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THE ART CRITIC
by Peter Plagens
 
4.
Just because you write the magazine," the science-and-medicine writer once said to Arthur, "doesn’t mean you have to read the magazine." Again and again, Arthur recalled this mild cynicism as good advice, and wished he’d heard it right at the start, when he took the job. It would have saved him a hundred stumbling hallway apologies for not having read a colleague’s "piece" (never "essay," never "article," never "review," always piece) on the fascinating subject of, say, the infighting among nerdy billionaires at a giant software company, or the mysterious breast cancer spike among stay-at-home moms in Phoenix, or something in Arthur’s department, like the emergence of Nashville’s new country-rap. Arthur’s department at the magazine was called "Entertainment Plus." Back when he got his job, its name was "The Lively Arts." That fact was beginning to tell Arthur something.

The downward trajectory of art criticism in America’s mass media was not Arthur’s magazine’s fault. What publication could swim solo against such the tide of dumb-down, whose waters were fed by the "57 Channels and nothing on" Bruce Springsteen had sung about, the cretinesque Internet service "Online USA" owned by Arthur’s magazine’s larger and wealthier rival (sample homepage headline: "Our Sexiest Presidents -- Who’s Your Favorite?"), and a hundred magazines all featuring glistening silicone-filled tits on their covers? But Arthur’s magazine had done nothing to divert the flow, either. In fact, it was passionately competitive in covering movies barely distinguishable from video games, and Barbie-esque singers whose teen-hysteria over-emoting made the Righteous Brothers sound like Tex Ritter, by trying to be "ahead of the curve" and "smart." That penultimate motto meant writing about attractive but vacuous showbiz folk just before they actually produced -- the magazine crossed its fingers hoping -- something worthwhile. The final quality required an apparent hip and covert cynicism on the part of the writer. Arthur called the gambit "fawning with attitude." Most of Arthur’s colleagues did it very well. Truth be told, Arthur wasn’t so bad at it himself.

Arthur well understood the paradox concerning his readers and his assigned task. The people he didn’t particularly care about impressing -- ordinary readers outside the art world -- were impressed, if not always entertained, by his expertise. Arthur’s mother, a retired middle-school administrator in Illinois, was one of them. Except for the fact that non-art-world types were more likely to be part of the magazine’s three or four million subscribers (and its alleged twenty million "pass-along" readers) and more inclined to accept Arthur as an authoritative voice on art, they didn’t do him much good. Even if one of them wrote a letter-to-the-editor praising him for a "brilliant" takedown of some "phony" international art star like Jeff Koons or a "wonderful" revisionist appreciation of saccharine ol’ Maxfield Parrish (Arthur had written both), it would get him at most maybe two-and-a-half brownie points -- on a scale of ten thousand -- with the suits upstairs.

He would much rather have impressed art-world insiders than the faceless masses shopping for kitchen towels at Target. It wasn’t because he wanted lubricate his way into Hamptons lawn parties and the beds of a better class of divorcée, but because he wanted to be the exception to the insiders’ perception of an art critic as just another impoverished-but-full-of-himself cultural martinet wannabe. Arthur wanted the art world’s movers and shakers to think of him as a guy who had the cojones to come out and say contentious, prickly and truthful things that the other critics couldn’t or wouldn’t, and who managed to say them in good, clear, even witty writing. But art-world denizens -- who knew exactly how far down the food chain an art critic was from the billionaires who sat around the great oval teakwood boardroom table at meetings of the Modern Museum’s acquisitions committee and made imperious decisions affecting artists’ careers and, perhaps,  the future course of art history -- weren’t moved much in any direction by Arthur’s reviews.

Arthur did enjoy a bit of an art-world rep for writing in everyday English that avoided "artspeak," for belonging to no particular clique, and for being occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. That reputation was extant, however, only among those already inclined to like him -- artists, art students, art teachers and museum directors languishing in the boonies and resentful of the big American art cities for making them feel inadequate for not being in on the latest trends in the galleries. To others, Arthur was just a shallow, glib, aging gadfly who ought to be covering a beat that required little formal education and no sense of deep hidden meaning. Say, sports. The consensus among the cognoscenti -- Arthur could tell from the vibes at the three or four black-tie Modern Museum opening receptions he attended each year -- was that he was thought of as just another schmuck scribbler and publicity tool who merely happened to enjoy a wider, more cushioned berth than art-magazine freelancers because his magazine would actually freight him around the country, and occasionally to Europe, to see exhibitions to review. The truth was that any particular exhibition or artist getting written about in Arthur’s magazine was a long shot and, when it happened, a miniscule bit of art news in itself.

Nobody at the magazine really understood what Arthur did. To the well-tailored Beltway byliners on their Acela way (First Class) to conduct exclusive, just-right interviews with Under-Secretaries of State (not too hostile, not too obsequious), Arthur was just one of those back-of-the-book gobbledygookers whose esoteric whining on behalf of the free-speech rights of sadomasochistically transgressive "performance" artists helped send the National Endowment for the Arts right down the toilet, and made it so that their kids’ grammar schools no longer got free field trips to the symphony. To the overseas correspondents in their Burberry trenches, just off the plane from the latest bloody coup in Uzbekistan, Arthur was Marie Antoinette covering cake-tasting festivals. To the suits upstairs, he was culture insurance, just in case some real news happened to break in the art world. Like, oh, the director of the Modern Museum getting caught with child porn in his computer.

Arthur might also have served as a useable conduit for one of the "Mullahs" -- as the magazine’s suits were collectively called -- to an introduction to some Manhattan real estate mogul who sat on the board of the Modern Museum, and into whose co-op he (or she -- there were a couple of female Mullahs) wanted to move. To his cohorts in the Entertainment Plus department, Arthur was either a fuddy-duddy who -- unbelievably to them -- thought that oil-on-canvas paintings still meant something significant in the mp3 world of the 21st century (and, worse, who actually regarded Cézanne’s Bathers and Analytical Cubist still-lifes as truly beautiful), or some kind of unreconstructed hippie who preferred pretentiously grotesque styles of art to anything that could be readily comprehended by neo-philistine twentysomething J-school grads. At times, when he sat in his office with another four-buck cup of coffee he’d traveled nineteen floors down to the nearest latte parlor to fetch, staring out the window at the tiny, glistening fleck of the Hudson River he could still see through all the new construction, Arthur wished he enjoyed a little more real respect, all around.

Respect or not, Arthur would keep his job. The magazine simply didn’t fire writers, who were protected by their union, the Magazine Writers Guild. Editors were another story. Editors were management, and Arthur had seen a few compelled to clean out their desks by lunch, and then escorted, keys and IDs confiscated, out of the building. Arthur sure as hell wouldn’t quit, either. His was too good a gig: $96,574 a year (as of his last Performance Review), full bennies for a whole family if he’d had one, a fat and ever-growing 401(k), and an office -- not a cubicle -- within easy walking distance of the Modern Museum. Arthur was required to write only about a third of the number of stories the film critic had to produce, because in the magazine’s struggle with TV news and the Internet, art was a very, very negligible sliver of turf. The film critic got twice Arthur’s salary, though, and she was allowed to live in sunny southern California and attend the weekly department meetings by speaker-phone. Arthur did get to see, however, the biggest, most important, most anticipated, most line-around-the-block art exhibitions, often with a personal guided tour by the curator, several days before the public poured in. (Those cheek-by-jowl black-tie previews were strictly for meet ‘n’ greet. Nobody attending them actually looked at the art.)

Every once in a while, some repressed, smoldering-cauldron-of-passion curator, or jeans’-beltline-at-crotch-level ambitious young artist would give Arthur one of those expertly vulnerable looks that said, "Yes, I’d be willing to go to bed with you." He never took the bait, but not because he was a paragon of virtue. If he were, he wouldn’t have been writing for the popular press in the first place. Arthur just didn’t want to earn his nookie by tacitly promising to pay for it with the currency of hoped-for coverage or at least "a mention" in print. Arthur wished to seduce genuinely interesting, age-appropriate women, aided by nothing but his sparkling conversation and native charm. Of course, "age-appropriate" didn’t mean exactly Arthur’s age. He was looking at fifty and fifty-year-old women, especially fifty-year-old curators, didn’t interest him that much.

*     *     *
Contrary to popular perception (and his mother’s), what Arthur did for a living was not simply to pop into an exhibition of his personal choice, sniff arrogantly at the work, jot down a few acidic notes regarding the artist’s heavyweight ambitions and lightweight talents, and then prance off to his computer to pass disdainful, Olympian judgment. This was how it really went:

Late in the week, the Entertainment Plus writers gathered in an airless little conference room, with the three Hollywood writers -- the film critic Candace Burque, a newly hired guy named Alex Whitman who wrote about nothing but movie and record deals, and Alonzo Briggs, a young black Yalie who had no qualms about being white Middle America’s informant inside the hip-hop world -- on the speaker-phone. They each offered to the Entertainment Plus editor, Marsha Guzman (a Rhode Island WASP; it was her sous-chef husband who was the bona fide Latino), their heartfelt desires concerning possible pieces for the forthcoming week. Each, that is, except Candace, who possessed a most irritating combination of traits: highly salaried because she covered what readers wanted most to read about, untouchable because she was black, sought-after by other publications because she was a ridiculously good writer, and invulnerable to personal attack or gossip because she was such a goddamned nice person. Candace was simply asked which debuting movie she wanted to write about. Her reply was always one of three types: a) "The Crossing is going to be huge, so we have to do it, even if it’s a piece of shit," b) "There’s a charming, but quite dark little film, Olivia’s Dream, from Slovakia, by this 26-year-old director I really like," or c) "What the hell, let’s line three or four of ‘em up against the wall and I’ll do a firing-squad shorty on each."

The rest of the writers dutifully pitched their favorites, trying desperately to keep the description to under thirty seconds, the limit of Marsha’s concentration span for story ideas. If she pursed her purple lips and wrinkled her heavy eyebrows quizzically, that meant your story was golden, definitely in for next week. If she asked you a question, such as "Is this the same actress who was booed at the Berlin Film Festival last year?" or "Sounds intriguing, but has the Tribune mentioned it lately?" it meant fifty-fifty. (The joke around the magazine was that there are two reasons for it to do a story: 1) the Tribune hadn’t done it yet, and 2) the Tribune had done it.) If Marsha nodded her large round head and silently made a note in the black notebook she carried everywhere, you were dead at the gate, and could look forward to a leisurely week visiting on the Internet all the smart-ass Brit magazines you wished you wrote for.

Typically, Arthur would say something like: "The Modern Museum has this contemporary still-life show. I know, I know, it sounds duller than hell. But it turns out that a lot of ‘hot’ [he’d make the crayfish scare-quote gesture with hooked fingers] young painters are trying it out again. And some of these pictures are enormous. You get six-foot wine bottles, table grapes the size of rugby balls. Maybe I could interview a couple of the participants, see what makes them want to be so gigantically retro, get a couple of snappy quotes. The illustrations will fucking bounce off the page. And I think our readers would like knowing about it."

Marsha had pursed her lips at a story suggestion of Arthur’s only once, when a Cuban sculptor who’d been all the rage with his Marielito Memories installations a couple of seasons back committed suicide by jumping from his dealer’s fire escape in Tribeca. The autopsy revealed him to be a very well-muscled female. Usually, the best Arthur got were Marsha’s questions. The hypothetical still-life exhibition, for instance, would probably have prompted something along the lines of, "Why are these artists making things so large? They just look normal-size when you back away from them, don’t they?" In the years Arthur had been at the magazine, he’d been responsible more than any other writer for soundlessly inscribed mementos in Marsha’s black notebook, probably by a factor of ten.

Very early in the next week, Marsha took her writers’ sifted and weighted suggestions to a meeting with the Mullahs. The Mullah meeting was nominally as open as a Sorbonne lecture, but no writers in the Entertainment Plus department ever went to it. (Mark Twain said there are two things you didn’t want to see being made -- sausage and legislation. Arthur would have added a third: an Entertainment Plus section of the magazine.) Immediately afterward, members of "E+" (as the section’s name was logo-ized in the table of contents) reconvened to discuss the results. There was usually very little to discuss, unless you wanted to label as discussion Marsha’s perfunctorily mollifying a writer who’d thrown his pencil into the air and pressed his palms to his eyes over his story being cut in half. "I can’t help it," Marsha would say. "There’s breaking news in the front of the book. The space you’re getting is better than nothing." Kerri Mitchell, the pop music critic and one of the very few real lookers at the magazine, greeted news of diminution by simply tousling her punky blonde hair as if to say, "Good, now I’ll be able to crank out this midget story in an hour and go party with some interesting people."

Kerri and Marsha were always conversing in Marsha’s office, the door clicking softly shut as soon as Kerri entered. Arthur couldn’t figure out whether they had these closed-door à deux’s because they admired each other or hated each other. His guess was loathing. Marsha had mousy brown hair inexplicably done up in a Margaret Thatcher helmet, and was, to put it mercifully, quite plain. Ken Banter, a sort of utility infielder who covered legit theater, opera, the kind of music released in boxed sets from the Smithsonian, and the unreadable novels of the latest Nobel Prize winner, and who had been padding around the halls of the magazine in an untucked silk shirt, antique gabardine slacks, and bedroom slippers ever since (they said) the magazine was founded, thought Kerri and Marsha were lesbian lovers. Arthur had been told by reliable sources in the IT department that Ken’s hard drive was practically choking to death on j-pegs of lesbian lovers.

In the improbable event that Arthur’s story suggestion survived the reflex opprobrium of the Mullahs, Arthur deliberately wrote his story about ten or twenty percent over its assigned length. He knew editors wanted their dreary task of re-shaping their writers’ stories into the magazine’s formula (so that the Mullahs, who "upper-edited" everything they received, could go home at a decent after-dinner hour on closing night) mitigated as much as possible by "finished" copy. But he also knew they wanted a little overage to play with, if only to make a cut here and there to justify their presence on the production line.

For some of Arthur’s colleagues, producing a story meant a long slow slog to the end, re-writing and re-re-writing in succession, one-polished-paragraph-after-another. For Arthur, it meant blurting the story out as fast as his fingers would fly over the keyboard and then quickly revising the whole thing, over and over. Arthur’s personal twist on the universal affliction of procrastination was to disguise it as elaborate preparation. He turned his notes into an outline, the outline into a polished outline, the polished outline into a flush-left cascade of simple declarative sentences, the re-ordered and adjective-embellished sentences into building-block paragraphs and, finally, those paragraphs into something resembling a first draft. Arthur started this neurotic process early (he liked to come in on Mondays, when nobody else was present), and pissed around ahead of time. Consequently, he was considered a sweet prince about deadlines.

If in her initial assessment, Marsha perceived no major structural flaws, a seven-hundred-word review would bounce back to Arthur with no more than three or four major fixes requested ("do we really mean that the whole concept of the exhibition was derivative, or just most of the paintings in it? pls. re-state," etc.), along with a handful of word changes ("‘ghastly’? pls. say better"). On these, Arthur would have been happy to cede Marsha power-of-attorney. The catch was that on second reading, with the initial fixes made, Marsha often discovered serious flaws in the story that she hadn’t noticed before. The whole tone was wrong; Arthur had failed to define "still-life" at the top; the reader would have no idea why it’s so important that it was the Modern Museum putting on the show.

She’d call Arthur into her office, and ask him to stand behind her and look over her shoulder while she typed in corrections -- "Is this all right?" -- to which Arthur would readily agree. Only once, when she asked him to put in the artist’s first name when he had a sentence that ended, ". . .just like a Hogarth," did he throw a fit. He objected to the addition of "William" screwing up the way the sentence scanned. When Marsha said, "Oh come on, Arthur, who gives a tinker’s fuck about your rhythm?" he lost it. Candace, in town for the SoHo Film Festival, heard the raised voices and defused the situation by simply opening Marsha’s door and standing in the doorway. Arthur stormed out past her in a huff, but later poked his head in to apologize. Marsha merely grunted.

Once Marsha had signed off on a piece, it ascended to Mullahland where it was handled much less brusquely, unless one of the powers suddenly recognized the name of one of the artists in the show as the sister-in-law of a friend of his wife’s and asked a long, pointless, point-of-information question in the margin which Arthur had to answer before the Mullah would put his electronic O.K. on Arthur’s efforts. And there always seemed to be at least one no-win item. If Arthur pointed out that one of the artists in the exhibition was a transvestite, the Mullah would invariably note, "Do our readers really have to know this?" If Arthur discreetly omitted any reference to cross-dressing, the Mullah would say, "Even I have heard that this artist is a transvestite, and I think our readers would like to know it, too. Gives the story some color."

More often than not, though, Arthur would get through the "upper-edit" fairly unbruised. Sometimes he got what his brethren in E+ called "a tongue in the ear": an endearment from the editor-in-chief at the end of the piece saying, "An inside take, but really clear. Glad to have it --Karl," or something similar. But Arthur knew that any compliment on an art story owed less to his native talent, or his having learned how to deliver more or less what they wanted in the first draft, than to the Mullahs’ not giving any more of a flying fart about Arthur’s kooky bailiwick than Marsha did about the meter of his prose. Here, in fact, was journalism’s Dirty Little Secret No. 372: Most mass magazines and newspapers employed an art critic only because the other mass magazines and newspapers did, and they thought they’d look somehow déclassé if they didn’t have one. The first publication to overtly eliminate the position would start a stampede of firings and the species of staff art critic would soon be extinct.

Arthur proposed perhaps a hundred stories a year, got taken up on about one out of six. Add in the occasional unavoidable news story, such as the chairman of the board of the Alternate Art Museum pulling some kind of auction fiddle on deaccessioned museum works in which he retained a secret and illegal one-third interest, and there you had Arthur’s job. Forty-eight weeks a year. Actually, forty-seven, now that as per the Magazine Writers Guild contract, Arthur had made it past the decade mark and received five whole weeks of vacation each year.

The seeming cushiness of which, Arthur thought with a sigh, failed to factor in the "abyss." The English language -- indeed, any language-language -- was neither math nor symbolic logic. English would always contain slippage of meaning between words, among words, around words. And the harder the writer or the editor stared at the words, the more slippage appeared. It was much like when little kids said their names over and over again until they were "defamiliarized" into nonsense syllables. As a child, Arthur used to lie in bed and perform the operation on "Arthur." "Arr-thurr." "Arr-thir." "R. Thir." "Our Thirr." Recently, he lay in bed as an adult and tried to do the same thing with "Helen." Her name, however, wouldn’t budge.

*     *     *
Arthur asked Marsha Guzman if he could take a week away from the office and not have it count against vacation time. In this day and age, Arthur knew, ninety percent of what was done in the Entertainment Plus section could have been accomplished without anybody but Marsha coming into the office. Marsha and the Mullahs preferred, however, that staff writers be on the premises in the flesh if they weren’t indisputably out covering their beats. Since the magazine paid writers more than reasonably -- especially compared to their benighted freelancing peers -- and doled out generous, albeit Byzantine, health and dental benefits, Arthur figured they were entitled to this old-fashioned boss behavior. Like any other squad of corporate suits, the Mullahs -- as they walked the halls or tilted back in their ergonomic chairs in their spacious, big-windowed offices, talking to important people on the phone -- wanted to feel that they were getting bang for the magazine’s salary buck. They wanted to be able to say, "How goes it?" to the art critic in the elevator and have him chirp a hot tip along the lines of, "Be sure not to miss that wonderful show of Degas drawings at the Met."

The Mullahs also wanted to enjoy a little occasional melodrama with weekly closings, especially on slow news weeks: lots of loosened neckties and rolled-up shirtsleeves when they gathered around color-photocopied layouts tossed down on a big cherry-wood conference table by art directors who dressed like ballet teachers, cups of coffee in magazine mugs (no booze, no cigarettes; those things had gone out in the socially sensitive Nineties, along with adultery in the supply closets), and sending out for Chinese food at midnight. Some of the younger reporters and researchers, too, liked the ersatz tension, particularly the ones who’d been to graduate school in journalism. They felt it connected them to "the real news business" and to the "Hondos," which was what people at the magazine called the writers who covered hard-news stories in dangerous places and who suffered -- among other things -- unpredictable deadlines. Writers in the Entertainment Plus section, to the contrary, were messengered press releases and free tickets to cover arts events whose nature and relative importance were known months in advance. They whined if it rained on opening night. They were thought of as the magazine’s wusses. And rightly so.

Surprisingly, Marsha gave Arthur the week off before she asked him what he was going to do. He told her that, if anyone inquired, she could say that he was "looking at art in New England."

"Exhibitions in Boston?" she asked.

No, Arthur said. He wanted to be honest with her so she could cover her ass in case the director of the Modern Museum keeled over dead at an acquisitions committee meeting and Karl wanted to know why Arthur the overpaid art critic needed a whole twenty-four hours to get his bohemian butt back into the office to cover the goddamned story. "I’m going up to the Timberline Art Colony in Vermont," Arthur told her.

An old friend of Arthur’s from graduate school who’d gone into Anglican seminary, quit when he got art-religion instead, and took up painting mystical color-field abstractions, ran the Colony. He’d married a very wealthy woman whose family, as a kind of afterthought to developing a ski resort, bought an entire, economically depressed, lumbermill town. At about the same time Arthur arrived at the magazine, his old friend founded an art school in the town. Now, the TAC was much more than a school. It had purchased and occupied most of the public buildings that had been the town’s elementary school, firehouse, city hall and library. The town had built newer, much uglier replacements near a filled-in quarry three miles down the road.

The TAC buildings were filled with small studios for the "residents," as the paying customers were now known. Their tuition, now called "residential fees," still went partly for room and board for their one-month to three-month stints. The rest of it went to a skeleton permanent faculty of two (a painter and a sculptor) and a dizzying parade of visiting artists, curators and critics -- a different troika every week. Most of the luminaries came up from New York mainly to take a breather among the mountain pines and to put a little cash in their pockets. An idealist few believed that artists functioned best in bucolic quiet, away from the star-fucking and money-grubbing and trend-spotting of the urban art world. The director had invited Arthur a while back, and had given him a choice of dates. Although Arthur had once driven a rental car from New York to the town to have a purely social lunch with him and his wife and knew how beautiful and cozy and relaxed the place was, especially in the fall (he best remembered a stoned hippie chef who put flowers in the salad; it tasted pretty good), he dithered. Now, for various reasons all beginning with the letter "Helen," Arthur felt this was as good a time as any to get out of the city and clear his head.

"So you’re palming off as ‘looking at art’ being an esthetic gigolo to some rich old ladies whose husbands are glad to hand them the keys to the Mercedes and give them a trunkful of oil paints in order to get rid of them for a couple of months," Marsha said. "And if I say ‘New England’ to Karl, he’s supposed to assume ‘Boston’ instead of the roadside maple syrup stand that you’re really going to."

"If it comes to that, yes," Arthur said. "But I’ll have my laptop with me, and I know the place has a printer and a fax if worse comes to worse. My cell won’t work up there, but I’ll leave you the Colony’s number."

"Goodnight and good luck," Marsha said. "I hope you’re getting paid well for this."

"I’m getting paid, but money isn’t the point," Arthur said. "I just need a little break."

"You’re weird," Marsha said.

"I didn’t used to be," Arthur answered. Marsha shot him the same look he’d gotten when he proposed a story on an amputee performance artist.

*     *     *
The train north to Vermont stopped early on in a bunch of Westchester towns. Even the "quiet car" where cell phones and "loud conversations" were prohibited was filled with young (compared to Arthur) bureaucrats, salespeople, consultants and lobbyists returning home after a hotel night in the city. Although they were generally presentable, particularly the women reeking of Jean Naté, he resented all of them just for breathing and occupying seats near him. Arthur had no reason for this attitude. He just had it. He knew it was wrong but figured since he didn’t act on it -- "Everyone gets the common courtesies" was Arthur’s motto -- no harm was done to anyone but himself.

On the train, he switched back and forth between reading one of Samuel Bieckert’s true-crime hardbounds, this one about twin brothers with rival Cadillac dealerships who each hired a hit man to kill the other, and wondering how he should act when he got to the Colony. Arthur made his usual vow (having done similar gigs a few times before, and having failed to keep it) to conduct himself like Alec Guinness as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: unemotional and precise, laconic but confident, guarded but honest. Not exactly "Moscow rules," more like a friendly but sensitive Smiley visit to "the Cousins across the Pond."

But when the occasion arose, Arthur could talk a-mile-a-minute. The odds were heavy that after three minutes on the ground in Vermont, he’d fall off the logorrhea wagon. On the other hand, he’d gotten much better, from being importuned at gallery openings, at telling an aspiring artist that his or her work ran so counter to his taste that he simply had nothing to say about it. The obvious flaw in that clipped bluntness was the fact that he was the Art Critic for a Major News Magazine, and was able to form laudably printable opinions -- some of them quite favorable, if you didn’t read too closely between the lines -- about all kinds of art that ran counter to his own taste. When he declined to say anything, he was actually saying "Your work sucks."

At four-thirty in the afternoon, Rutland was deeply cold and getting dark. Arthur was met at the station by a skinny Colony resident named Chet, who wore a multi-holed grey T-shirt under a paint-spattered canvas jacket, jeans, and a pair of immaculate, top-of-the-line running shoes. He led Arthur to a big, old Ford van with Timberline Art Colony neatly hand-lettered on the front doors. By Vermont standards, it confessed relatively little rust. The drive to the Colony consumed a few minutes less than an hour. After Arthur asked, "Are you a painter?" and Chet answered, "Yeah, mind if I smoke?" they exchanged no further words on the road.

When the two men arrived at the Colony, Chet said, "Ted said to tell you he’s meditating tonight, and he’ll see you in the morning, maybe." Chet lighted another cigarette, dropped the van’s keys into a deep jacket pocket and walked off to his room in the former primary school library.

Arthur made his way from the van to his rooms in the bottom-left-hand quarter of a two-story wooden house. The house, like every building the TAC owned, was painted barn red. In the deepening evening, the red looked dark brown. Arthur put down his bags in the house, opening only his dopkit to get at some mouthwash. Dinner was in ten minutes, thirty yards away in the main building of the former lumber mill. The building had a wooden porch coursing a couple of feet off the ground for its entire length. Walking loudly upon it to the dining room’s entrance -- a nicely crafted maple door with a bevel-edged oval window in it -- Arthur felt like a gunfighter. When he opened the door, he halfway expected to hear the tinkle of a saloon piano, and see Miss Kitty in a scoop-necked dress.

As he sat down deliberately at an already populated table, Arthur found out that the TAC had expanded its program to include writers. The writing program alternated in monthly sessions between fiction and poetry. This month was a poetry month. The middle-aged woman who asked him if he was a poet must have been, Arthur guessed, a sexy stunner thirty years ago. Her ascent into a more dignified handsomeness had, however, left her with a picket-fence of wrinkles above her upper lip. She wore an ornate skirt and sweater that originated, Arthur further guessed, in Central America. Around her sat several similarly dressed women and a man who looked like nothing so much as a parson, each shuffling typescripts of one to three pages each. They were all poets, and there was to be a reading after dinner.

"Since you’re not a poet, you don’t have to stay, and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t," said the chubbiest woman, whose oversized silver-framed glasses didn’t make her appear any thinner.

There was no TV in Arthur’s room, not even a radio. His true-crime book had turned pointless (neither of the hit men managed to kill anybody). His own novel was in a state of disrepair which would remain mercifully invisible if he didn’t fire up his laptop. And Arthur was wired from three cups of coffee on the train and two more at dinner. "Actually, I think I’ll stay," he said. "It’s been a long time since I gave poetry a chance to work its magic on me." The handsome woman was not amused.

The reading was led off by the women. From what Arthur’s poetically uneducated ear could tell from them, modern poems of the workshop-hothoused variety were little more than skimpy prose, making much ado about some small topic close to their authors’ politically correct hearts, highlighted fairly frequently by what prosaic prose-makers called "a nice line." The formula seemed to be: a) Look out your kitchen window, or at the scattered teddy bears of your college-student daughter’s vacated room, and find some little detail -- a leaky ballpoint pen, some petrified crumbs from a glazed donut -- and let it remind you of something; b) Beginning with a lyrically self-congratulatory opener noting how sensitive you are in noticing the goddamned detail in the first place, describe the philosophical fallout from the perception; c) Land on some big issue in an "unexpected" way -- e.g., the glazed donut crumb was a glistening small shard, both threatening and sweet, like the whole saga of parenthood. Only the parson -- who turned out to be the visiting critic in poetry -- was different. He offered a violet paean to hunting bears with a bow and arrow.

An hour and ten minutes of residents’ poetry did work the delayed magic of countermanding the caffeine in Arthur’s system. He slept the sleep of the dead until very early the next morning. His quarters’ primitive heating system awoke him at six a.m. Breakfast began at seven sharp, with the buffet line closed at eight. It included a buffet of scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, English muffins, granola, milk and soy milk and, thank God, halfway decent coffee. But no Ted.

Arthur had arrived at the dining room door just as the chef’s resident-helper unlocked it from the inside and, consequently, sat down alone with his cereal, banana and TAC-mugful of coffee. The people who came in after him all seemed to know each other and -- although Arthur occupied the best-located table, right at the window, overlooking the roaring waterfall that formerly powered the mill’s giant saws -- sat at other tables and chatted cheerfully among themselves. Fuck ‘em, Arthur thought, and unsociably took the roster of residents who’d signed up to see him back to his room to read on the bed he’d carefully made before going to breakfast.

In psychobabble terms, the Colony’s little scene was "process-oriented" rather than "goal-oriented," as Arthur was. Time here, he bet himself, fairly well stood still, with the days running one into the next with work being done and things getting done, but with, as David Thornton had said to him once about any art venue other than New York or Los Angeles, "no sense of urgency." In his imagination, Arthur could hear the skeleton faculty and staffers (who were also artists and provided with small studios): Doin’ some art, man, having a show in Burlington, man, seein’ some shows in Boston, man, rebuilding the South Studio, man. It could have been 1976, where that Mannheim fellow seemed to be stuck, up there.

But Arthur also expected that there would be some grittier -- and yes, more bitter -- artists around the Colony who knew the bigger, crasser picture, and who knew that the art game, repulsive as it might seem, had to be played out of duty to Art-with-a-capital-A, out of honor to artists who’d come and gone before and from whom they’d stolen. The rest were just provincial pseudo-toughies, "spiritual" widows and divorcées who carried hand-out promo postcards in their purses, and fat-cat tourist-town painters who dropped in for updating/upgrading tips and "contacts" from the likes of Arthur. None of them, though, would kill for the brass ring. Neither would I, thought Arthur, but at least I did a little elbowing to get a horse near the merry-go-round’s circumference.

His first half-hour appointment was at nine and Arthur was fully booked until lunch at one. Then, starting at two o’clock, the Art Doctor (as he thought of himself starting that first breakfast) had three more scheduled house calls, with five-minute breathers in between. Then a little down time, then dinner. Then the same numbing schedule for two more days after that, one blessedly "free" day, then a final round of crits.

Arthur learned from the roster and later from face-to-face contact that the residents ranged from, as his coincidentally concurrent visiting critic Esther Koenig called them, "the ladies" from the New York or Boston suburbs who showed in community art centers near their homes or vanity galleries in the big city, to youngsters tuning up for grad school, to working professionals from places like Mexico, Croatia, and China. The last group showed up at the Colony fully funded by the cultural arms of their governments. The kids worked in the kitchen or otherwise gofered for part of their tuition. "The ladies" mostly paid retail, but a couple of them were food handlers, too, although more for the "solidarity" than the tuition discount.

Arthur’s first studio visit was with a woman in her forties who was going through a divorce concurrent with "empty nest" syndrome. From her telling him this almost as soon as he parted the muslin curtains serving as her studio door, he wondered if she’d been accidentally separated from the poetry residents. She painted in an Abstract Expressionist vein, adding to the mix (as a hedge, Arthur thought) adumbrated human figures. Her announced basis for the work was some kind of gooey, nearly unintelligible New Age "spiritual" claptrap. She used the words "struggling," "searching," "yearning," and "journey" over and over again. The woman was either very receptive or pseudo-receptive to coaching, saying "Mmmmmm, I see" in response to practically every sentence of Arthur’s intentionally meat-and-potatoes advice. ("Shore up this corner with some crisper shapes, and try to go easier on the cerulean blue right out of the tube.") Right before their twenty-five minutes expired, she let it drop that in a couple of months she’d be opening an exhibition in Litchfield County, Connecticut, and had come to the Colony in order -- when you boiled down the mystical rhetoric -- to turn out the goods for the show. Each of her friends blamed her husband for the split and had promised to buy a painting. The exhibition was sold out in advance.

Next, a five-minute walk away, in the former high school gymnasium, awaited Fred, the recently cuckolded and abandoned plumber whose professed spiritualism (Zen Buddhism for Dummies) and abstract paintings were slicker and more esthetically corrupt than those bound for Litchfield County. He offered Arthur a cup of instant coffee (Arthur declined) and a staccato series of marketing questions. "Do you think I ought to float the gold strip-framing or just nail it to the sides of the panel plain?" ("Float it," Arthur said.) "Is this one too much like a seascape? I could sell it easier, but that would bother my conscience." ("You didn’t intend it as a seascape," Arthur said, "so it’s no skin off your nose if somebody buys it as one.") "Do you know Jonathan Hirsch? One of the other residents said I ought to bug Ted about getting him up here because he’d probably like my work." ("I know him, but I can’t say whether he’d like your work or not," Arthur said. "And Jon doesn’t like to leave the city except to go to another city." To which Fred said, "It sounds like he’s some kind of prick.")

Third in line was a cute-as-a-bug young "site-specific artist" from Seattle, whose spacious studio (obtained, as were all residents’ studios, through a Colony lottery) was completely empty except for the words "Devour your television set" formed in popcorn letters strung on monofilament suspended at eye level diagonally across the room. Leaning against a pillar and flashing some attractively butterscotch-colored bare midriff, a topaz navel ring and a bright smile, she said, "I’m a very sensual person."

After his erection subsided, Arthur visited a high-school math teacher who concocted hard-edge abstractions on a laptop, a shrink on R & R who told Arthur he’d like to fuck his way through the entire roster of residents, both sexes, as therapy for them, and an urbane young woman from Milan with nothing in her studio but a sleek notebook of digital prints of photographs of something blue and cosmological. But the words in perfect, learned English that tumbled out of her mouth described plans for an installation combining paintings, laser lights, "solar music" and the scent of jasmine. "Nothing like this has ever been done before," she said. Had she ever heard the German term Gesamtkunstwerk? Arthur asked. No, she answered.

Ted finally showed up, at lunch, tanned, whippet-thin, and with elegant long silver hair cut, as some wag once said about the actor Richard Gere’s, to resemble the Sydney Opera House. He went ‘round the dining room, glad-handing everybody for ten seconds apiece. For Arthur, he paused for sixty.

"How’s the magazine business?" he asked, winking maliciously. "Fine art and newshounding still go together with no inner conflict?" The truthful answer was obviously supposed to be "No," and just as obviously Arthur was supposed to be too compromised by his corrupt Manhattan lifestyle to admit it.

"Nothing goes with anything in our postmodern world," Arthur said. "The whole point is mix ‘n’ mismatch. Like this beautiful Vermont countryside and scolding installation art made out of popcorn." He considered adding, "Or photo-text pieces and the God of the Anglicans," but that would have crossed a line.

"Ah, you’ve seen her," Ted said, as if they were fellow judges at the Miss Vermont competition.

"Yep, her and five others," Arthur said. "Quite a morning. My head is spinning."

"You’ll be a hardened veteran by tomorrow. Catch you at dinner. Veronica’s in Bangkok, but you and I can chat. Toodles." And he was gone.

Across from Arthur, her head bowed toward an enormous salad with a toupée of croutons, Esther Koenig said, "Arthur, I feel for you. You’re too sensitive for this critiquing-in-the flesh shit." She didn’t look up.

"What’s the old saying?" Arthur said. "Something about being a quivering coward in person, but behind a typewriter, the bravest man in the world. That applies to me, in spades."

Esther looked up. She was a Bassett hound wearing gigantic turquoise earrings and a paint-flecked sweatshirt saying "My son went to Harvard Law and all I got was this lousy shirt." Her big brown eyes, canopied by black, Brezhnev-class eyebrows were only mildly sympathetic. "You and I should have a drink in my studio after dinner, after you and ‘Toodles’ have chatted," she said, and then laughed to herself.

Arthur loaded his veggie-burger patty onto the sliced whole wheat bun he’d furnished with lettuce, bright red tomato, and the TAC’s famous homemade mayonnaise. "Only if you answer two questions," he said. "First, why are you being so snarky about Ted? You’re a volunteer in this outfit, just like me. And second, if you’re a ‘visiting critic’ and not a ‘resident,’ how come you get a studio?"

Arthur had spoken to Esther only on that panel discussion and at the entrance to Gregory Appel’s awful show. Esther was a painter -- brushy still-lifes that avoided most of the pitfalls of brushy still-lifes. She was unmaliciously direct and somehow you knew that the minute you shook hands with her. She never air-kissed. She was cantankerous, too, but not as a shtick like Abe’s. Her husband had studied in Paris with Léger. His work was one hundred percent abstract.

Esther shoved her salad across the spar-varnished plywood table. She picked up her TAC mug of lemoned tea, waddled around to Arthur’s side of the table, and sat down next to him. "I’ll answer your two questions and raise you a few answers," she said. Then she held up a hand, indicating a timeout, while she shoveled a big mouthful of salad into her droopy face.

"The visiting critics," she resumed, "blow into this Candyland for a few days partly for the money -- which isn’t all that much; what’re you getting, a grand, twelve hundred? -- and the ego rub. Include me in that. I’m not ashamed. I’ve done the five-day thing a couple of times before. But don’t expect me to pretend that Ted isn’t a honey-tongued poseur who’s such a bad artist -- have you seen his paintings? -- precisely because he’s got this big vision of creating an ‘alternative creative reality,’ as he puts it, with the Colony."

Esther paused to sip her tea. "He’s a nice guy," she continued. "He means no harm and probably does no harm. In fact, he probably does a lot of good, on balance. People benefit from their little sojourns to the Colony because they leave it, in most cases, being slightly improved loner artists. It has nothing to do with their suddenly thinking all artists are brothers and sisters under the skin. Ted doesn’t realize that the worst artists are invariably the ones who think that artists can change the world not simply with art but also by scoutmastering other artists into forming a ‘community.’

"Ted as a person? I respect him as, what should I say, the CEO of a benevolent not-for-profit. But he’s also the world’s oldest intermediate painting student. And guess what? He knows I think that. True, I’ve never been asshole enough to say it in those words right to his face, but I’ve never lied to him, either. So he knows it."

Arthur nodded. He hoped Esther would read it more as "noted," than as agreement.

Esther took another forkful of salad. When she finished chewing without bothering to close her mouth completely, she said, "About the studio. You didn’t read the program very carefully, did you? It was stapled to the roster. You and Quincy Wilber-Carr, the video artist who was the star of that godawful Cataclysm and Cuteness show at the Modern Museum -- as if anybody would want to take that kind of credit -- are this week’s visiting critics, along with some ‘visual culture’ theorist from some college upstate. I’m the resident critic, pal."

Arthur laughed. "As in permanent, Esther?"

"No, no. Just for three months. I’m in my second. Ted thought the residents ought to have a little continuity along with the dazzling variety that guys like you and Quincy provide. Want to know a secret?"

"Sure," Arthur said.

"Oh, it’s hardly a secret. Everybody here knows, but it doesn’t embarrass me. Ted wanted Abe, of course. Abe said he was simply too old and too occupied in the studio. He’s got a show coming up next year and he says his work gets all screwed up if he stops and starts, stops and starts. So I’m the second choice. The alternate. The face-saver is that Abe didn’t suggest it. Or so Abe tells me. Ted supposedly said to him, ‘Well if you can’t do it, how about Esther? We’ve got a lot more painting residents than sculptors anyway.’"

"Are you enjoying it?" Arthur asked.

"Enough," Esther said. "Most of the visiting critics who come up, especially during the colder months, have a real New York attitude. You know, they swagger around and say to the residents, in so many words, ‘What is this shit? You’re wasting my valuable time.’ The nicer critics try to be helpful in a brass-tacks way, but they’re still a little cold. So I’m supposed to be the nurturer. Old Earth Mother, that sort of shit."

"Esther," Arthur said, "I don’t know you very well. So pardon the offense if I say this, but you don’t seem to be a natural nurturer -- pardon the pun. I mean, I’m sure you were probably a wonderful mother to that lawyer son of yours, but you, nurture the people who produce this misguided crap?"

"Too strong, Arthur," Esther said, "too negative. The trouble with being a critic-critic, if you don’t mind my telling you your business, is that you get all your art already filtered for you. The curators and dealers and even the artists themselves have shitcanned all the bad stuff, all the mistakes. You deal with just -- what shall I call it? -- the finished product. You forget that all those hyper-professional and historically canonized artists you review went through a stumblebum phase like the Colony residents are going through now."

"Yeah," Arthur said, "but only one in a hundred, probably more like one in a thousand of these people. . . ."

"You’re not hearing me, Arthur," Esther scolded. "That’s exactly what I mean. You’ll talk to one or two decent young artists while you’re here, and it’s part of your job to figure out which ones they are and. . . I want to say ‘encourage them,’ but that’s not quite the right word. No, you’re suppose to figure out what they need -- whether it’s a kick in the ass or fulsome praise or just a few tips on editing their stuff -- and give it to them."

Arthur suddenly realized that the Colony had done very well to bring in Esther instead of Abe, whose avuncular act (Arthur had seen it at a reception after he’d heard him lecture in grad school) was a little too polished and, ultimately, self-centered. "You’ve got a point, Esther," Arthur conceded.

They talked politics for the rest of the lunch. At two minutes before two o’clock, Arthur said, "Well, I don’t want to be late for whatever fresh new hell awaits me. I’m off."

"So nice to hear someone your age quote Dorothy Parker," Esther said. Masticating the last of her arugula, she added. "Remember: after dinner, in my studio. A little drinky-poo, and more home truths."

"Where’s your studio?"

"Ha! Two floors above you, on the dormer floor of that house. I live on the second."

*     *     *
"Are you Jewish?" Esther asked Arthur as she passed him a clouded bathroom cup containing three fingers of Jamaican rum.

It was hot in her studio, the output of the furnace in the basement having shot right through the cold rooms to fill the insulated attic. Esther had one painting -- nearly finished, as far as Arthur could tell -- on an easel, and three more propped up on the floor. The walls had been redone white, but with buckling particle board instead of drywall. The drop ceiling was straight out of a county unemployment office. Some clueless TAC worker had installed overhead office fluorescent lights, but Esther wisely turned them off and worked instead under a couple of dangling incandescent bulbs. A bit yellow, but preferable to a maddening flicker.

Flopped in a couch so unsupportive his knees ascended to the level of his chin, Arthur said, "No, I’m not. And I think that’s pretty obvious to you, Esther. So I suspect your asking means you’re going to lecture me about the art world according to some deep Talmudic folk wisdom that gentiles like me have no hope of ever understanding."

"If you substitute Yiddish for Talmudic," Esther said, "you’re right on the money." She slugged down her rum and poured more from a bottle with a full-color parrot on its yellow label.

"Have a little forbearance with Mother Esther," she continued. "I mean only the best. Here goes."

"No, wait," Arthur said.

Esther stared at Arthur. She looked worried that, having pegged him as a good sport, she was about to be proved wrong.

"Let’s get a proper rhythm here," Arthur said. "This is your studio, and I’m a visiting critic, so I should get first shot. Then you rebut, then I defend myself, then you sigh and say that all art critics are irredeemably full of shit. We have another shot or two out of the rum bottle, and call it a friendly night. How about it?"

"All right. I’ll get a painting off the easel and put it right..."

"Not necessary, Esther," Arthur said. "I can see what you’re working on just fine. And I’ve gone to maybe a half-dozen of your shows, including the last one. You have a body of work -- an oeuvre -- that’s pretty well known, and a critic should discuss you as though he does know the work, which I do. It’s safe to say, though, that your work would be a lot more well known if you got yourself out of that goddamned co-op gallery and into the hands of a real dealer. I mean, Rooftop may be the best and maybe the longest-running co-op gallery in New York, but it’s still a co-op."

"I can’t show at Abe’s gallery," Esther said, taking a swallow of rum. "It’d look like nepotism, or coat-tailing, or whatever. And there aren’t a lot of 57th Street dealers, let alone anybody in Chelsea, eager to take on a seventy-three-year-old still-life painter."

"Belly up to the bar and tell ‘em what you want," Arthur said. "The worst they can do is say no."

Esther sighed. "You don’t know what it’s like to be told by a thirty-year-old who looks at your work through his sunglasses, that he simply loves the paintings but just doesn’t have any clients in his Blackberry who he can imagine would buy them."

"There are other dealers, Esther," Arthur said. "Chelsea, SoHo, the Upper East Side, which is becoming something of a gallery neighborhood, even a few of those Brooklyn places. All of them are open to reasonably good painting," Arthur said.

"Reasonably good? Is that the verdict!" Esther shouted.

"Look," Arthur said, "I concede that you know in your heart of hearts what you want to paint, and you’ve certainly paid enough dues to paint it. I’m talking past that, to crass careerism: selling a few pictures and getting some column-inches in the Tribune."

"‘Arthur the art consultant,’" Esther said with disdain.

"Have it your way," Arthur answered. "All I’ll say is this: Brushy still-lifes, especially when they’re done as well as you do them, can have a kind of counterintuitive, retro cachet to them. The point is to flaunt that. Paint ‘em a little bigger, maybe brass up the color a tad, even include a recognizably up-to-date object or two in the composition. Make them twenty-first century still-lifes, that’s my suggestion. And about Rooftop: There’s something about that tiny space, the members taking turns at the reception desk, no elevator, just those narrow stairs -- that makes everything shown in it seem kind of on the defensive."

"‘Counterintuitive retro cachet.’" Esther snorted. "Christ Almighty. What do you want me do to, put a fluorescent pink dildo in the basket with the eggplants?"

"Resist if you will," Arthur said, feeling the rum’s effect and holding his cup out for more. "Tomorrow morning you’ll start to chew over what I’ve just said, even if you don’t want to. Sooner or later -- sooner, I hope -- you’ll realize that you can adjust to the market without selling out. Hans Memling did if five hundred years ago in Bruges without disgracing himself, and so can you. Anyway, I’m done. I’m gonna swallow this rum and sit back and listen to your spiel."

Esther hoisted her spine upright in the canvas director’s chair that strained under her weight. "All right, sonny boy, back to your not being Jewish."

"A point I readily concede," Arthur said with a smile.

"No, actually back to my being in residence here for three whole goddamned months," Esther said. She smacked her lips. "When Abe gets going, as old as he is, he’s a maniac. His goddamned stones, and the chips and dust from them, start taking over the whole goddamned house, and practically all of Nyack for that matter. Right now, just having found out he’s going to get his goddamned show from Timothy Freelander next year after all, he’s at his worst. Or best, or whatever. I simply had to get away for a while, at least until he gets his rhythm going. This little job at the Colony was a godsend. I took it in a blink, and here I am."

"To your residency, or resident-criticicasy, or whatever," Arthur said and raised his newly filled cup in a toast.

"Now back to you, Arthur," Esther said. "I read all your stuff. All of it. Abe and I subscribe to the magazine. We’ve been subscribers for thirty, maybe forty years, because it’s supposed to be the ‘liberal’ one. Abe’s read it since he was a kid. He might even have the first issue, from right before the war. Your founder said something about the nation needing an alternative news source. She goddamned nearly called the isolationist competition Nazi sympathizers."

"It wasn’t her, it was her father," I said. "He founded, she inherited, about the time that Truman was elected. But no matter. Go ahead."

"Re-elected," she said. "Truman was already President."

"Elected," Arthur answered. "He took office when Roosevelt died in ‘45. In ‘48, he beat Dewey to be elected. That famous newspaper headline, remember?"

"Such a feinschmecker you are. Maybe you should have been an art historian."

"Working for the magazine, Esther," Arthur laughed. "They fact-check. Get it right or stay late. I’ve learned to be nitpicky."

"Anyway," Esther said, "I read all your stuff, and you’re a goddamned good writer. Up to a point. And that point is your being too goddamned glib. It’s like you’re reviewing movies: the acting falls short here, the director could have changed a shot there, the script could have been a little sharper over here, et cetera. You never question the movie business, as it were. You never ask yourself, ‘What the hell is the goddamned purpose of all this stuff?’ Art is different from movies and records and television programs, you know. It’s not about money, it’s about ideas. It’s got a mission, Arthur, a mission to make our culture better, and maybe the world, too." Esther was flushed in the face. She bent sideways to lift the rum bottle off the floor and pour herself another.

"What’s all that have to do with my not being Jewish?" Arthur asked.

"I’ll give it to you straight," she said loudly. "The only people in the art world who still have any sense of that mission are old Jews. Not just artists who are Jewish, or dealers who are Jewish -- God knows there are plenty of them! -- but gnarled old Jews who were there when it was tough. Abe and I had our son born at home, in a loft on 37th Street that we paid a hundred and seventy bucks a month to live in, not including the bribe to the janitor not to let the landlord know people were living illegally in his commercial building. My oil paint and Abe’s marble dust got into Joshua’s baby food -- it’s a wonder the boy survived. The point is that art and life were all mixed in together back then. We lived our art, we didn’t just manufacture it as high-end penthouse decoration."

"And what’s all that have to do with my being too glib?" Arthur asked.

"The critics back then were a lot like the artists, although not entirely like us, critics being inherently more namby-pamby than artists. Typing isn’t like painting, let alone carving marble. But Greenberg and Rosenberg and Tom Hess also had a mission, and they wrote like something profound was at stake. And it was: all of serious culture. Not just whether Quincy Wilber-Carr’s latest trendy video show will make a more enjoyable Saturday outing in Chelsea -- with a nice latté afterward at the sidewalk café -- than somebody else’s trendy video show. That’s what you guys write like -- you and Jonathan Hirsch and that gal at the Tribune. ‘Chief art critic!’ My God, what pretentiousness!

"But we gnarled old Jews," Esther said, with a fierce look taking over her weathered face, "keep the flame going at places like Rooftop -- where we let people go up on the roof and smoke if they have to -- which most few critics consider hopelessly ‘reactionary’ because we still have a sense of mission and a sense that the mission involves art itself, not just the goddamned openings and parties and auction prices!"

"There, you’ve said it and you’re glad," Arthur said, smiling at Esther.

"You’re goddamned right about that, sonny boy!" she said with a big grin. "And I’ll bet you’ve got some clever rebuttal to it all, haven’t you."

Arthur drained his glass, coughed lightly and said: "It’s not clever and it’s not a rebuttal, Esther. It’s just the cold, objective truth. The art world today is the way it is, not the way I want it to be. Being an artist is no longer a ‘calling,’ like being a priest. It’s no longer an angst-ridden desire to be part of the larger society and alienated from it at the same time. And the reason is that your old Jewish evangelicals -- contradiction in terms intended -- succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Modern art, contemporary art, whatever you want to call it, has been accepted. People like my editors may think it’s bullshit but they don’t complain anymore that its mere existence signals the decline of Western civilization. What used to be avant-garde or even ‘underground’ is now not only high-end penthouse decoration for the decadent rich, but, in cheaper versions, upper-middle-class interior design for McMansions in New Jersey."

Arthur coughed again, and scratched the itch with rum. "Sure, the art world is a business like making movies," he said. "Overheads are high, profit margins are tight, the advertising is intense. These days, artists don’t wear army surplus, get drunk on dago red or slit their wrists. They wear Armani and Jil Sander. They drink San Pelligrino. They get up every morning and Google themselves to see if the ‘mentions’ have increased. In this environment, a critic’s job is not to spot the next Pollock and introduce him to the booboisie. The critic’s job is to prevent the next Jeff Koons or Mark Kostabi from gaining a fucking foothold. You call it a matter of lattés, I call it. . . fuck, Esther, I don’t know what to call it."

Arthur put the bathroom glass down on the floor like he was stamping his foot.

"Poor baby," said Esther. She grunted as she rose from the director’s chair. She came over to Arthur and ran her fat hand through his bristlely hair. She wore silver rings on each finger, including the thumb. "Personally, I don’t care if you find the next Pollock. But I do think you’d be happier if you found a few younger artists whose talents you felt you could praise. You don’t have to be so negative to prove your integrity, you know. You’re one of the few who really looks. We real artists know that about you." Esther trundled slowly toward the rear of the studio.

"Name one," Arthur said, running his own hand through his hair and getting slightly dizzy doing it. "Name just one of those talented youngsters you want me to tout."

"There’s a sculptor that Abe likes a lot," Esther said. "He’s not entirely unknown, though. He’s shown some work at David Thornton. His name is Tom. . . Tom Mannheim, I think." Esther tossed the empty rum bottle into a metal trash can. It hit the bottom with the rattle of doom.

*     *     *
During the rest of the week following, Arthur found the overall quality of the art at the Colony to be a notch below what you’d see if you barged in unannounced at any good graduate school, and two or three notches below a top-end thesis show. Part of the inferiority was, to Arthur, excusable. Part of it was attributable to the barely-up-from-hobbyism of the residents who arrived in V-8 German sedans. But a surprising part of it came from the criticism-immune -- yea, serious-art-thinking-immune -- hard-core commercialism of some of the residents. By the time Arthur left, he’d seen three like that: a late-50s black guy who was likeable in a grizzled-old-jazz-musician way, but who, back home in Milwaukee, probably made slick, photorealist portraits of Malcolm X that would have looked better on a T-shirt than a gallery wall; a young, fat, maniacally smiling Tahitian woman who did folk-art versions of Seymour Chwast illustrations for the island tourist trade; and a 60-something former student of Abe Koenig (!) who supported a family of six, a second home in Nantucket and a farm in Newfoundland with sickeningly academic pastels of harbors and boats.

All three talked about their art in the most serious way, as if they really wanted to engage recent developments and longstanding philosophical issues. But they all walked the same low-level commercial path. What they really wanted was to be able to say later that they chewed the fat with Arthur -- the Art Critic for a Major News Magazine -- and that Arthur "really got into" their work. So, with Esther’s reprimand echoing in his head, Arthur obliged them. He talked with them about Higher Esthetics as though their off-the-rack art weren’t even in the room. He similarly obliged "the ladies," who wanted only to be commanded to "keep working." And he told the grasping kids exactly what graduate schools and New York galleries he thought their work indicated they should solicit. Arthur’s good deeds, however, left him feeling not one whit a better human being.

Arthur exited the Colony exhausted, dieseling on adrenaline. His jaws had flapped like crazy, on automatic pilot from his night with Esther until he climbed into the van again with Chet. But it hadn’t been totally improvisational. Arthur had set a policy: "I’ll be quickly gone. The aftermath is all that matters. So why not give a little and tell people what you know, if not exactly what you think. Why not try to leave this corner of the world a little more well-informed -- if not actually ‘better’ for my having passed through it? What do I have to lose?" So much for George Smiley.

In the end, the only person with whom Arthur had been reticent was Quincy Wilber-Carr. In fact, he never said a word to him. Quincy never showed up for meals, or for readings, or for the resident group-show opening in the Colony Gallery in the former firehouse.

"What did my conduct matter?" Arthur mused on the ride back to the train station with Chet. Well, it didn’t matter, Chet’s silence confirmed. The residents thought like Esther did, but with none of Esther’s experience or self-knowledge. They still wanted to be part of a dinosaur art world rapidly going the way of the dodo bird, or vice-versa. These were people who still wanted to pay green money to go to graduate school in painting, who bought coffee-table art books retail, who made pilgrimages to the "historical" galleries in the Modern Museum, who spent buckets on art supplies and studio rent so they could make their quixotic objets-d’art that just piled up while they got pushed out of the way by whip-smart, ruthless twenty-five-year-old kids from L.A. and Darien, with party connections, if not family ties, to the right galleries and collectors.
*     *     *
Arthur was still horny on the train back. He’d flirted like hell at the Colony, mostly by talking, or by listening (pausing his cute ‘n clever monologues suddenly, as if to say, in effect, "But enough about me"). He allowed the winsome lass in the final resident’s studio to tell him why she hadn’t stayed on in Boston after getting her degree from the Museum School, but instead went home to Colorado to work as a waitress and caterer and paint at night instead. Arthur liked playing the role of surprisingly-nice-for-a-guy-who-could-wield-seducto-art-world-power-if-he-wanted-but-nobly-doesn’t.

But he made no real moves because he knew he would have looked absolutely ridiculous making them. Arthur could hear in his mind’s ear the younger women, back in their residents’ digs, laughing over a shared bottle of Pinot Gris at the pathetic old fart who tried to play cuddly, "as if we were going to come after him!" Arthur was still enough of an ego-randy boy, however, that he craved a look, a wink, a word, a dropped hankie that implied that, had circumstances been different, had there been real privacy available, somebody would have thought, "Big Boy, would I have liked to fuck you." What he really wanted, however, was Helen. The week in Vermont had made this, if nothing else, clear to him.

As the train back to the city went through Westchester, and he was dozing off thinking about her, Arthur said aloud, "Doctor, do you think I have a problem with women?" Several people turned in their seats and stared at him.


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



 




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