CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Sitting at his desk in the editor's office of 'Art and Artist', Edward Hurst stared across at the stooped head of his sub-editor, Stuart Hill, who was at that moment bent over the closely typed pages of Thurber's latest review. The critic had submitted this review in all good faith, and now that Hurst had read it and noted a more than favourable attitude towards its avant-garde subject-matter, he was having second thoughts about publishing it ... in spite of his promise to Greta Ryan. Frankly, he hadn't bargained for anything like this, least of all the highly enthusiastic praise of Fleshman's light art! It seemed to him that he could detect something alien about the writing which betrayed an outside influence, since he had never known Thurber to pen such a review before, and was under some doubt that he had in fact done so. Hence his need for the support and confirmation of someone else.

"Well?" he demanded, refocusing his eyes on the sub-editor, who had in the meantime completed his reading of the text. "What d'you make of it?"

Hill blinked rapidly and shrugged narrow shoulders. "I'm not absolutely sure," he confessed, with an appropriately puzzled expression on his middle-aged face. "It's certainly in Thurber's style but ..." and here he briefly referred his attention back to the typescript and shook his head "... I find it extremely difficult to believe that he would have expressed himself in exactly these terms."

"Ah, you mean he wouldn't have held so many of the opinions expressed there?" Hurst ejaculated.

The sub-editor nodded vaguely, then said: "Yes, it's the content that especially puzzles me. I mean, since when has he ever referred to a bright monochromatic canvas as 'pleasingly transcendental'? Indeed, have we ever encountered the word 'transcendental' in his reviews before?"

"Not to my knowledge we haven't," Hurst replied confidently. "Hitherto, he has certainly not been impressed by monochromatic canvases! He has said what we expect him to say and damn-well pay him to say."

"Quite so," Hill confirmed, nodding sharply. "He has taken a sensibly rational view of them, such as would appeal to the majority of our readers, and thereby regarded the results as either poor art or, more usually, as no art at all! He has never considered them pleasing, much less 'pleasingly transcendental'."

"And what do you make of his response to that exhibit comprised of a large globe of white paint surrounded by a narrow band of black paint?" Hurst asked, alluding to one of the Op works. "I believe it was entitled 'White on Black'."

"Yes, that really puzzles me," Hill confessed, frowning down at the review in his trembling hands. "Especially where he contends that it 'encourages the most optimistic and spiritually satisfying reflections'. One wonders what he can mean."

"Absolutely!" Hurst agreed with considerable alacrity. "That such a simple and altogether banal composition should encourage anything but the most pessimistic and spiritually barren reflections, I absolutely fail to understand! God knows, the other Op exhibits are bad enough, what with their stark abstractions, but that surpasses them all! One would think he had gone mad at the sight of it! Either that, or become possessed by an alien spirit."

"And a rather anarchic alien spirit too," Hill opined, reading on. "For not only does he embrace Op Art with an enthusiasm I wouldn't ordinarily associate with him but, to crown one's bewilderment, he goes on to apply a similar enthusiasm to the Kinetic works on display, deeming their creator a disciple of J-R Soto and a credit to Kinetic ensembles in general. Frankly, this is hard to believe!"

"You needn't remind me," said Hurst, who sighed in heartfelt exasperation. "His attitude to Kinetics was always what we would have expected it to be.... Not that he was given that many opportunities to come into close contact with it. However, if that's hard to believe, what follows is downright impossible!"

"You mean his eulogistic attitude towards the neon tubes?" Hill nervously suggested.

"You bet I do!" Hurst growled, frowning fiercely. "Since when has he allowed his reason to be eclipsed by neon light?"

"Since he wrote this would appear to be the most obvious answer," Hill remarked, in a mild attempt at humour. "And to an extent, moreover, which makes it possible for him to regard an anarchic arrangement or, rather, derangement of variously-coloured neon tubes as 'a rather fine work'. Really, one ought to feel sorry for the poor jerk! He even goes so far as to imagine that Moholy-Nagy would have been impressed by it."

"Who's he?" asked an angry Hurst.

"One of the originators of light art, I believe, Hill replied, momentarily looking-up from the typescript on his lap, as though to reassure himself that his senior colleague was still serious. "But whether or not Moholy-Nagy would have been impressed, it's above all the fact that Thurber was impressed by it which worries me. It's really out-of-character. As you say, impossible to believe."

"Absolutely," Hurst rejoined. "Never before has he said or written anything eulogistic about lights! Indeed, I find it difficult to believe he actually wrote all that, even bearing in mind the regrettable fact that some of his previous reviews haven't always done us anything like proper justice."

"You mean, someone may have suggested it to him?" Hill conjectured doubtfully.

"That's the most probable explanation," admitted Hurst, who had got up from his leather-backed swivel chair and was slowly pacing backwards and forwards on the narrow space of wooden floor behind it. He appeared to be deeply absorbed in thought, completely withdrawn from his surroundings.

"But who?" Hill asked in exasperation.

"I have my ideas," said Hurst, his expression grave and thoughtful. "Indeed I have! But it wouldn't be anyone known to you personally."

"I see," sighed Hill in evident relief. "And you think this someone may have gone along to the exhibition with him and influenced his review?" he cautiously suggested.

Hurst nodded his worried head but didn't speak. He was privately angry with himself that it hadn't occurred to him to ask Greta whether Thurber was intending to visit the Fairborne Gallery alone or accompanied; though, naturally enough, there wasn't any guarantee that she would have known, not being his wife. Nevertheless, he could still have inquired into the matter a little more deeply and found out what he could about Thurber's own attitude towards the abstract novelist who had turned up, evidently at the critic's prompting, at his party on Saturday. For he was pretty sure that Logan was at the root of it all and anxious to make a further nuisance of himself. But of course, what with his desire to get on the most intimate possible terms with Greta, he hadn't really given the exhibition that much thought, being otherwise preoccupied. He had simply sought a way of exploiting his grievance over the Logan affair to his own advantage, and as far as that went he'd been eminently successful. Yet not for a moment had it occurred to him that the novelist might be at work behind his back ... influencing Thurber to write the review in the radical manner presented. On the contrary, he had automatically dismissed the man together with the party. And this fact made it easier for him to promise Greta not to take any dismissive action, in a wider sense, against her boyfriend, since the review would be entirely his own responsibility.

But now that the completed text was before him and, even granted Thurber's usual puritanical preference for the abstract over the representational, quite clearly bore the mark of an alien influence - how could he keep his promise? How could he possibly allow himself to fall victim to a further humiliation at Logan's hands? Really, it didn't bear thinking about! It would be even worse than the subversion of his party. For not only would his personal reputation as an editor be at stake, but also, and more seriously, the reputation of 'Art and Artist', which had always been careful not to infringe the predominantly conservative taste of its readers by championing anything which they would be unlikely to appreciate and at which, in the circumstances, they could only take umbrage. As a rule, traditional representational art received a much warmer review than anything overtly modern or abstract - the latter being considered symptomatic of a civilized decline in the direction of heathen barbarism. And, in the main, Thurber adhered to the general policy of the magazine, though not as wholeheartedly or consistently as would have been preferred, particularly since the emergence, within the past few months, of a growing bias towards abstraction.

Yes, it was precisely on account of this comparatively recent change of emphasis on Thurber's part that Hurst had sought a pretext for dropping him, and the affair of the party had provided him with precisely the excuse he required. The altogether different and more congenial affair with Greta, on the other hand, had brought about what seemed to be a change-of-heart - at least temporarily. But now that he was in possession of easily the most objectionable review the young art critic had ever submitted, he was becoming acutely conscious of just how temporary that change-of-heart had been! Somehow he couldn't force himself to accept the review and yet, at the same time, he felt under moral obligation to do so, if for no other reason than he feared the consequences of what might happen if Thurber got to hear about what had happened between Greta and himself, as would surely transpire in the event of the review being rejected. It was a rather tricky situation.

However, it was the sub-editor who broke the psychological deadlock - at least in Hurst's mind - by saying: "Well, it looks as though we shall just have to reject this review, if that's the case, and select something more suited to the democratic requirements of our public. We can't very well publish material which not only puts the Fleshman exhibition in a light we wouldn't wish, as decent Christians, it to be seen in, but also bears the stamp of an outside influence, can we? That would be quite unfair on both us and Martin Thurber, after all."

"I suppose so," Hurst conceded offhandedly, turning back towards his desk and once more taking his seat there. "But ..." he was on the point of adding it wasn't quite as simple as that, when he checked himself and sighingly relapsed into a brooding silence instead. He almost regretted having shown the review to Hill in the first place and thereby committed himself to his verdict. For now that the sub-editor had passed negative judgement on it, there was virtually no possibility of its being accepted. He couldn't very well pretend that Hill's opinion was of little account, particularly as he had often sought his advice or confirmation in the past. No, he would just have to take the most obvious course.... Which, alas, meant that he could no longer keep his promise to Greta Ryan, and what that would lead to he scarcely dared imagine! In this tussle between his private and public selves, the latter was being called upon to exert itself and take the appropriate editorial measures, but the former was restraining it. He could hardly bear the tension.

"Yes?" Hill pressed, anxiously peering into his senior colleague's worry-strained face.

"Oh, nothing," Hurst responded, patently embarrassed. "I was just thinking how hard it will be on Thurber, after all the work he has obviously put into this review." It sounded ridiculously false and sentimental, but he couldn't bring himself to say what was really on his mind - not, at any rate, to Hill, who would almost certainly have despised him for it.

"Perhaps it will be a little hard on Thurber," conceded the sub-editor, who was slightly surprised by Hurst's apparent concern for him. "But if we publish his review, it will be even harder on us. A lot of people will be so perplexed or offended by it that they'll simply stop subscribing. Needless to say, you know how prejudiced most of our regular readers are against the type of art which Fleshman generally purveys."

Hurst wearily nodded his editorial confirmation. "Yes, well, that settles it then," he concluded, with an air of resignation. "I'll get on to him about it as soon as possible. I've had it in mind to dispense with his damn reviews for some time, actually. But now that we're left with no real alternative, I'll actually do so."

"And score one off against that jerk Fleshman in the process," Hill declared. "For I'm convinced that nothing would give him greater satisfaction than to receive a favourable review in our periodical."

"Damn fool!" Hurst exclaimed, screwing-up his face in disdainful dismissal of the man. "I had never thought particularly highly of his art anyway, but now that I'm confronted by this ..." he pointed to the typescript in Hill's hands "... well, one can only conclude that he has gone from bad to worse! One can consider oneself fortunate that one didn't have to visit the Fairborne Gallery in Thurber's stead! The sight of all those coloured lights would have made me vomit. If they dazzled Thurber, they would almost certainly have sickened me. Especially the last and biggest exhibit on display, which he or, rather, his acting mentor apparently regards as 'the most transcendental' of them all, if I remember correctly."

"Oh, you mean the 'Neon Vortices'?" Hill observed, immediately turning the page to the exhibit in question.

"Yes, that's the one," said Hurst. "Composed of variously-coloured slender neon tubing. The mind fairly boggles at the thought of it!"

"Doesn't it just?" the sub-editor concurred, smiling wryly. "Though it boggles even more at the fact that our reviewer regards this work as the fruit of a long tradition of neon projects that should extend into the future on a still brighter and more transcendental basis. One wonders what-the-hell he can mean?"

Hurst coughed contemptuously and fidgeted nervously in his chair, causing an involuntary swivel, which only served to underline the general uncertainty. "Well, whatever he damn-well means, it won't extend into the future in our publication," he solemnly averred. "We shall continue to maintain a twilight bias against the light."

"Naturally," Hill confirmed. "And, in that respect, Philpott's art would generally appear to be closer to our mundane requirements than this other business. Unfortunately, his representational canvases don't appear to have received the warmest of critical appraisals from our official reviewer, do they? Which is a great pity since, from what I already know of the man, he seems to be a highly talented artist - indeed, one of the most accomplished figurative artists currently at work."

"Quite, and one who knows how to draw a line, so to speak, between sanity and madness, genuine art and sham art," Hurst averred with enthusiasm.

Hill nodded his professional agreement and thereupon returned the review to the editor's desk. "Oh well, since we're not going to publish this we needn't fear that Philpott will be offended by what's written in it," he said. Maybe we can arrange to give him a better deal, critically speaking, in future - assuming he continues to exhibit quality work?"

"Yes, I can't see why not," Hurst agreed, smiling. "After all, there's no reason why we shouldn't, is there?"

"None whatsoever." Hill had got up from his chair and was striding towards the door. "I'll leave you to take care of Thurber," he said, turning round when he reached it.

"Thanks," Hurst rejoined on an ironic note. And, once his colleague had disappeared from view, he emitted a heartfelt sigh of relief!

 

 

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