out of town. Even more mercifully, Marsha said that since Arthur would likely be squeezed out of the magazine for the next few weeks -- an E+ cover story on "The Flap Over Rap," a big folio on the comeback of "sword ’n’ sandals" movie epics, and God only knew what else, would eat most of the section’s space -- she wouldn’t charge him vacation time if he promised to "check out the Southwest art scene" -- whatever that meant -- while he was there.

The gig was painfully overloaded because Arthur had said yes to every attendant social invitation. He’d said yes partly because he prided himself on doing gigs like this extra-thoroughly, with nary a hint of temperamental demurral. But he’d done it mostly because losing Helen had made him feel saddened and woefully unwanted. He reveled idiotically in being sought after by anyone.

Arthur arrived on a Monday night at eleven, via a change of planes in Houston. After a fitful night’s sleep (he’d consumed an ill-advised latte in the Houston airport), he was fetched from his faux-adobe hotel by a local art dealer thought by the university hosting him to be a more reliable guide to the local scene than any of its own faculty members.

The dealer took Arthur to a half-dozen art emporia. The first was a "glass art" gallery in an upscale mall, run by and named after its chief exhibited artist, one of those handsome, thick-wristed, tanned, T-shirted and sneakered, silver-haired craftsmen who looked like the leading man in a TV movie about a divorcée-refugee from the big city finding true love with an honest and sensitive artisan. And his artisanry was indeed impressive, with a plethora of tour de force moves ("How the hell did he do that?")in every piece on sale. But the goods were brainless -- Fabergé eggs for the SUV set. The glass art gallery, alas, turned out to be the best of the lot. The rest hawked imitations of trends from New York and Los Angeles that had seeped into last year’s art magazines. Whatever edginess or wit the originals contained had been bowdlerized enough for the strike-offs not to frighten away any of the customers in the Arizona market or disturb their suburbia-in-the-desert styles of living.

During the tour, Arthur compiled in his mind a typical local artist’s spiel:

"After I got my MFA at Midwest State, I taught high school for a couple years and had some shows in Detroit and Chicago. Then I just got tired, you know, of all the backbiting in the big-city art world, not to mention those depressing winters. So during one semester break, I came out here to, well, just look around. My wife got a good job in the health services industry, and we found, you know, that we just loved the desert. Now we have a house over in Cactus Canyon and I keep a studio downtown. Good spaces are still pretty cheap out here, although rents are going up. Anyway, we just love it here. So do the kids, who are attending very good public schools. Yeah, we get back east once in a while, and we visit our artist-friends who are still caught up in that careerist rat race. They still read all the art magazines and try to do what’s ’in.’ My own art isn’t like that anymore. It’s changed a lot. Out here, I’ve become much more spiritual as an artist."

In the evening, for the benefit of a local art foundation (not-for-profit exhibitions of local "emerging artists"), Arthur conducted a "salon" in the capacious ranch-style home of an "important art patron." He spoke off-the-cuff for twenty minutes -- about what was going on in New York, about (by request) the significance of "all those new Biennials we hear about in places like Korea and Istanbul," about whether "the end of art" was truly at hand, and so forth. Then Arthur sat down at one of four circular dinner tables deployed for the occasion and chatted with the guests. Inevitably, he was assailed with a question concerning "western art" -- the Frederic Remington pastiches depicting noble, stoic Indians living in Peaceable Kingdom-harmony with grizzled white cowhands that polluted the walls of seemingly every household in Arizona with a six-figure income.

"How would you critique those two paintings behind you?" asked a lady with a hair helmet on her head and a double shot of bourbon over ice in her glass.

One of the pictures was a commercial illustrator’s full-length portrait of a tribal medicine man; the other was a sentimental rendition of some horses and fringe-vested figures in front of an adobe settlement. Arthur simply said that neither was his "cuppa," that the paintings were based more on heart-tugs about the subject matter outside the pictures than the art within them. But he did concede that the world of "western art" was but one of many art worlds of which he -- "a hard-core contemporary gallery / museum-axis guy" -- had relatively little knowledge. Arthur remarked that these kinds of pictures did, however, display considerable similarity to the 19th-century Russian paintings by such members of the "Wanderers" school as Ilya Repin, and that a lot of knowledgeable people he knew took that school very seriously. Arthur was told over coffee and dessert that he’d handled the question quite nicely. Several people, in fact, repeated this to him, although not the lady who’d asked the question.

The next day, Arthur was led around the college’s large art gallery, and talked to the curator about its program. The curator was a diminutive woman, very well dressed, in her mid-forties, he estimated, who was clearly conflicted, and a bit haggard because of it. The dean of the school of the arts, under whose administrative umbrella the college gallery was nestled, was an unabashed fan of "western art." He could barely tolerate less traditional fare. "We do mostly packaged shows or local artists," the curator said. "Our budget’s been cut considerably, and those shows are a lot cheaper than bringing anything in from the Coasts."

The show currently up was one of the rare exhibitions the curator had been able to organize herself. It comprised a varied group of techno-intense stuff by a professor up in Denver who’d studied -- way, way back -- with that aged Pop artist Arthur had interviewed. Professor Denver had gone on to obsolesce his former mentor -- or so he thought, according to the wall text -- in extremely slick and electronic ways. His work merely amounted, however, to a 21st century version of "faculty art," in which the professor displays all the skills his chairman, dean and students want to see manifested in order to be reassured that they’re getting value for their salary or tuition expenditures. Forty years ago, elegantly constructivist abstract paintings with insertions of figure-drawing skills served the same purpose; now it was installation art tricked out with digital gimmicks (art professors at big universities enjoyed free access to bells-and-whistles computer labs), and an inherent advertising-design mentality.

That evening’s offering was a choice of free time, or a free ticket to the college’s basketball game. What the fuck, Arthur thought, and he went to the game. It was a blowout for the home team.

The following morning an untenured assistant professor trying to amass enough departmental good deeds to give him a shot at job security picked Arthur up and took him to the graduate students’ studios. They were off-campus, in a former truck depot. Arthur was scheduled for a couple of hours of informal crits. The assistant professor had to clear a pile of empty lime-jalapeño potato-chip bags ("A vice I picked up the instant I got here," he said) off the front passenger seat of his Jeep in order for Arthur to ride in it. On the way, the assistant professor bemoaned missing his boyfriend, who was still stuck back where they came from, trying to sell his small, struggling graphic-design business in Chicago, preparatory to moving to Arizona.

"Even if he comes, I don’t know how long we’ll stay here," the assistant professor said. "We both really want to be in New York. . . or Berlin."

The graduate students either did overt imitations of the kind of things that they’d lately seen on their weekend car trips to Los Angeles, or they showed him militantly irrelevant indulgences in their own Dr. Seuss-like fantasies. When, regarding the former, Arthur offered a tip or two on how they could sharpen them up for soliciting the galleries, the artists protested vigorously that their art was defiantly "personal," and that it had nothing whatsoever to do with vulgar commerce. When Arthur attempted to talk about the latter sort of work in terms of poetic meaning, the artists demanded handy hints on the impossible task of getting it shown and sold in Chelsea.

After lunch (with those few graduate students who weren’t left sulking in their cubicles muttering, "Fuck him") at "this great little Mexican place we always go to," Arthur was dropped off back on campus at a modern art history class. In advance, he’d sent its students photocopies of an unpublished (and probably unpublishable) "serious" essay by him on recent large-format color photography. The class and Arthur discussed it for an hour. Near the end of the session, a student asked Arthur why he hadn’t brought any "really contemporary" slides with him. Arthur said that he would have had to borrow them from galleries as a favor, and that would be a bit of a conflict of interest. The student crossed her arms, leaned back in her seminar chair, and glowered at him. Another student -- a skinny, goateed white male -- asked Arthur why white males were so overrepresented among art critics, and said that he "would much rather have heard from a woman of color." Arthur replied, with misplaced attempted humor, that he’d tried to get a race-and-gender-change operation in New York before coming to Arizona, but that elective surgery was difficult to schedule. The second student cast his eyes sideways at the first, and they silently agreed: What a prick.

Arthur prided himself on an ability, fueled largely with caffeine, to slog through this kind of schedule with even-handedness, aplomb and even a bit of enthusiasm and insight. What, however (he often wondered during this particular marathon), would some more eccentric, thin-skinned or (he’d concede) passionate, and more deeply "concerned" critic or artist have done with a hazing like this? Would they have drunk heavily, smoked dope, thrown tantrums or just out-rightly refused to undertake the more odious tasks on the agenda? Arthur told himself that it was a big, wide, not-always-wonderful world out there and that, as a grown boy and professional critic, he ought to have been able to move smoothly through it without being haughty, offended, outraged or depressed. On the flight home, he was only one of those things.

*     *     *
Eleven phone messages awaited Arthur at the office. Ten of them were from museum publicists or gallery workers "calling to confirm" that he’d received their e-mail or postal invitations. The other was from his old pal Ted at the Timberline Art Colony. Ted wanted to know if Arthur would be interested in doing another visiting critic stint. Arthur probably would have been -- eventually -- but not right at that moment or anytime during this freshly bloomed summer. Ted also asked Arthur to give him a call. He had some news he didn’t want to leave in Arthur’s voicemail.

"Ted," Arthur said. "You called."

"Arthur. You sound tired."

"I am tired," Arthur said. "I spent the better part of a week out in the desert, bringing a bit of New York grit to those mesa-top spiritual-type artists you love so much."

"Don’t be nasty, Arthur," Ted said. "I’m the real thing in that department. I work at it. I’m up to ninety minutes a day of total stillness. Those people you’re talking about think meditation is an FM station you can tune in on your Concho belt. Anyway, would you like to come up again, in the fall? We’d love to have you."

"En principe," Arthur said. "But my mind is fried from giving advice and listening to artists tell me what they’re interested in, as if watching the Discovery Channel digitally reconstructing mummies or listening to books-on-tape about the Hopi way of knowledge are fucking accomplishments. You know, Ted, that’s what gets me most: that inflated self-regard for what wannabe artists are ’interested in.’ It’s either Hindu myths or Chinese poetry or subatomic particle physics or breakthroughs in DNA research or preventing the destruction of our precious natural heritage by greedy corporations. Hey, I agree with all of that. . . I think. But how those mere interests are supposed to lift a bunch of namby-pamby, autotherapeutic amateur artists right up there with. . ."

"Tom Mannheim?" Ted said. Arthur felt a pain in his chest. But he felt no anger toward Ted. Ted didn’t deal in gossip, even with his visiting critics and artists. He just read the newspapers and the art magazines, like everyone else. He didn’t know.

"Point taken," Arthur said. "I overestimated him a bit, didn’t I."

"To my way of thinking you did," Ted said. "I happened to be in the city at the time, and saw the show. Except for sheer heft and industry, it wasn’t all that much."

Arthur wanted to change the subject. "You said you had news," he said.

"Koenig died last week," Ted said. "I called to tell you and got your out-of-office message. We had a gig scheduled, too. It’s very sad, but not just for that."

"Aw shit," Arthur said, in a crude but heartfelt blurt of sadness. "How old was Abe, exactly?"

"Not Abe, Arthur," Ted said. "Esther. It was Esther Koenig who died. A fall in their house. She went into a coma and never came out."

"Oh Jesus," Arthur said, more despairing. Tears formed in his eyes. "That’s goddamned awful."

"Yes it is, and I understand your reaction, because you’ve just now heard the news. I hope I don’t sound too cold and businesslike. I’ve had time to recover from the shock, you know."

"You never sound cold and businesslike, Ted," Arthur said. His tone, however, left open the possibility of other flaws, such as ’Toodles.’ The memory of Ted having said that in close proximity to Esther made Arthur a little vindictive.

"Well," Ted said, "there’s more for you about Esther. We were cleaning out her studio -- she’d come back to Timberline twice, just for a week at a time, since you were both up here together, and it just kind of became permanently reserved for her -- and we found something she left for you."

"What? For me?" Arthur asked.

"It’s a painting. A pretty nice painting, too, in my opinion. A straightforward still-life, in her trademark style, only very gracefully composed and this time with more delicacy than toughness in her brushwork. You should be proud to have it, Arthur. The title is a bit peculiar, though. Say, what kind of a relationship did you two have, anyway?"

Ted’s jocularity escaped Arthur. "What’s the title?" he said, trying not to choke up on the phone.

"It’s written on the back of the canvas: ’For Arthur -- Still-life with Counterintuitive Retro Cachet and Missing Dildo.’ And it’s signed, ’Esther Koenig.’"

"My God," Arthur said. "What a great lady."

"Would you like us to send it down to New York for you?" Ted asked. "We have a TAC residents show coming up at Rooftop. Esther arranged it, you know. It would be easy to include your painting in the shipment. You could just stop by the gallery and pick it up. It’s not that big. You could carry it home under your arm. Or, if you want, we could keep it up here and you could claim it on your visit. That’s a hint."

"That’s exploiting Esther," Arthur said. "Shame on you, Ted."

"Nonsense, Arthur," Ted said. "I’m only exploiting her to help get what she wanted. She believed in us, and she liked you. Your coming back to Timberline is one of the things she wanted. She told me that."

Arthur decided Ted was right and said that he’d pick up the painting when he came up to TAC at some undetermined point in the near future. After Arthur hung up, he placed a condolence call to Abe Koenig. Abe was morosely, bitterly drunk and said that since Esther’s death he hadn’t been sober for a moment. He thanked Arthur for his manners. "Even the goddamned director of Rooftop hasn’t been in touch yet, the queer little fucker," Abe said. Then he asked Arthur how he liked "the big sculpture sale you helped engineer."

"What are you talking about?" Arthur asked, halfway expecting to hear some inebriated, sarcastic reference to the Modern Museum.

Instead Abe said, "Mel Issacson. I heard he bought that big piece of shit by Tom Mannheim and bailed him out from that Florida guy offing himself. Your goddamned fucking article caused that little travesty, didn’t it. Your fawning review sold it to that fucking capitalist fucking pig now who owns the fucking rag that you write for and signs your paychecks. And no, it’s not just the whiskey talking. I mean it, Arthur."

"I hadn’t heard," Arthur said weakly. He spent a couple of minutes trying to say goodbye to Abe politely, but didn’t manage it.

*     *     *
In a very bad mood, Arthur participated in a symposium at the Atelier Academy entitled: "Visual Culture Studies: The New Art History?" He didn’t want to do it because he assumed he’d run into Tom Mannheim, who was teaching summer session there, or, worse, Tom and Helen. But having to think of himself as a coward if he didn’t accept Tony Givens’ invitation was precisely the reason Arthur consented to participate. It was a hot, stuffy night, and the auditorium was far from filled. Before the lights went down, Arthur counted the house. Neither Tom nor Helen was present.

A heavily stubbled, porky Brit with an accent that consisted, to Arthur’s inexpert ear, of equal parts working-class Midlands and effete Oxbridge, presented the case for vizcult (as Arthur came to think of it). A conspicuously young-for-tenure professor at a big upstate public university, he wore for the occasion the grey-green version of all-black: a very nice solid-color, dry-clean-only shirt tucked into nicely pleated and draped slacks, and brown shoes. Arthur thought it admirable (from a fashion standpoint) for the Brit to attempt to combine downtown arty chic with some kind of Thomas-Hardyesque empathy for the working class. But the clothes, from one of the designer-remainder stores, just missed. Besides, they were too heavy for the season, and, even before he got to the mike, spreading dark stains appeared in his armpits.

Another associate professor (the most dangerous rank, Arthur had always thought: the self-regard of being "senior faculty" combined with the residual aggressiveness and striving concomitant with not being quite there -- that is, full professor -- yet) acted as associate counsel, as it were, in the prosecution of traditional art history. She was youngish, but with considerable grey insinuating itself into her red hair, which was vaguely pre-Raphaelite in length and combing; lipstick-less, but some hints of Bad Girl (this was not 1974 anymore!) -- high black leather boots, short skirt, and ample length of leg revealed between hem and cuff. She’d flown in from an even bigger state university out in the heartland, where the buffalo used to roam. Though a job at her school was to her peers proof of having arrived in the academic big time, the associate professor was always ready to hop an airplane to practically anywhere to get away from the big, bland, dispiriting brick-building-on-the-plains housing the Department of Art History and [name change effected just this year!] Visual Culture. On the panel, she assumed the role of the more mild, centrist, and willing-to-accommodate, vizculter.

A grand, old, tweedy, kindly Jewish uncle of the art world, an emeritus professor from Columbia functioned as the steadfast defender of orthodox art history. Arthur could see that he himself had been cast as a decidedly junior defense attorney.

The upstate university guy went first, laying the claims for the nascent field of visual culture. Primary among them was unloading the dead weight of the old, suffocating art-in-museums canon and admitting, at long last, that talking about Hitchcock films and sidewalk memorials to gang-shooting victims was absolutely essential to reclaiming the "art historical discourse" from the grave in which so-called "connoisseurs" had put it. He peppered his talk with references to various groups "oppressed and marginalized by canonical art history" -- women, people of color, Jews, and "queers." As yet another academic white male bemoaning the fact that everything was, and maybe still is, run by white males, he seemed desperate to be righteous.

The associate professor followed with a complaint about exploitative and demeaning images of women in advertising. But her slides were thirty years old, and bleached out: a woman bound and gagged next to a washing machine with a headline about how being bound and gagged is the only way clothes will get wrinkled with this machine around; a demure blonde bride under a veil, looking down, with a caption asking whether a potential bride should work at a certain car rental company before she married. The associate professor seemed to think her presentation bravely "unpacked" hidden notions in these ads when, in fact, what she was unpacking had been packed in there rather deliberately, and at great expense, by the advertisers.

The avuncular art historian rebutted. He gave a quietly determined short talk that minced no words. Vis-à-vis art history and whatever other scholarly territories it had eyes on, he said, vizcult was full of shit. He used plain language, sped right down the pike, did not stoop to make things nice (e.g., there really weren’t a lot of undiscovered really good artists outside the ones recognized by the ’50s and ’60s art worlds; black artists thirty years ago really weren’t all that good -- on account of discrimination, mainly, but nevertheless. . .). The upstate professor twitched as the uncle spoke.

Finally, Arthur took the microphone. Fuck ’em, he thought, let’s have a little fun. He made colloquial noises about having sympathies for both sides of the argument, but in the end came down fairly hard, and profanely, on the side of art and art history. In his repechâge summation, the upstate professor characterized Arthur’s performance -- in a kind of prissy way, refusing to utter his name in conjunction with the description -- as "macho and histrionic." In his closing comments, Arthur said that he wasn’t macho at all. "I just tend to get excited when speaking in public and wave my hands about."

The upstate professor declined to surrebut.

*     *     *
Arthur was about to enter the David Thornton Gallery to see David’s last-gasp-before-the-annual-migration-to-the-Hamptons exhibition, a Quincy Wilber-Carr reunion show. (Lindsey Hyde, who never did open in Chelsea, was apparently history.) He encountered Mel Issacson coming out. Mel was wearing one of the most beautiful summer sport jackets Arthur had ever seen. His curly silver hair shown spectacularly against an assiduously maintained tan. Mel looked like a million bucks. No, better than that: he looked like a newly elected Senator.

"Arthur!" Mel said, extending a nicely manicured hand. "I’ve not yet been ’round to the E+ department to visit, which I very much want to do. Especially with you."

"Did you really buy Tom Mannheim’s big sculpture?" Arthur asked abruptly.

"Do you have a moment?" Mel said, eminently unperturbed by Arthur’s question. "I suggest we retire to one of these little bistros that the Chelsea gallery economy has spawned, and have a little conversation." Mel’s open palm pointed the way down the street.

When the two were seated, but before their sandwiches fromages and draft Bonningtons had been served, Mel answered Arthur’s lingering question as though it had been asked only seconds before. "Why not?" he smiled. "It was recommended in black and white, by one of our foremost art critics."

Mel perceived that Arthur wasn’t buying the humor and changed his tack. "I bought it to warehouse it, Arthur," he said. "Tom’s really not a very good artist. You and I both know that. He had ambition and one or two good ideas, but no real, overarching talent."

"You should fire me, then, for touting shoddy goods," Arthur said. Then it hit him: Mel had said had no talent, past tense. What was going on?

Mel laughed with bright white teeth showing and put his hand atop Arthur’s tabled forearm. "I bought the thing, Arthur, for the same reasons you wrote about it. It may not be all that good, but it’s interesting. It says something about the way art is now. And like you, I had another agenda."

"Which was?"

"My daughter, of course," Mel said. Arthur didn’t reply.

"Arthur," Mel said, "everything is shifting right under our feet: art, life, women -- everything we love. Helen and Tom -- bless ’em -- can change with the times. You and I, Arthur, are stuck with being what we are."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Arthur asked. He was getting angry, and careless.

"You and I, Arthur," Mel said in the manner of a comforting after-dinner speaker, "live for art. I can’t stop collecting it -- even when I’m in hock for buying your magazine -- and you can’t stop writing about it. And I daresay, neither of us can stop thinking about it. For better or worse, we’re creatures of art. It trumps everything else in our lives."

The meals arrived, but Mel Issacson didn’t immediately attend to his. "Helen and Tom, on the other hand," he continued, "are in the business of living life for its own sake. I know that may sound odd, because it probably looks to all the world -- at least to those who read your fine essay -- that Tom Mannheim threw every sinew of his being into creating an impressive, even heroic, work of art. But for Tom, you see, art was a means to an end. He wanted his art to do something for him in life. He wanted it to get him somewhere, make him richer and more famous. And, to be perfectly frank, to make himself more desirable to lovely young women like Helen."

Mel paused to sip his beer. "As for me, I don’t want art to do anything for me except to allow me to enjoy it. I’m already rich and, when this magazine deal stabilizes as it will, I’m going to get continually richer. Though I may have to deaccession a few choice pieces at the next sales, I’ll soon be back in the buying mode. But I’ve never bought in order to make a killing at the auctions. And I’m certainly not interested in collecting my way onto the board of the Modern Museum."

He sat back in his chair and donned his most practiced expression of self-satisfaction. "I mean," Mel said, "I now own two magazines that can strike fear into the heart of the Modern Museum. The curators at that august institution are afraid of a bad review of a major exhibition in Art Discourse because of the damage to their reputations inside the incestuous little art world. And our magazine, Arthur, causes the director to tremble because something you say might dampen ticket sales. With real power like that, why would I want to sit on their bloody board?"

"That’s fine for you to say," Arthur said. "You’ve got your billion dollars. I’m still a working stiff. Don’t I want to ’get somewhere,’ too?"

"I’ve been reading you for a long time, Arthur," Mel said. "You practice your craft well. You could have parlayed your job into a power position. You could have cranked out coffee-table books in your spare time; you could have written catalogue essays all over the place. You could be spending your summers in the Hamptons and flying to Lake Como for conferences and speeches instead of to -- where was it you just lectured? -- Arizona, for God’s sake. But you haven’t sunk to that. You haven’t strategized your job into a lever to get yourself bigger perks. You pursue your line of work because it’s what you love: looking at art and thinking the thoughts it makes you think. You’re cursed with integrity. You know, Arthur, we’re very much alike in that."

Arthur looked up at the copper ceiling fans, not knowing whether to feel flattered or insulted.

Mel Issacon filled the vacuum. "I’m setting up a small -- how should we call it? -- semi-architectural, semi-decorating, semi-art-consulting firm," he said with a little laugh. "Helen will run it. Tom will be partner and chief designer. Tom needs an income stream, you know. His soon-to-be-ex-wife is still out for blood, and she’s got a very sharp sword in the matter of child support. Tom’s former studio assistant, Jimmy Whateverhisnameis, will ramrod the projects. I’ve discovered that the young man has a fine, fine business sense. Helen has a marvelous older stepbrother, too -- Kendall. He’ll be the one-man sales force. And I’m about to hire a very exciting young architect to sign off on things. Anyway, their little company will soon be redoing the offices at the magazine. We’ll. . . they’ll. . . start with the E+ section as a showcase. It’s where design matters most in the magazine, does it not? And they’ll start with your office, Arthur. We want to make yours especially nice."

Arthur was stupefied. "Consolation prize?" he managed to say, self-pityingly.

"Arthur," Mel Issacson said, "you should be feeling good right now. You and I can do some great things together."

"Do you mean, ’This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship’?"

"Something like that," Mel Issacson said. "It’s a brand new world out there."

Mel slid a piece of paper across the table toward his plate. It was a revised press release for David Thornton’s Quincy Wilber-Carr exhibition. Arthur noticed immediately that the name of the gallery in the headline was different: Thornton-Hyde Fine Art, Inc. And further down, in the lugubrious text, his eye caught: ". . .Wilber-Carr who, with his sister Chakira Wilber, will soon be the subject of an important mid-career survey exhibition, ’Sibling Revelry,’ at the Modern Museum in New York. The Museum and Castle / Cartwright, Inc. will co-publish a catalogue of the exhibition, which will include a major essay by the noted critic, Jonathan Hirsch."

Arthur drained his beer in a continuous gulp. He thanked Mel for the conversation and rose, leaving his food untouched.

All those fucking rich, powerful assholes, Arthur thought on his way out. All that money and real estate -- fancy Manhattan condos, Hamptons houses, New Mexican acreage, Tuscan villas. All that publicity, party invitations, arm candy -- all that stuff that players in the art world who are lower down on the rungs of it envy. But they don’t really own any of their goddamned art. They’re just custodians, like the Indians believe they are with land. Stewards maybe, at best. Art just moves around among people like Mel Issacson in order to stay in out of the rain. Art abides. These people come and go. There’s no reason at all to envy them.

As he walked away from the restaurant, those thoughts turned into larger thoughts:

We humans have evolved with brains that are too big (physically: look at the trauma of human childbirth compared to that of other mammals), and can think too much. We don’t need to know what we know. We don’t need to have our heads throbbing with thoughts that don’t get us anywhere in terms of survival and living within nature. It would have been better for everybody on this planet had we evolved with smaller brains, remained a little stupider, and hadn’t asked The Big Questions, only to come up with such bellicose answers. We should have remained apes feeding on bamboo shoots. Unless, of course, the whole cosmic purpose of our civilization (such as it is), is to leave behind some quaint archaeological detritus -- that is, our art -- for the amusement of some hideously advanced species who’ll arrive after our demise to comb through the ruins because they, too, have evolved with oversized brains and have asked themselves The Big Questions, and -- when you get right down to it -- have fuck all else to do.

Momentarily soothed by his own self-serving philosophical syrup, Arthur turned to walk back toward Tenth Avenue and saw, in the distance, a woman, a man, and two children getting into a black limousine. The man was heavy, middle-aged, sported a dark goatee, and had his arm around the shoulders of the woman. The woman looked like Sharon Mannheim, and the two girls were about the right ages to be her daughters. Could it really be her? Arthur asked himself. And if it was, what was Sharon doing in this neighborhood, and who was the guy?

Sharon -- Arthur assumed it was she -- paused and looked directly at him. He could feel her eyes. Did she recognize Arthur? Did she hate him for her having to live down what he’d written about Tom? The two little girls clambered inside the car. Sharon stood still for a moment while the man, one arm around her and the other holding open the limousine’s rear door, said something. Then she, too, got into the big black automobile. It drove off and it disappeared.

Arthur stared back at the intersection, but not for long. If he hurried, there were still a few exhibitions he could catch before closing time.

The End.


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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