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by Peter Plagens
The book-launch party was one of those semi-obligatory gatherings that Arthur might pencil into his Week-at-a-Glance, might even RSVP to in the affirmative by phone, and then spend days agonizing about whether he really had to attend. The book being honored and clucked over was a volume of collected reviews by Jonathan Hirsch, who toiled for a major financial newspaper well known, oddly, for the excellence of its culture pages. Hirsch was moderately famous within the art world for his penchant for pompous self-reference ("As I wrote in my 1997 review of. . . "). But that aspect of the reviews -- including the fact that most readers could never find any indication of intellectual heavyweightness in them ("Andy Warhol was a perfect mirror of the society in which he lived" -- Duh!) -- seemed a small and very forgivable flaw when measured against the unrelenting mudslide of unreadable crap passing for art criticism in such trade magazines as Art Discourse, Art Intervention, Art Unpacked and Art Scene Now! Nevertheless, the assembled contents of the book had been praised, in each successive pre-publication review, for their intelligibility, good-naturedness, frequent humor and, in a publication in which one would hardly expect it, a fair amount of generosity extended toward the most recent wacko configurations of contemporary art. Arthur ended up going, but more to show the magazine’s flag in the art world (where few people gave a shit) than to let people know later at the magazine (where nobody gave a shit) that he had. Arthur also wanted to demonstrate, mostly to himself, that he who had yet to write a book was not an envious person.

The allegedly "low-key" wine-and-cheesefest was held in one of those gushed-over cavernous "prewar" apartments (pre-World War Two, that is, not pre- any of the many wars since) whose tiled lobby smelled continuously of bleach and whose elevator made a dumbwaiter seem spacious. But the apartment itself was as crowded as a downtown A Train at eight a.m. The residence’s owner published the book, or rather, he labored for the publishing company -- like most publishing companies, the subsidiary of a subsidiary of a giant media conglomerate -- under the job title of "publisher." His name was Ben Greenleaf and he, of course, was conspicuously present at the party -- smiling, shaking hands, air-kissing female cheeks, and dispensing networking hugs. Since Ben was also conspicuously short, most of his embraces resulted in his head being pressed against the recipient’s chest, like a little kid happy to see Grandpa.

Also present was Ben’s assistant, Helen Issacson. Men as disparate as elderly Wall Street emeriti and sallow-cheeked, once-famous Earthwork artists with limp, stringy ponytails were momentarily disoriented by Helen’s rich, brown-black hair held in place behind her delicate, porcelain-like ears by two simple tortoise-shell berets. A glimpse of her graceful neck returned them to memories of the dizzying sexual swoons they’d experienced in their youth. Cold-blooded art dealers, effusive curators and dart-eyed auctioneers found themselves gazing raptly at her slightly pursed, rosy-but-unlipsticked mouth. Even the proudly gay men in the crowd who made glance-contact with her impossibly large, moist eyes froze for a second and bumped into somebody adjacent, slopping a bit of bubble water or -- horrors! -- red wine over the edges of their glasses. Most of the heterosexual women at the party and a few of the lesbians hated her on first sight. The rest just fervently hoped that she wasn’t anybody important.

Ben Greenleaf’s guests were a carefully calculated mix of art world denizens: the richest of Chelsea "gallerists," sullenly scruffy "emerging artists," from Italian-tailored museum executives, inferiority-complex’d "independent curators" hoping to land major exhibition "projects," a few university art history professors trying to dust off their mothballed hipness, and a recognizably bigshot artist or two. Also on hand were a few wanderers-in from the provinces of literature. The list of invitees had been thoughtfully and optimistically selected; those who actually chose to attend represented to Ben a depressing dip from the hoped-for premium power turnout. Nowhere to be seen, for instance, was the director of the Modern Museum, or the Pop artist whose recent eightieth birthday had been cause for more commemorations than D-Day’s sixtieth, or the Falstaffian critic for the larger rival to Arthur’s magazine, a native New Zealander who also contributed regularly to as many glossy fashion magazines (four) as he had ex-wives. But Ben, as always, put on a brave face and did the best he could with what he had. He serpentined through the crowd, pressing whatever flesh he found at the end of an arm. Through a permanent wide, Cheshire Cat smile, he made short, superficial and cheerful remarks about gratifyingly high prices at the recent auctions and the buoyant market they were bound to cause, the recent "Catalcysm & Cuteness: The Paradox of Late Postmodernism" exhibition at the Modern Museum, and, of course, Jonathan Hirsch’s Seeing Is Conceiving, fresh off the press from the Linden Creek imprint at Castle/Cartwright, Inc., "publishers of quality books for quality readers."

"Arthur! Great to see you!" Ben Greenleaf said.

"Nice to be here," Arthur answered. "Great place. Nice crowd. I presume Jonathan’s around. I have with me an actual store-bought copy of his book. I’d like to get him to sign it if he’s doing that sort of thing."

Ben slapped Arthur on the shoulder with the blow of a coach whose third-string tailback had surprisingly scored a touchdown. "Hell, Arthur, you should have two complimentary copies already at your office. One from us, and I know you’re on Jonathan’s personal comp list. The one from Jonny is probably already signed. He respects the hell out of what you write, you know."

What Arthur knew was that Jonathan had tried to get his job a while back. Nothing outrightly treacherous -- Jonathan had just noticed that Arthur’s reviews hadn’t appeared for a couple of months and had made a few phone inquiries. The last one, perhaps a bit over the line, was to the newsweekly’s managing editor reminding him that he, Jonathan Hirsch, stood ready to fill in on the obligatory blockbuster shows if Arthur, for whatever reason, wasn’t going to be back at his desk for a while.

The reason Arthur wasn’t at his desk was that he’d gotten a Perkins Fellowship -- three months in residence at the journalism school at a university known unto itself -- and itself only -- as "The Harvard of the Midwest." Arthur had left abruptly, however, when he found out that they’d surreptitiously signed him up to teach an undergraduate class in feature writing every Tuesday and Thursday morning, and had sprung this "practicum" part of the fellowship on him only after he’d hurriedly put his toiletries on the motel shelf and joined the J-school dean for dinner. Arthur held his tongue through the blackened redfish and de-caf cappuccino, but blew a gasket on the ride home in the dean’s spotless Audi. In the hasty settlement, arrived at the next morning in the dean’s newly carpeted office, Arthur was allowed to back out, and to pocket the first month’s stipend as recompense for airfare and inconvenience. The university dragooned the arts-with-an-S writer from a nearby, mid-sized daily to put his finger in the classroom dike. Arthur reclaimed his toothpaste, flew immediately back to New York, and negotiated a "personal leave" at half salary for the remainder of the nominal Perkins period. He meant to stay entirely away from art exhibitions and to work on his treadwater novel. Instead, he went to too many art exhibitions during the day and watched DVDs of black-and-white noir movies on his laptop at night.

"I always like to buy a copy of a book when a colleague writes one, just to boost him up a notch or two on Amazon,"Arthur said. "Maybe the karma will make Jonathan buy one of mine -- if I ever get around to writing one."

Ben’s eyes narrowed, and Arthur thought, Shit. Why can’t I get through one of these meet ‘n’greet sessions without emitting some subconscious signal of "I’ve got more important items on my agenda than whatever puffed-up bullshit this party is about"? Attempting damage control, he said, "I really admire someone whose stuff is consistent enough to be anthologizeable." But he might as well have said, "Jonathan writes the same goddamned on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand review over and over again, no matter what exhibition he’s covering." Arthur stared out silently from the hole he’d dug for himself.

After a two-beat pause, Ben said, "Well, this is really just a party for Jonathan, so we’re not doing a signing table, or any of that. When you catch him, though, I’m sure he’ll be happy to put his John Hancock on the title page." Then Ben walked away, grin switched on again, to accost someone else.

While Arthur tried to think of where to go in these impossibly packed chambers to avoid looking like a wallflower, he felt a tap on the same shoulder Ben had slapped and turned around. Standing before him was a stocky, thickly maned man a tick under Arthur’s own height of six feet even. He wore jeans, a plaid flannel shirt, a forest green corduroy sports jacket and sneakers that looked like the Space Shuttle. He had a slightly Slavic, chiseled but friendly face. Arthur sized him up, instantly and accurately, as an artist, probably a sculptor, most likely an abstract one. No cacophonic video installations for this down-to-earth guy.

Next to the artist was a woman: shorter, broad-faced, apple-cheeked, with astoundingly shiny black hair and, as Arthur noticed, ample and attractive breasts. Her dress -- satiny, clingy, bright orange -- declared that its wearer was well aware of her calling cards.

"Tom Mannheim," the artist said. "We met for a second at that huge opening for the "Cataclysm & Cuteness" show at the Modern Museum. Man, what a zoo! You once told me you liked a piece of mine you’d seen in the back room at David Thornton. I’m a sculptor. Oh, sorry, and this is my wife, Sharon." Tom stepped to the side so Sharon could squeeze in between them.

"Pleased," said Arthur, with a winky smile. He dipped his head and raised the hand gripping Hirsch’s book in greeting. "I’m Arthur. . . ."

"I know who you are," said Sharon. "We subscribe, so I read your articles pretty regularly. Most of them I like."

Wow, thought Arthur, some sass to go with that splendid rack, great orange dress, dominatrix hair, and flame red lipstick. Ol’ Tommy here must be a mighty happy man.

"Well, I try," Arthur said. To see how deep and clever Sharon’s spunkiness ran, he added, "So how do I stack up against the estimable Jonathan Hirsch?"

"Truth be told," Sharon said, taking a sip from her plastic-but-stemmed-anyway cup filled with red wine (Arthur thought: And she knows how to find the goddamned bar right away!), "Mr. Hirsch did a slightly better job on the ‘Cataclycsm’ show than you did." She sipped again and added, almost flirtatiously, "But only slightly better. It was pretty much of a mess of an art exhibition -- we’re all agreed on that, I assume -- and he was a little harder on it than you were. He came out and said so right at the beginning of his piece, and he slammed the show all way through. You waited until the last paragraph."

"Do you subscribe to the Financial Journal, too?" Arthur said while he tried to figure out how to defend himself.

Sharon said, "We get it at the office, and I usually read it on the days they have the ‘Arts and Letters’ section."

Arthur regrouped. "I’d say that the reason I left the hammer until the end was that I thought it’d have more impact," he said. "You know, let the evidence speak for itself before announcing the verdict. But you do have a point. Well, part of a point. Hirsch has a different demographic than I do. He’s talking to readers who live mostly in big cities in the blue states who have a college degree or two, and, most important, have the time and money to care what the fuck -- sorry, pardon my French -- the Modern Museum means by ‘Late Postmodernism.’ Me, on the other hand, I’m talking to Mr. and Ms. Minivan in Dubuque, with two-point-two kids and a household income of fifty-two-three. Now, I respect them and their intellectual curiosity -- they must have something going or they wouldn’t be readers -- but I do have to start from the beginning. By which I mean that I have to describe for them what’s in the show, put into words what I think -- half the time, guess! -- the artists are trying to say, and sadly still these days, even explain what the hell postmodernism is all about. Then, and only then can I kick a pretentious show in the ass."

"Ah, but you’re too nice a man, I can tell," Sharon said, "to really kick some poor show in the ass."

Arthur tried to calculate quickly. The way she said "ass": She’s flirting? She’s paying me a compliment, just like it sounds? She really thinks the Modern Museum’s shows, with all that money and flackery behind them, are "helpless"? Or she thinks that I wimped out in my last paragraph as well, that there was no hammer? Or she. . . ? His figuring was interrupted by Tom.

"I thought you laid it on the line pretty well," Tom said. "All this goofy, fake-teenage cartoony stuff is about as bad as it gets. Besides, the Japanese do it so much better in that anime stuff." Tom folded his corduroy’d arms across his proud chest.

Oh God, I’m so slow on the uptake, thought Arthur. Gambit fucking number 17A: The good-looking wife provides the opening and softens up the target with a little friendly criticism, followed by a mini-flirt. Then the artist-hubby -- Jesus, do sculptors still dress like circa-1976 teaching assistants? -- sidles in with the ass-kiss. I’m supposed to think, "Here’s a real artist, a mensch with deep convictions, unbuffeted by the whims of fashion." Then I’m supposed to suggest that I pay him a studio visit. And I’ll love the work, etc., etc. The wife is certainly easy on the eyes, all right, but I’m too much of a coward for adultery in marriages where the husband uses power tools. Anyway, I grievously doubt that she has screwing me even remotely in mind. Time to exit.

"Thanks for the compliment," Arthur said. But I’ve got to lasso Jonathan before his adorers carry him off on their shoulders. I want him to autograph my copy of his book. Sentimental critics -- sisters under the skin, and all that. Well, very nice to meet you, Sharon. And Tom, I’ll be sure to take a look at some more of your work the next time I pop into Thornton. Do you have a show coming up anytime soon?"

"Not really," said Tom, floundering, suddenly red-faced. "But. . . ."

Arthur pretended not to notice. "Let me know when you do. I read every exhibition announcement I get at the magazine. But right now, I’ve got to find Jonathan. Ciao." Arthur spun on the ball of his right foot and sunk into the vertical rippling curtain of black-clad backs. A bit abrupt, Arthur thought, but poor Tom will probably get his ashes properly hauled tonight by sassy wifey while powerful me will be home alone again, beating my head against the wall of my neglected little novel.

Arthur found Jonathan Hirsch. Jonathan was backed into a the bookshelved corner of the living room by the pressure of the crowd in general, and a couple of aged collectors in particular. "What I don’t understand," one of them was saying, "is the reluctance of our critics -- even you, Jon -- to really get in there and support the work of this new generation of very, very interesting young artists. Why are we always reading complaints that there are no new ‘major’ artists on the scene? For Christ’s sake, Jon, you critics are supposed to discover them! Isn’t that how Clement Greenberg got his reputation -- by discovering Jackson Pollock and going out on a limb to support him when Pollock was still an unknown?"

Arthur looked over the stooped shoulder of the collector and smiled exaggeratedly at Hirsch -- Yo, I’m here! He raised his copy of Seeing Is Conceiving, and tapped the cover twice with his index finger as a signal that he wanted the author to autograph it. Arthur inched closer, until his shirt buttons actually touched the back of the hectoring collector’s fine pin-striped suit. He also wanted to hear Jonathan’s answer to the collector’s query, which really meant, "Why the fuck aren’t you writing stuff in that Wall Street newspaper that all my fellow plutocrats read? Why aren’t you doing your bit to pump up the eventual auction prices of all those young, tattoo’d Goth slacker painters I’ve been buying wholesale at bargain prices?"

Jonathan Hirsch looked like a bright young English professor at a second-tier college, confident of his inevitable rise to an endowed professorship at a major research university on the Eastern seaboard. He forwent the designer-grim-reaper costume of the brotherhood of Milano-ized art sophisticates, and instead indulged in a tweed sport jacket, blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt, and small-pattern paisley tie. Jonathan departed from retro-Ivy couture only in his octagonal eyeglasses with black metal frames of the sort European architects wore. His eyes were noticeably far apart. Jonathan’s curly brown hair topped a triangular face with a conspicuously broad forehead and small chin. Jonathan was only an inch taller than Ben Greenleaf, who also had very tiny feet.

"Well," Jonathan began to the collector "you have to understand that I write for a general audience and that I cover the whole waterfront, to cite an old saying. The people who write for Art Discourse, for example, are much more attuned to the emerging artists’ scene. They’re the critics who can better make fine distinctions among the younger painters and sculptors. Not to mention video artists and installation artists that the current scene. . . ."

Arthur thought: Jonathan is either brilliantly evasive or as priggish as I sometimes think he is. That crude ol’ rich bastard, though, isn’t going to have any of it. He’s one of those self-made farts who grew up poor on the Lower East Side, still chews with his mouth open and -- though without particular malice -- doesn’t give a damn that Jonathan is the guest of honor at this shindig. He’s got an investment problem and he’s standing in front of a young guy who’s not nearly as tough as he is, and who might be able to help put in the fix, so to speak. He wants service, now.

"Nobody who actually buys art reads that art magazine crap," the collector said. "It’s one of the great myths of the art business. Sure, we collectors try to catch good young artists on the rise, while we can still afford them. [Arthur thought: No one pleads poverty like a billionaire.] But we don’t place our bets according to what those fagelas at the art magazines say. [Talk about not giving a damn -- Jonathan is gay.] We need straight-talking guys like you, writers people can understand, professional writers who write for real publications our friends pay attention to. We need you to bring deserving young artists into the public spotlight. Damnit, Hirsch, you’ve got a responsibility, to use that pulpit of yours at the Journal to do some good. Rembrandt will always be there and the Metropolitan Museum will always be filled with tourists no matter what you write about their Old Master exhibitions. But ten, twenty years from now, when we look back on the real art of the early 21st century, it’ll be writers like you, Hirsch [What happened to "Jon"?], who separated the legitimate goods from the fads and knockoffs. That is, we hope it will be you. Don’t screw it up."

The collector took a pull on his drink, then continued. "Of course I don’t mean that everything new is good. A lot of dreck slips through. I mean, look at that -- waddayacallit -- ‘transgender’ video artist who got into that show at the Modern Museum. Movies of his own goddamned schmeckel under the knife! Getting an artificial cunt! I mean, what kind of bullshit is that? But there it was, on the goddamned cover of one of those goddamned art magazines!"

The collector was practically screaming now. His executive friends had backed away a step, ready to state with posture and position that they had no idea who the hell he was. Jonathan had no retreat; his diminutive little body was pressed against the books on the shelves. Last year’s National Book Award winner for fiction dug through tweed, into Jonathan’s spine.

"Well, that cover, you know, was just a detail of a film still that did form -- at least for me -- an intriguing kind of semi-abstract image," Jonathan countered weakly. Arthur decided to do his colleague a favor, and shouldered past the collector, holding the book out toward Jonathan.

"Hey, I don’t mean to butt in," Arthur said to everyone in the embarrassed little semicircle, "but I’m on deadline tonight and I want to get my copy of this fine, fine book signed by its illustrious author. Jonathan, would you do me the honor? Here, I have a pen."

When no cash was on the table, when a deal was not immediately at stake, the complaining collector was as insensitive to his own feelings being hurt as he was to anybody else being insulted. He dutifully stepped aside and slurped his drink.

Jonathan Hirsch took the book and stepped close to Arthur, who held it open it open for him to sign. "Title page O.K.?" he said brightly and loudly. Then he added in a near whisper, "Thanks. I know you’re not a big fan. I would have thought you’d enjoy seeing me being persecuted by that. . . ."

"Jonathan, we disagree about a lot of things," Arthur said quietly. "The war-mongering politics of your publication’s op-ed page, for instance." Arthur patted Jonathan’s back. "But you write serious stuff about serious things. You don’t have a clique to promote or an axe to grind. And you play pretty fair with everybody, even if you don’t really understand any art made after 1950. Bottom line, Jon, you’re one of the good guys. And him?" Arthur nodded quickly toward the collector. "He’s one of the bad guys, a real turd, even if he eventually gives everything he owns to the Modern Museum."

Jonathan laughed. His signature sported an enormous "J" and an "H" the size of goalposts, each followed by the remainder of the name in the tiniest handwriting. Arthur thought: The big upper-case letters indicate that he’s totally full of himself, but the shrunken remainder means he’s haunted by the suspicion that he’s a fraud. Well, Jon, welcome to the club. "To a real -- and I mean real -- friend. Yours in common labor, Jonathan Hirsch," the signature read. Jonathan blew on it.

"Are you really on deadline?" he asked Arthur.

"No," said Arthur. "It was the best excuse I could come up with. I’m not nearly as fast on my feet as I am at the keyboard."

While the collector said to one of his erstwhile friends, "Oh, for Christ’s sake Fred, I wasn’t being hard on him at all," Arthur employed the ball of his pivot foot again. He was interrupted in mid-turn by Helen Issacson. She held no drink. That was the only detail of anything except her face that Arthur would remember later, when he tried -- unsuccessfully, for a long, long time -- to go to sleep.

"Hello," she said. "I see you had Jonathan sign your copy. And I’ll wager it’s not the review copy we sent you, but one you bought at a bookstore out of professional loyalty. I’m Helen Issacson. I work for the publisher. I’m Ben Greenleaf’s assistant."

"Pleased to meet you. I’m Arthur. . . ."

"I know who you are. I personally addressed the mailing label for your review copy with my own tiny little hand. We don’t send out that many comps, you know. Four hundred and thirty pages, plus two folios of color reproductions -- not exactly inexpensive to manufacture. So the comps go only where they’ll do the most good." Helen batted her eyes facetiously and added, "Hint, hint."

"Jonathan and I are friends, of a sort," Arthur said. ‘So for me to review the book is a conflict-of-interest as far as the magazine’s concerned. And -- permission to speak frankly, ma’am -- the book isn’t the kind of thing we usually review anyway. Too ‘inside baseball,’ they say in our corridors. But I’ll try to get it mentioned in "The Necessaries" column. One of the book guys has to be willing to read it, or ‘read in it,’ as they say. It’s a longshot. That’s the best I can do."

"Castle/Cartwright can ask for no more."

There was a pause, and Arthur found himself suddenly frantic. This fantastic creature had done her professional duty quickly and charmingly, and would soon fly away to her next lucky target. Was there anything he could do to prolong the encounter? Just as suddenly, his memory bank kicked in.

"I think I might know who you are, too," he said. "Kind of. Are you related to Mel Issacson?"

Helen batted her eyes exaggeratedly once more and said, "She was only the mega-collector’s daughter, but all the art men knew her. Sorry, bad old pun."

"My apology," Arthur said. "Is this a touchy subject? I only meant to. . . ."

"No," Helen said, "it’s not a touchy subject at all. Melvin Julius Issacson is a fine father and a lovely man. And I get along perfectly well with my stepmothers -- both of them."

"Art," Arthur said. "Did he instill in you a love of art?"

"I admit I don’t love art the way he does," said Helen. "But I don’t hate it, either. I do know something about the contemporary variety -- mostly by osmosis -- because I was raised around it. From the time I was a little girl until I left for college, I slept in a bedroom with a Hans Hofmann over my bed and a David Hockney on the wall at the foot of it."

"What a privilege," said Arthur, who then kicked himself in an interior shin for screwing up socially again: ‘privilege’ to a beautiful rich girl? Would he ever learn?

"Not necessarily," said Helen. "I wanted a pastel landscape of a meadow, maybe a horse in it, instead of Hoffman’s buttery blocks of color. But my father would always say, ‘Big strong art for a big, strong girl.’ And the Hockney never struck me as being the product of any special talent. I know people say he’s a great draftsman, but the picture always seemed to me like a glorified version of the drawings my classmates did in their notebooks, only on better paper."

Arthur decided to take a chance. "You aren’t a closet philistine, are you?"

"Perhaps I am," Helen said cheerfully. "Only my psychiatrist would know for sure, and we haven’t gotten to that topic yet."

Arthur had to decide quickly: pursue the delicious hint of sex -- why else would a woman that beautiful be in therapy? -- or try to back and fill a bit on the art front? "I was being facetious, but not very gracefully, I’m afraid," he said. "Obviously, you have a very well-balanced attitude toward the very thing that Jonathan and I are neurotically obsessed with. I would love to have learned about art from having a couple of real paintings in my bedroom as I was growing up, and not from slides in art history lectures. And I would love to be able to pull back and, like you, enjoy a reasonable distancing from it."

"I’ll take that as a compliment," said Helen.

"It was meant as one," Arthur answered quickly, and then leapt over the curb-puddle of a pause to add: "So this little gathering is just a part of the publishing business for you, and you’re not here because Jonathan’s book has to do with art." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, however, Arthur shouted "Fuck!" inside his head. Why don’t I just say, "Gee, I thought you might have drawn this duty because your dad’s a bigtime collector and Ben thought you’d be great bait for the art crowd"?

If Helen took that as his meaning, she gave no indication. Instead, she responded smoothly, "I’m merely another ambitious girl trying to work her way up in the glamorous world of book publishing. If there’s a reception and Ben has to be at it, I’m there, too."

"There’s no way," Arthur said with a broad, forced grin, sweeping the apartment with his eyes as with a laser pointer, "Ben wouldn’t be at this one, is there?"

Helen laughed. "I suppose he might have tossed me the keys and told me where the wine is stored." Then she changed the subject. "Do you get to know many artists personally? And do you like them? In general, I mean."

"No, not many. But yes, in general," Arthur answered.

"Explain," said Helen.

Arthur furrowed his brow. A tad theatrical, he suspected, but he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to cut himself out from, if not exactly a herd of other critics, at least the minion of them of whom he was aware. "A friend of mine in graduate school," Arthur said, "once declared flatly, ‘There are no Great American Novels in bureau drawers.’ He meant, of course, that any artist worth consideration somehow manages to get his -- or her -- stuff published, somewhere. I rather subscribe to that notion myself. Which means that I try to deal with what I call ‘published’ art -- art that’s been deliberately put out in public for strangers to look at. Which also means that I try to stay away from ‘unpublished art’ -- that is, art that’s still in an artist’s studio. Not that it’s bad, or inferior to the goods in galleries, but just that it hasn’t been quite cut loose yet. Who knows what the hell the artist has yet to do to finish it? So I don’t do what they call ‘studio visits,’ which means I don’t get to know a whole lot of artists personally. Or if you prefer, I don’t want to know artists personally so I don’t do studio visits."

"What about artists whose work doesn’t fit in with what’s fashionable in the galleries, but who would like to make their work public?" Helen inquired with a lilting earnestness.

O.K., Arthur thought, show her your stern side, your ability to make tough decisions. "I accept the gallery system to a great extent," he said. "Its Darwinism is entirely tolerable to me. Besides, there are so many ‘alternative spaces’ and artists’ collaboratives and college museums et cetera, et cetera, that you’d have to be a real Bartleby not to be able to get something shown publicly."

"But important critics like you probably won’t see it," said Helen, still earnest, but with the lilt noticeably absent.

Arthur maintained his game face, and said, "Look, I’m not a caseworker from the New York Department of Artists’ Welfare. It’s not my job to see that deserving but neglected talents get a shot at the spotlight -- or, in these cases, the track lights. My job, on the rare occasion the magazine for whom I work is interested in something on art by an artist our readers haven’t already heard of -- which means anybody south of Andy Warhol -- is to say whether I think it’s any good or not, and why." Feeling himself marooned in aloofness, Arthur added, "I think that’s pretty much the way Jonathan operates, too."

"Oh no," said Helen, her exquisitely catenary eyebrows rising, "Jonathan does go to studios. Not all that frequently, but with some regularity."

"Sure," said Arthur, surrendering any further attempts to be charming in order to indulge his envy of Jonathan Hirsch’s having this goddess pitch his virtues to a rival. "Jonathan is tight with the Atelier Academy crowd. All that reverence toward the smell of linseed oil, and all those brushy, naples yellow paintings brought back from summers in Maine and Tuscany. Cézanne said he was redoing Poussin according to nature. Those people redo Cézanne according to fingerpainting. I’ll bet there are lots of big wicker baskets filled with cold chicken, French bread and a nice Italian white put out on the table when Jonathan makes a call."

Helen arched her back a bit, genuinely surprised. "All of a sudden, you sound bitter," she said.

"Sorry. I just. . . [Oh, fuck, Arthur thought, what have I got to lose if I just come out with it?]. . . realized how lucky Jonathan is. Not only is he by nature a more open and caring human being than I am, but he enjoys the good words of the beautiful Ms. Helen Issacson to support his efforts as a critic." Only the last part of Arthur’s statement was true. In the bar after a gallery opening, Jonathan could out-snark Arthur by a country mile. He just never let it seep into print.

Helen lifted the corners of her wonderful mouth and nodded her head to acknowledge Arthur’s flattery and that, apparently, she wasn’t altogether offended by it. Then she plunged a dagger into his newly yearning heart. "I want you to know," she said, "that Jonathan does visit a wider range of artists than just those connected to the Atelier Academy. Last week, in fact, he was at the studio of the sculptor Tom Mannheim. I’m sure you know his work. Now, Mannheim is a little on the adventuresome side for a critic like Jonathan. Actually, I think Tom is here tonight. Have you met him?"

Arthur’s dream that night contained the regulation contingent of morphing-identities, impossible genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics, bizarrely interrupted acts of coitus and a few less usual deeds of erotic satisfaction, and assorted panics over college degrees revealed as withdrawn and crucial deadlines entirely forgotten. When his alarm clock went off, Arthur was fucking Sharon Mannheim on the floor of the biggest exhibition gallery at the Modern Museum, while Tom and Helen stood to the side. They watched disinterestedly and said "Tsk, tsk" to one another. Whether their condescension was heroically restrained moral outrage, or just plain pity at Arthur’s inability to give poor Sharon any pleasure, was something that bothered Arthur, irrationally and terribly, throughout the next day.

PETER PLAGENS, longtime art critic for Newsweek magazine, exhibits his paintings at Nancy Hoffman Gallery.