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December 4, 2005

Damian Sarno

My Dear Damian,

Please forgive my delay in responding to your critique of

my artistic approach to my work, an approach similar to
that enjoyed by many frustrated artists - art for the sake
of Art. I have given a great deal of thought to your
comments; hence this letter may be somewhat prolix. In the
process I shall hopefully clarify my views for your
edification, since I fear you may have misunderstood me.

In my last letter I expressed my admiration for the

skill exhibited in your painted faces, and suggested that
you desist from making faces for awhile and make ass
instead. And I cited the poem by my father, lauding
Jennifer's perfect ass, a perfection agreed upon by all who
had the pleasure of taking a position behind her in Luigi's
Manhattan jazz dance class.

You greeted me in gentlemanly fashion when I arrived at

your studio shortly after you received my letter. Your
intellectual skills were immediately apparent although
wrapped in humility. You mentioned that you were once given
to sharp criticism yourself; that being unprofitable,
you took up modesty instead. Even so, I detected the glint
of a blade beneath your amiable demeanor. And I, to suit
the occasion, assumed the role of humble student to exalted
master; feigning Socratic ignorance, I posed a few
questions on matters of great artistic import, which you in
turn generously answered.

We discussed the Shackian method of art-colony management,

which I described as imperialistic but too
loosely departmentalized to be a genuinely fascistic
or organic corporate structure, the likes to which certain
Romantically inclined German poets were once exceedingly
disposed. Like much popular contemporary art today, Art
Center/South Florida's colonial departments are
disconcertingly disconnected but for the ideology that
each artist must remain consistent within his confined
department; that is, given the middling palate of the
masses, he must consistently produce a certain contemporary
class of things that might sell, a class once exhibited in
the main gallery under the rubric, objects of virtue. That
phrase has been variously defined over the years; for

1749 Fielding: "They... may be called men of wisdom and

vertú (take heed you do not read virtue)."

1871 Smiles: "The virtues or valour of the ancient Romans

has characteristically degenerated into virtu, or a taste
for knickknacks."

1830 Cunningham: "This country at that period... exported

swarms of men with the malady of virtu upon them."

1825 T. Hook: "Soon they were doomed to withdraw their eyes

from the innumerable bits of virtú which surrounded them."

1815 Scott: "The manufacture of some decoration, some piece

of virtú, some elegant trifle."

1858 D. Costello: "Pictures, crockery, gimcracks of all

kinds - what is generally known as virtú.

2004 Shack Gallery, Art Center/South Florida:

"Historically, objects of virtue have been defined as
finely crafted items for which utility and artistry are
equally important. In this exhibition featuring works by
artcenter's artists-in-residence, the objects reveal a
virtue of vision, as individual as the artists'
themselves." (sic)

By the way, Damian, I visited every exhibit at Art

Center/South Florida's Shack Gallery over a period of one
year, and I must say that I really enjoyed The Twenty-Third
Annual Museum Education Program's Student Art Exhibition.
Although the children had heard from their teachers
that "there is nothing right or wrong about art", they did
the right thing, and were true to their hearts to the best
of their ability, hearts not yet ruined by commercial
contemporary art education. How refreshing that
rejuvenation was!

I had already noticed on my first visit, in the autumn

of 2004, that the Art Center/South Florida colony had a
face department or two, an abstract field department, a
spiral department, and so on. Obviously it is the
concept that counts, no matter how incoherent it might be
or impertinent to content - to which the concept often
has no correspondence besides the hablahblah-publicity.
Indeed, Herculean efforts have been made by contemporary
artists to sever substance from form (figure) - one Art
Center/South Florida artist swears she has rid shape of

Whatever the conceptual device might be, deviations and

experiments within the departments are naturally frowned
upon when monetary success is at hand. That is not to say
that the standard face and spiral fare might not be
cautiously changed to some other standard. Successful
spirals, for instance, might be replaced by drips. But if
the drips are deemed too risky, the dripper might be

Such an approach to art consumption accords with the old

dictum of the restaurant business: "Inconsistency is the
cardinal sin of the restaurant business." That is, if the
food is good. If people like a dish, why change it? Why fix
something unbroken? But when sales lag, the owner might
replace the peanuts on the bar with cheap beer-wholesaler
snacks, redecorate the place, try another menu, change
chefs, and proclaim that the flagging business is under new
management, often to no avail.
Of course the modern art business differs from the
restaurant business. Few chefs, no matter how fine their
art cooking might be, proposed to take up restaurant
politics and radically reform or overthrow the restaurant
establishment. But early modern art reflected and sometimes
led radical political reform. The reform went too far,
leading to the rise of anarchic anti-art fiends and the
destruction of principles both good and bad. The white
squares and the like resulted not in the freedom intended
once the slate was cleared, but in "democratic" tyranny.

Today, someone who professes historical principles, someone

who dares to criticize "contemporary" art for whatever
reason, and who would advocate a renascence, are,
ironically and hypocritically, called censors
and fascists, and are shouted down by soi disant
"contemporary" artists who want to be the only contemporary
artists on the face of the earth. Of course the newly
rich and bulging-belly bourgeois amass profits all the
while by stooping to the masses accordingly; that is only
to be expected, for it is the nature of the beast - there
are several ways to fleece sheep.

Early modern artists, albeit impoverished, were often given

precedence over poets and were admired as the true
intellectuals and prophets of their time. Indeed, when poor
artists entered the bohemian cafe, writers and musicians
stood up and bowed in sincere obeisance. Early modern
art was more or less an aristocratic protest which retained
some of the traditional concern with skill and sublimity
and disdain for popular opinion - the opinion of a
few peers sufficed.

Alas, however, the artists soon cut of their noses to spite

their faces. Post-modern popular art, or 'Contemporary
Art' (as if current artistic production is
monolithic) boils art down to I don't know what. Not that I
object to the process or to the objects of virtue which I
get a kick out of. After all, if anything goes, the
field is wide open for the resurrection of fine art by
creative souls - if only they were not shouted down by
their fellow artists! Of course we do see some evidence
of a continuous renascence in the form of a few fine pieces
framed by clutter. So rather than despise and protest the
contemporary clutter as "anti-art" or against
Art, perhaps we should simply call it Fred instead of Art.
Mind you, Damian, that I do not deny that a great deal of
money is to be had by virtue of "Contemporary Art" nor do I
say there is anything inherently wrong with awarding some
poor slob who has no drawing skills or sense of beauty with
fame and fortune, thus converting him from slob to snob. In
fact, I suggest that the imperial approach at Art
Center/South Florida is extremely unwise in the
contemporary art business sense, for the present cannot be
canned and sold except by soulless, apolitical machines -
apolitical because they have no control over the
distribution of power. After all, popular post-modernism
rendered the classic concept of consistency, still
obediently practiced by many of our peers, obsolete. Again,
big gains may be had from the confusion of creative-
destruction's perpetual innovation and corresponding
advertising designed to cultivate insatiable desire and
wean people from one dish to another, which becomes ever
more easy to do when their palate has been desensitized,
when the plethora of choices debases their taste, as it
were, and they no longer have the slightest idea of what
they really want and will eat anything for momentary energy.

Although you seem to disagree, it appears to me that the

Shackian colonial methodology shackles the artists at the
colony; although they are no longer allowed to actually
sleep in their studios, they are shackled to the virtual
bedposts of their respective stalls in a virtual fast-art
court, thus arresting their creativity and stifling their
modern revolutionary role, as if they were the emperor's
cooks instead of free artists.

What's more, the colony lacks a communal spirit, as each

member is induced to forswear politics and to look out for
number one, who is not really the individual artist, but is
rather the political dictator at the top of the mini-
empire, someone who insists that politics and honest
criticism should stay out of his business. Wherefore I have
heard the very antithesis to creative art professed by
artists at Art Center/South Florida: "Artists should stay
out of politics."

Wherefore I, in my capacity as an absolutely painterly

painter, a masterly painter without a painting, wrote a few
provocative letters to artists whose work I appreciate the
most, in hopes that kicking a few of them in the shin might
provoke them to resurrect themselves from the commercial
grave they are digging for themselves at Lincoln Road's
fast-art court. It was not my distaste for the vulgar
commercial form of contemporary art that moved me to
provocation: it was the love for art and the repressed
artists at Art Center/South Florida that moved me to
provoke a few of my favorite artists. For
instance, yourself, to make ass instead of making faces;
the abstract field painter, to paint Irigary's labia or two
lips meeting instead of a black cracks on indigo; the
spiral painter, to paint the death spiral of young
Kennedy's last flight.

And you differed with my assessment when I visited your

studio. Of course you might smile smugly and shake your
head over the bad accidents that might pass for art in the
contemporary art business, yet you believe concessions must
be made for the sake of business, and you think the right
concessions are being made at Art Center/South Florida.

Wherefore you keep your most personally rewarding creations

- your truths - in the back, and display what sells
best out front, mostly faces. During my visit I noticed
something different for a change, something most
remarkable, a biblical figure out front. I did not
recognize the subject of that awesome painting by name. You
said you had learned to keep his name to yourself due to
the religious prejudices of the audience. I was reminded of
the old saw, that one should not bring up politics and
religion in polite conversation; that is, if one wants to
win friends and influence people.

As for my approach to writing, you remarked that you were

hesitant to tell someone like me that he would not make it
(thus making that very implication), because some fools
occasionally make it. Well, I said, just be honest. All
right, you said, I am just an insulting little man, a
nobody, therefore nobody will care what I say, particularly
my provocative assertions. First of all, one must conform
and become somebody, and then he can do what he wants to

But I must tell the truth, I responded, the way I see it,
if I am to be true to my art, and if the truth is somehow
insulting, then so be it. As for being a nobody, it was
Nobody who drove the stake into the Cyclopean eye and freed
the fictitious sheep. Further, I pointed out that I had not
negatively criticized any particular production or artist
at Art Center/South Florida, for, according to my red
herring critical methodology, I consider other works as
points of departure for the display of my own wares.
Indeed, I had some difficulty understanding why I had
been told that I should leave the premises whenever the
director or the owner were about, as I in all my
vanity figured they should be grateful for my presence, or
at least consider me a member of the public who are
invited, one who is genuinely interested in Art
Center/South Florida.

Notice that the revolt I recommended in my provocative

letters is within the revolution. Variety is not only the
spice but is the essence of life as well; without it, the
artist stagnates: his face becomes a death mask; his
artistic spirit is demented; he loses his facility for
creative living. Thus we have grotesqueries instead of

I have carefully considered your criticism and the advice

coupled thereto - one must buckle under to succeed. Much of
morality rests on a few platitudes variously adorned to
appear original - the sin is in appearing to be
just another cattle. I have given the very same advice to
several artists over the years. For instance, I encountered
one of the finest jazz singers in America, yet unknown.
She had been a teenage prostitute and had managed to work
her way through school and into a music college. She was a
guitar-playing poet with the voice of an angel and a
classically trained ear. She insisted on singing what I
called long-haired or intellectual jazz, many of them her
own compositions. I told her I could get her a recording
contract if only she would sing popular music.

"Once you become somebody by singing what people like to

hear, you can do your jazz."

"I am somebody already," she demurred, "and I will make

them like my music."

Still, I almost got her a deal - she would have had it if

she had not disappeared for so long between India
and Thailand. She was true to herself. She wound up living
in a remote village in Alaska - she is part Native
American. She has no regrets. I don't blame her.

And I have no regrets for not following what may be good

advice for you but rather bad advice for me, iven my
eccentric view of success. Life is not what you have but
what you make of it. Although I have no painting because
I am an absolutely painterly painter, I have my artistic

As far as I am concerned, the consummate art is the

composition of a spiritual flight, one that would rather
not land on a compromise, say, in the form of a business
transaction with an audience, or a partnership with society
- as you suggested to me. I do not despise those who make
such deals if they are so disposed by destiny
or providence, fortune or fate; nor do I believe their
settlement is better than my avoidance of settling down. It
is just that my role is to rebel, if you will, hopefully in
good humour, against imperialism, including economic
imperialism; that is, the absolute economic determination
and utter socialization of the individual.

I do not mean to say that I hate business. I am a good

businessman when I apply myself to business ends. But there
is a certain meanness and viciousness in much of
business which I cannot tolerate. A help wanted ad
appeared last Sunday: the employer is retarded or is
foolish: he openly seeks someone who is suicidal by
implication; that is, someone, as he puts it, "who is
willing to work long hours in a high stress multitasking

Now, then, you can see from my complaints that I have

my sympathies with the "contemporary" or anarchic anti-art
movement not to mention the Jewish and other revolts. I am
careful not to make "anti-art" my enemy lest it make me.
But canning and selling it is not my business.

My business is the mental business guided by the artistic

spirit that revolts from production; the creative mind must
have leisure to develop special interests, innate interests
that do in fact coincide with the natural progress of
humankind, a progress far beyond what any civilization may
offer. Antagonism between the intellectual artist and the
secular powers keeps the social order from stagnating and
has been a key factor in every radical renascence of great
note. Radical: a return to the very root of being original
that the soul may be revived. It is not an anarchic, anti-
historical return: it is a classic return to the ultimate
authority, and in its freedom it is shaped by natural law.
And yes, Damian, the renascence needs funding. Anti-
intellectual merchants who mistakenly believe that history
is dead, that anything goes, that nothing is right or wrong
with art, that the future is in their hands, might ponder
on something Mo Ti once said about the ruling classes of
Chi and Chu who "lost their empire and their lives because
they would not employ their scholars."

If only more contemporary artists today would think more

and at length on the history of life, from the first touch
of the music of the spheres felt by the stardust infant in
the darkness of the womb. My musically inclined poet will
tell you that she would rather lose her sight than her
hearing. The ear is nobler than the eye, for the eye must
conform to its objects no matter how abstract they might
be, in order to see them, otherwise nothingness; while
the ear can listen to the voice of silence that
causes the heart to leap for joy in the invisible light. Of
only we were not so hard of hearing, we would see better
and think as well.

Finally, I must say that I still believe that it would

behoove you to make ass for awhile instead of faces. That
is, I believe it would be good for all us if you would
bring the stuff you've hidden in the back out front so we
can see how you really feel. Now I recall that you said
there is no ideal ass. I disagree. You might prefer the
burnished buns of Brazil or a drooping derriere, yet
the archetypical ass remains. I would entitle it the Golden
Ass and present it as the Moon.

Best Regards,

David Arthur Walters

cc: file

The Merchant by Geoffrey Chaucer

There was a merchant with forked beard, and girt
In motley gown, and high on horse he sat,
Upon his head a Flemish beaver hat;
His boots were fastened rather elegantly.
He spoke his notions out right pompously,
Stressing the time when he had won, not lost.
He would the sea were held at any cost
Across from Middelburgh to Orwell town.
At money-changing he could make a crown.
This worthy man kept all his wits well set;
There was no one could say he was in debt,
So well he governed all his trade affairs
With bargains and with borrowings and with shares.
Indeed, he was a worthy man withal,
But, sooth to say, his name I can't recall.

May 10, 2005

Dear Damian Sarno



I happen to be an absolutely painterly painter; that

is, a painter without a painting, hence I depend on
painters for my paintings.

It has been my pleasure to review your Red Faces at Art

Center/South Florida. You are certainly an excellent

I love Art Center/South Florida, but sometimes I get

bored with the respective consistencies of the artists
who shack up with Mr. Shack. Wherefore I have visions
from time to time, surreal visions, so to speak, of
something consistent yet inconsistent at the same time.
While viewing your Red Faces, a vision of Jennifer's Ass
came to mind, slightly reddened to match, yet white
enough protrude from the milieu.

Jennifer's ass exists - or at least did exist. I become

acquainted with it while studying with the Jazz Dance
maestro, Luigi Facciuto, in Manhattan. So impressed was
I and many of my fellow dancers with that ass, that my
father, upon hearing of it, wrote the poem below.

'What Has God Wrought?'

Jennifer's Ass is so divine

A mortal man on viewing it
Might feel himself so blessed he can endure
Living in the city.

For he, commuting to and fro,

Always knows his ride
Takes him to see the Ass
Or from a fresh recollection
Of having seen it.

But now the Ass, alas,

Has moved to California.

Copyright 1995 R.B.C. Walters

Permission Granted

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