Thursday, February 4, 2016

Art Schools as the Scene of the Crime (no. 21)

 by Larry Witham


ART COLLEGES IN the United States have changed little in the past generation, except for the new role played by computers and digital art. In short, there is less drawing and more use of technology. But the four years of art discipline remain fairly standard.
            That is why two novels about art schools—one set in the present, the other in the 1950s—create a picture that is somewhat similar.
            In Nicholas Kilmer’s A Butterfly in Flame (2010), the story revolves around a scheme to close an art school, Stillton Academy, as part of a land grab to develop a luxury resort on the coast north of Boston. Quite a different novel is The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters (2001), by Chip Kidd, in which the quirky narrative follows the narrator through his first year in at a state college art department, mainly enduring Art 127, a course in graphic design (i.e. commercial art).
            Both novels have the feel of autobiography, and not surprisingly.
            Novelist Kilmer, a former teacher of studio art and classics, was dean of a small, struggling art college in Boston that merged into the larger state college system. A Butterfly in Flame is the seventh (of eight) installments of his “Fred Taylor Art Mysteries,” which take place in Massachusetts.
            In this episode, Cambridge-residing Fred Taylor, an art investigator for a wealthy Boston collector, not only discovers the real estate calumny. He also unearths an unknown Albert Bierstadt landscape painting worth millions. The landscape mural is rolled up in a dusty classroom attic and, if sold, could save the art academy financially.
            In all his novels, Kilmer gives protagonist Fred Taylor a kind of high-minded tone, critical of fools and adamant about quality in art. A Butterfly in Flame finds Fred a bit more disparaging than usual, perhaps. He is distraught by the slack standards of art education, for example. One may sense Kilmer’s own clash with educational bureaucracies when he portrays, at fictional Stillton Academy, the worst that can happen.
            In The Cheese Monkeys, author Kidd also reveals his own life story. He became a well-known graphic designer, producing covers for best-selling authors. Kidd attended a state college art department in the 1950s. His satire on two semesters of life there offer a kind of Catcher in the Rye of the art school (or perhaps a Kerouac On the Road imitation).
            Either way, the unnamed eighteen-year-old narrator has fingered his art teachers, and the art department, as phonies (to use Holden Caulfield favorite term). An early line is typical: “Majoring in Art at the state university appealed to me because I have always hated Art, and I had a hunch if any school would treat the subject with the proper disdain, it would be one that was run by the government (i.e. a state college).”
            As to the “cheese monkeys,” early in the novel, our protagonist sees a kind of joke sculpture done by someone and titled, “Is Nothing Sacred?” or “Seventh Circle of the Cheese Monkeys,” two of its material elements being “Bagfuls of pretension” and “Hot air.” This makes our protagonist laugh, and think, “Bravo,” at this put-down of art.
            Still, a semester of Introduction to Drawing and the same in Introduction to Graphic Design do educate our young, ungrateful, anti-hero.
            The clash between students and teachers do not come into the open until the second semester Graphic Design course, where a hard-nosed, slow-to-praise Prof. Winter Sorbeck presides. During four assignments on communication through Graphic Design, he excoriates the students, especially a young lady, Himillsy, whom our hero fancies. The fourth project prompts her to fire a gun at Sorbeck, though it has blanks.
            When the final project comes, the students stress-out, do all-nighters, and one girls cuts off the tip of her thumb with an X-acto knife. But also, Sorbeck does not show up for finals: He is fired. That’s because, during the faculty art show, he put out a cooler, closed tight, bearing a sign in provocative Graphic Design fashion, “WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T OPEN…” It was opened, of course. The cooler was filled with human excrement. The stench soon engulfed the Visual Arts building.
            The story is filled with adolescent (and adult) profanity that’s bluer than even the frequent freshman bathroom humor of this novel. As noted, even the professor acts out in the end. Author Kidd is suggesting, perhaps, his felt-need for rebellion in a 1950s art department, given the Cold War and McCarthy Era. At a frat party, Himillsy is drugged and nearly raped, except our hero intervenes. Surprisingly, she then turns on him for interfering in her life.
            The story ends with the final project. The narrator book-binds his graphic texts and the cover title reads, The Cheese Monkeys. Himillsy sends in her final project by UPS, a fish bowl with the fish inside representing herself: “That’s MMMMEEEEEEEEEEEEE.”
            Like much modern-day art, or like Beat Generation narrative, The Cheese Monkeys is not about an end product (in this case, a novel with a plot that resolves itself), but rather a “process.” In this, graphic artist Chip Kidd presents a lively freshman-year tour, if not really a plot.
            The title of Kilmer’s novel, A Butterfly in Flame, also requires some explanation. The place to begin and end is its plot: A teacher and female student go missing at the art academy, and Fred Taylor is asked go in, feign being a substitute teacher, and find out where the two went (since a fraternizing scandal might be afoot). Fred soon realizes that the art school—filled mostly with sincere students and faculty—is otherwise a kind of charade. It needs accreditation to survive in the little coastal town, but for some reason the academy Board is plotting for its failure and closure.
            As Fred discovers in the end, the Board, a Boston bank, and a few other culprits are buying up the town to build a holiday spot, something like a Stillton Sound Resorts. To do this, the art academy must fail, and one hotel—a holdout in the land grab—must be brought to heal.
            The plan unravels, and one culprit—a onetime academy director—is killed to keep him silent. Then the missing female art student shows up with papers proving her father-banker is in on the conspiracy. Fortunately, Fred finds the Bierstadt mural (plus another Bierstadt at the old hotel), and as the police round up the bad guys, the art academy is due for a large new endowment and a new Board of Directors. In real life, Bierstadt had painted butterflies on some greeting cards, and one also shows up around the Stillton Academy. When the witty and erudite Fred discusses a fire that destroyed the academy founder’s home—and presumably some paintings on canvas—he said of the paintings: “They’d have the chance of a butterfly in flame.”
            As in all his “Fred Taylor Mysteries,” Kilmer has put one particular art work at the center of the plot. This novel has the Bierstadt. His other novels feature, respectively, a Vermeer, a Copley, a Renaissance old master, a Turner, a medieval illuminated manuscript, a Da Vinci, and a Bosch. His publisher says Kilmer “writes the most gripping—and well researched—art mysteries of today,” an in-the-ballpark claim, given the author’s academic credentials and productivity. Plus, Kilmer used to head an art academy.
            (More on Fred Taylor, and all “art mystery” series, in a later post).

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