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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
21.
One of the things Arthur didn’t know except sketchily -- and which he should have known in fairly great detail, given that these people were his longtime colleagues -- was what the other writers in the E+ section went through to get their stories done. Perhaps it was conceit. Arthur was line-edited less -- considerably less -- than most of his fellow writers. In spite of his suspect field of esoteric expertise, the Mullahs knew him to turn in clean, comprehensible copy on time and to comport himself as the exact opposite of a prima donna. He always made the fixes he was asked to make, and without kvetching. Perhaps Candace (she was just so goddamned smart) or Ken (he knew the news magazine formula better than the people who first concocted it) were in his neighborhood, but probably not on his block. Arthur’s motto was "Kowtowing with pride."

But as to the anguish suffered while the writer struggled to produce -- where was he on that hierarchy? Candace, from what Arthur could see when she was in town, could quickly wrestle her sensitive-writers-versus-hack-editors prejudices to the mat, hunker down, and get the piece done. She would, however, do the job slowly, paragraph by rewritten paragraph. Sometimes it took her all night. Other than by loss of sleep (she’d be in the next morning at ten, no matter what), she didn’t seem to endure a lot of pain, unless it was the same kind of chagrin -- at not being able to cut that final ten or twenty words -- that an inveterate crossword-puzzle whiz felt when stumped by Number 4 Down.

Ted Maitland, the lead book guy, pretended the reason he spent so much time crafting his stories (with him, a dusk deadline always meant an all-nighter and a dawn submission) was because he was such a poetic perfectionist. It didn’t help, of course, that Ted regarded editors who requested any fixes more major than "better word?" or "I think we hyphenate ‘half-life’" as the equivalent of North Korean military censors. Ted subscribed to the pipe-smoking (he lighted one up, occasionally), suspender-wearing (his were bright red), cluttered-office (an intern always ran to lock his door when the fire marshals were in the building) school of writerly manners. Ted thought -- Arthur had heard from Marsha -- that any arts writer who turned in clean copy on time was a pointy-headed, starch-shirted, anal-retentive, left-brain bean counter who belonged in the Money & You section housed upstairs on the editors’ floor. Ted meant people like Arthur, but since Arthur was the art critic -- and couldn’t have been to Ted more in charge of mumbo-jumbo than if he were the Bermuda Triangle bureau chief -- Ted probably didn’t think he was thinking of Arthur.

Still, and irrationally, Arthur’s feelings were hurt, so he never gave Ted credit for genuine writer’s anguish. But during the week that Arthur was working on his piece on Tom Mannheim and the state of the art world, he heard a little hallway contretemps between Ted, and a surprisingly prissy, pouty Marsha. Ted had told Arthur over Dingo Diner coffee that he’d actually gotten fifty extra words for a book story by complaining to her. When she told him later she regretted going to bat for more space for him, he asked, "Why? All they had to do was to reduce the author’s headshot a little."

"Ted," Marsha had said, "you know they goddamned well never reduce pictures at this magazine. Any extra space you get comes out of somebody else’s story."

Kerri, Arthur had heard from Ken, sweated bullets and truly believed that every story -- until she saw it electronically marked "Sent to Satellite" -- was going to be rejected. Ken had told him that she unfailingly went to Marsha and pleaded for a two-week window on a story, so that she could have a draft down five days before deadline and do another complete revision per day until time ran out. Arthur didn’t buy it. He could never believe that Kerri could go so easily, quickly and frequently from the depths of authorial despair to her patented wiseass chirpiness without getting the bends in her psyche. As for Ken, he wrote like he talked: easily, simply and wisely, never seeking high ground from which to pontificate but genuinely observing from street level, with a real feel for the magazine’s average readers. Oddly, he elicited more negative, even profane, letters to the editor than anyone in the E+ department. Tonstant Weeda, it seemed, wanted to be talked down to by elitist experts. Otherwise, why subscribe to the goddamned magazine? Peer-to-peer pribble, readers seemed to think, you could get at your dinner table at home.

On Arthur’s most recent Performance Review form (he was the only one in the department who actually filled out the self-evaluation form; others left the sheet blank, as the union contract guaranteed one the right to do), Marsha repeated / copied verbatim what she’d said the previous year, in essence: You’re a great art writer, you da man for art, but you’ve got to be more "aggressive" about fighting for stories in the magazine; and you’ve got to produce more.

That pissed Arthur off because what he wrote about himself was "I take serious criticism in the popular press very seriously" and that he had made a concerted effort to do just the things that Marsha was reaming him out for. That was injustice No. 1.

Injustice No. 2 was that Marsha -- albeit with bumps and nudges from higher up -- chose the stories. As long as Arthur was constantly proposing stories -- and good ones, too -- it wasn’t his fault that, practically every week, movies and TV and movies and pop music and movies and movies devoured everything else. Of course, Arthur knew full well that the new journalistic Darwinism (a.k.a. "survival of the shittiest") had the all the section editors clawing at each other to get space. The section editors passed this law of the jungle down to their writers. Marsha therefore gave a damn only about what Arthur did for E+. Nowhere in her review of his performance had he gotten credit for the five stories, half of them almost folio-length, that he wrote for the Worldwide edition, or the short, Arthur-the-dutiful-employee items he did for the constantly hat-in-hand editors of the Spyglass (trends) and Major Player (gossip) sections.

In the call-and-response part of the performance review, Arthur told Marsha all of this, and concluded that her evaluation of him had been "a little harsh." In return, Marsha re-recited her standard exhortation to "aggressiveness," saying how she wanted Arthur to be more like Kerri or Ted, both of whom, she said, kept storming into her office to remind her how wrong she was about one or another of their story ideas that had been rejected. Arthur thought that sort of histrionics to be pointless -- unless one simply wanted to make Marsha feel she was at the very center of the hotbed of the arts. Anyway, the art world had no equivalent for readers to a dark-horse CD turning out to be a smash hit, or a "little" movie grossing a couple hundred mil.  But Arthur said nothing in surrebuttal. Marsha concluded by pointing out all the praise she had lavished upon Arthur in her evaluation. At this point, Arthur let the whole matter drop.

Arthur didn’t usually indulge in hallway grousing at the magazine. It was useless, a bit cowardly, and, he’d learned way back in graduate school, dangerous. This time, however, he broached the subject of performance-evaluation justice with Ted, a connoisseur of complaint. To Arthur’s surprise, Ted turned out to have fared a little worse than Arthur: hardly a snippet of praise, and no raise above the miniscule percentage negotiated staff-wide by the union. Chagrined, he backed out of Ted’s office blowing smoke to the effect that they were fellow victims. Further down the hall, Ken told Arthur that he always got the same review -- practically word for word -- from Marsha. Though it was highly laudatory, Ken said Marsha meant none of it. The little dashes of criticism, he said, were inserted just so her superiors would be convinced that she could dish out a little tough with her love.

*     *     *
With his piece on Tom Mannheim out, Arthur thought better of sitting around the office, waiting for whatever reaction to come in. He certainly didn’t want to call Helen and ask her what she thought. Instead, he went to some galleries in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The Poles, Italians and Hasidim there had reluctantly ceded parts of their old-world neighborhood to the first waves of gentrification -- artists’ lofts, then oddball cafés and thrift stores, then scruffy galleries proud of the even scruffier art they showed -- and were bracing for the subsequent influx of nightclubs, pricier restaurants and "luxury" apartments. Several of the galleries had gotten as elegant -- if still smaller -- than those in Chelsea, where some of them had even opened branches. A few pie-eyed optimists and Brooklyn-besotted dreamers even thought that Williamsburg would replace Chelsea as the gallery neighborhood, just as Chelsea had superannuated SoHo and SoHo had nearly obsolesced 57th Street.

Not a chance, Arthur thought. But Williamsburg was nevertheless something that had to be reckoned with. If he didn’t traipse over there once in a while, Arthur knew, he wasn’t doing his job.

Arthur got off at the Marcy Street Stop on the J train, and walked onto a movie-set-like panorama of no-nonsense Orthodox Jews, large Hispanic families out shopping, little kids of all colors serpentining in and out of stores, teenagers raucously on their ways home from school (were half-day sessions the norm?), and a few conspicuously dressed artists. Paint-spattered jeans: the commonest giveaway. He headed north, into the gallery area. As he walked further from the train stop, the buildings got lower, the people turned whiter, and the coffee parlors offered gourmet foam more often.

Arthur quickly realized he needn’t have worried about the infrequency of his outings to Williamsburg causing him to miss out on vital esthetic developments. On this trip, he saw almost nothing but twee slacker paintings (lazy snippets of cartoon characters floating in a diluted chowder of badly lettered gag punchlines), abject installations (a dumpster hauled indoors and tarted up with flat-screen monitors glowing with enigmatic "text" and filled with five hundred rubber duckies), underproduced and technically just-inept-enough-to-be-funky plastic sculpture based on Japanese animé, big deadpan photographs push-pinned to the walls accompanied by such press-release excuses for torpid familiarity as "balances itself between the worlds of commercial and fine art photography," and such various flotsam and jetsam as oxidized newspaper clippings and old snapshots flung -- as artist’s autobiography -- upon the walls, in dimestore frames.

One gallery, however, had transported undiminished the scale and slickness of blue-chip Chelsea to off-off-off-Broadway Williamsburg. The gallery occupied an entire one-story building which had been gutted and re-trussed by a young architect earning his posh-client spurs by contriving breathtakingly antiseptic art-emporium interiors. This one had the de rigueur high metal doors, lots of frosted glass, and various clever crenulations on the mandatory theme of the austere white box. As with Chelsea’s finest, the shop was staffed by a squad of nice-looking young women in scoop-necked black dresses, the lowest neckline arcs gracing the ones who sat behind the reception counter, their cleavage available to any pair of male eyes, but most likely intended for those set in the skulls of moneyed potential buyers. The whole effect of rarified sex was pretty much ruined, though, by the smell of a pastrami sandwich being devoured by the much more corpulent, colorfully gowned owner-director in her office, which was not nearly far-removed enough from the counter. As she chewed, she said to a male assistant, "Now the worst side effect of the surgery was. . ."

The overhead quartz lights were turned off, and the gallery was coolly grey. Temporary walls created another chamber within the exhibition space. As with the movie theaters of Arthur’s childhood, one pulled aside a heavy curtain to enter. But instead of thick, comforting red velvet, this one was thinner, more like an industrial tarp made from a fireproof synthetic. It was also, of course, black. Inside, the chamber was empty, save for an armless, sharp-edge bench -- white, as far as Arthur could tell in the ganzfeld-ish semi-dark.

Not wanting to plant himself conspicuously on the bench (conspicuousness, in Arthur’s opinion, was an occupational hazard), he leaned against the back wall, a few feet to the right of the entrance. On the front wall, on the other side of the bench, was an illuminated lighter grey rectangle projected upon it from an overhead machine. A half-minute after Arthur entered, the projection changed to a big blue rectangle with the white word play in the upper-right-hand corner. As it changed again, to a prairie landscape streaming from a DVD, a young couple -- art students, a hunch informed Arthur -- entered the room with Arthur and headed right for the bench. They sat, noticeably upright, facing the projection on the wall. A few seconds later, one more person, a tall skinny guy with a backpack that appeared to weigh as much as he did, came in and leaned against the wall on the other side of the entrance. At first, the only sound accompanying the image of the prairie landscape was the aerated hum of the projector’s fan.

The tiny audience (it never grew any larger than Arthur and the three others) soon found itself staring at a bad short film. Ah, but it was deliberately bad, wearing cinematic crudity, deadly earnestness and low-ball production values on its sleeve as an armband of  noble and progressive social purpose. The film -- made by an artist born in the Middle East in the mid-1970s, collegiately educated in England and recipient of an MFA degree from a hip art school in California -- concerned two social groups from the American Midwest. One group was fat, white, silver-haired, solidly middle-class and -- the filmmaker told us with her framing, recording and editing, as if it were a news flash from the anthropology desk -- obesely self-satisfied. Arthur and his three fellow viewers watched this contingent having breakfast at a franchise pancake house.

The other group was composed of darker-skinned Hispanic men, hanging around outdoors in cold weather, waiting for day-labor contractors to arrive in pickup trucks and give them work. The men smoked, drank coffee, drank beer, and talked. When the artily lo-fi soundtrack occasionally rendered their conversation intelligible, they turned out to be speaking in a fifty-fifty mix of English and Spanish about how crummy life was. Life was crummy for them, the film all but spelled out in a subtitle crawl, because the white people in the restaurant brutally ripped their sausage-and-omelet self-satisfaction from the very purses, hearts and souls of these impoverished brown day laborers.

The four onlookers remained in the chamber for different lengths of time. The couple lasted maybe five minutes before they picked up their shoulder bags and exited, already talking at street volume as they pushed the black curtain aside. The backpack carrier moved to the vacated bench and stayed another ten minutes before leaving quietly, even -- if Arthur interpreted his body language in this Seurat-drawing environment correctly -- apologetically. Arthur managed to make it all the way to the credits. His steadfastness owed not to his liking the film (actually, he rather disliked it, in the same way he disliked seventh-grade civics class homework assignments about "Democracy in Action"), or because he was so terribly respectful of artists as an occupational class that he’d see any "time-based" work he happened to encounter through to the end. Rather, Arthur considered himself a professional art critic still in possession of a few stubborn remnants of journalistic ethics. Plus, he’d always been a compulsive finisher.

Look, he finally told himself, don’t be so goddamned hard on this stuff. A trip though the galleries in any major city, American or European would probably have availed him of exactly the same hysterically eclectic goods. And who could blame the artists for supplying them? The most written-about works of art were spatially voracious installations in the pavilions -- officially sanctioned or rebelliously off-premises -- at the big international biennials or triennials in Venice, Prague, Lyon, Istanbul, Johannesburg or wherever. The artists who created them constituted a class of traveling performers much like rock ‘n’ roll bands. The soloists in the official national pavilions were the stage-smoke-and-searchlight bands who played outdoor stadia. Putatively edgier soloists in certified but non-governmental venues were the indoor arena concerts.

Arthur sighed to himself and mentally pursued his metaphor to the breaking point: Allegedly "transgressive" one-person exhibitions in cooperating churches or housing projects (one he remembered in particular featured a naked Ukrainian emulating an angry, caged panther and snarling at viewers) were the East Village club bands who never got to take the beer-splattered stage before 2 a.m. After the equivalent of a few quiet guys in flannel shirts on plain wooden stools doing acoustic solos (a.k.a. tiny shows in commercial galleries near the biennale venues), you got battles o’ the bands: big group shows in Venice’s Arsenale or Documenta’s Frederichsanium. Behind all of it -- from stadium show to Arsenale idol, was, one suspected, a vertically integrated corporate entertainment conglomerate that wanted both bigger box office for a few tried and true acts everyone in the art world knew, and a continuing stream of fresh talent that managed simultaneously to serve up formula fare while appearing to be breaking some rules.

The difference between postmodernist irony and old-fashioned modernist sincerity was, Arthur suddenly realized, precisely this: postmodernism rested on the unsaid but pervasive assumption that we -- now, today -- were so glibly superior to previous art that our artists’ snide little "takes" on it were worth as much if not more than, artistically and intellectually, the earlier art itself. Poor old modernism had done the earnest best it could with what it had and let the chips fall where they might. Sure, modern art had thundered with bluster when it announced it was about to knock traditional art off its pedestal, but the bluster was sincere, too. That’s why all those embarrassingly heartfelt manifestos from the first half the 20th century could make Arthur weep. By comparison, postmodernism’s self-proclaimed superiority was merely jejune "attitude" writ self-congratulatingly large.

At home after his Brooklyn tour, Arthur dejectedly wrote in his notebook:

"There are only two things that really count in human existence. One is medicine: putting the ol’ bod up on the rack and doing the lube and the points and the plugs and the brakes and, if need be, maybe a top-end job or a transmission overhaul. Keep the fucker running, at least. The second is mathematics, or physics: discovering what, at bottom, makes the universe run, and how. The rest -- everything from theology through comparative literature to the history of dance, and art -- is bullshit. Bullshit of great variance in quality, difficulty, and reward, to be sure, but bullshit nevertheless. So, encourage the doctors and the physicists, and leave everyone else to run along and play as best they can. Three squares, a roof, and forget about ‘happiness.’ Certainly, forget about ‘the meaning of life.’ Leave it for the Martians to figure out when they sift through our ashes."

*     *     *
The next morning, there was another note on Arthur’s office chair. Oh shit, he thought, not another truancy demerit! Up close, he could see it said: Arthur, Come see me in my office right away. --Marsha. Oh shit big time! he thought. Then he realized that if Marsha intended to put his balls in a vise, she’d have said "immediately" instead of "right away." On such minute parsings did the integrity of Arthur’s stomach lining depend.

He stood in Marsha’s open door and cleared his throat. Once more declining to look up from her monitor, Marsha said, "There’s a rumor going around that the magazine is being sold to your. . . well, friend’s. . . father. Mel Issacson. I asked upstairs about it and got a bunch of smoke and evasion from every Mullah I talked to. Karl’s secretary said he wasn’t in, but I could practically smell him cowering behind his door. I think the goddamned rumor is true. What do you think, Arthur?"


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.