Smoking on the Road to Damascus
Several months ago, in the little town of W., an obscure painter and his wife were standing outside the local Museum chatting with a famous art critic.
It was just after the critic’s lecture and the critic wanted to smoke. While the critic and the painter lit up, leveled at that moment by the night sky and the temporal pleasure of the addiction they shared, the painter studied this man whose work he had read for twenty years.
He noted that the fellow, who makes his living by using his eyes, never stopped moving his head.
The critic looked at everything furtively, while looking at nothing in particular, and it was impossible to catch him in the act of seeing anything.
The talk he gave that evening had been a scatter shot affair. The
critic had seemed both tired and wired, all jet lag and frayed neurons. He spoke very fast, alternating between ravishing insights and irresolute blather, while anomalous morsels of slides exploded over his head. The whole experience was, for the painter, a bit like meeting the Wizard of Oz...Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!.....The polished brilliance of the critic’s published writing veiled premises that were thankfully murky. To the painter’s relief, the man turned out to be human after all.
During his lecture [which had been on Painting] the critic intimated
to the audience in a conspiratorial tone that he possessed a terrible
secret about a Very Famous Painter which he promised to divulge the
following night, at the next lecture(which was on Beauty). The painter explained to the critic that he was unable to attend and asked if the critic might, in this intimate context, let loose the tidbit of gossip in his care.
"Sure, why not," he said.
"You know G.R. of course?" asked the critic as he named a rather
"Not personally," the painter replied.
"Yes, well anyway, you know he has a major retrospective coming up
at MoMA soon and the Times was doing an article on something or other and thought this image of one of his paintings would look fabulous on the cover. They absolutely had to have it but in order to fit the layout the picture needed to be cropped a great deal."
"Mmmmmm," said the painter.
"So they contacted him in Germany and told him what they wanted to
do, and do you know what he said?"
The painter surmised where this was going.
"He said, 'go ahead, I don’t care!'"
And with that the critic paused,awaiting the gasp he was sure would follow, but that for some reason was not forthcoming.
The Terrible Secret. The painter told the critic that he wasn’t
surprised. In fact, privately, what truly bewildered the painter at
that moment was the incredulity of the critic. This is a man who must
see, on a daily basis, the wild lions of ambition running crazed
through that nefarious field of poppies, the art world. That a Very
Famous Painter seeking to gorge himself on still more fame was willing to amputate one of his pictures to fit the layout of The New York Times.....Well, it was a sad day for Terrible Secrets.
"Success..," said Marcel Duchamp, "...is a bonfire. You have to keep throwing wood on it."
They both lit another cigarette and the conversation dissolved into a
monologue. The painter started to query the critic on the damage that
has been done by the growth of the culture industry over the last
thirty years, on the side effects of the insidious blurring of art and fashion, and by the eagerness of a vast proletariat of artists[most of whom should know better] to participate in their own oppression, happy galley slaves on the good ship Institutional Recognition.
"It's like the mid 19th century all over again," said the painter,
“Only worse. There’s more of everything. And less. More academies
interested in nothing but their own self perpetuation, more salons and surveys lorded over by officious curators and their sniveling minions, more galleries propping up more distended reputations in perpetuity through more magazine articles, more retrospectives, more auction houses shilling for the galleries to escalate the prices to heights that would make a sultan blush.The race goes not to the fleet, but to the photogenic. Artists are too seduced by the subliminal allure of glamor to think straight anymore. Our desires have become unreasonable, our appetites ravenous, our attention span infantile, while art itself, the reason for making it one’s life, becomes lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t even matter what an artist makes any more, what it means or looks like, because most people in this day and age are ill-equipped to discern the difference between a Donatello....and a donut!"
The painter stubbed his cigarette out on the expensive cement of the Museum’s entrance.
The critic, for his part, had been polite during this outburst,
considering his not inconsiderable role as an august tentacle of the
great gray octopus.
"What you should do..," he said after a thoughtful pause,"..is
become a Monk of Painting."
And as he said this, for the first time during the meeting, the critic’s eyes locked onto the painter’s, their intensity diffused somewhat by his glasses, but displaying an unmistakable benevolence. He turned then, to the painters wife, to resume the conversation they had begun on the way out there.........they were talking about hurricanes.
The painter couldn’t listen anymore. He felt like Paul on the road to
Damascus, knocked off his high horse by a strobe light flash from the
Eye of God.
A Monk of Painting...but of course, it wasn’t unprecedented. There was Rouault, Morandi, why his nickname was even ‘il monaco’, Ad Reinhart, Agnes Martin...all Monks of Painting. But wait...all of them are famous.
Every painting by their hand was a certified blue chip masterpiece.
What we need about now, the painter concluded, is ...a Savonarola of
Painting.... an Inquisition of Painting! Bonfires indeed.
It was then that, in the painter’s mind, the critic’s
suggestion assumed a kind of toxic half-life. He began to wonder if it had been a put down. If the sarcasm of the remark was sweetened with that empathetic stare.....to make it even more poisonous. Or could it have been a sympathetic affirmation of the frustration he expressed, and was he being offered an objective strategy for exiting the grotesque merry-go-round?.....Or perhaps it was a potentially lucrative nugget of mid-career counseling?....It occurred to the painter, that such is the confusing reðlativism of these strange times, that not only could all of these possibilities be true, but that each one would be equally acceptable to him as well.
There was growing cluster of figures that could be seen milling
behind the large plate glass facade of the entrance, seeking the
critic, who had temporarily escaped their clutches. The painter and his wife said good night to the man who was now in the midst of this
woolly crowd. They all returned to the twinkling opulence of the
reception with it’s cups of punch and little cakes, enveloped in the
chattering hum of a well oiled machine running on all twelve cylinders, going who knows where, with an awesome inevitability. .
|Artist Mark Mulherrin|