Chapter One: In the Copy Room
What follows is the first of about 75 chapters of a rather contrived, three-part saga that is entirely fiction, meaning that all of the events and characters indicated therein are only coincidentally related to anything that may or may not have actually happened. That is my story and my legal team is sticking to it. And copyrighted it is, lest ye sinners start taking up with the wrong line of questioning,
“How was your sabbatical?”
I was not surprised by the question, but it did take me by surprise. It came from Vic Thorsness, who was down on his knees tinkering with the inner workings of a gargantuan photocopier that was a new addition to our school’s bleak mailroom. He was partially hidden by the machine’s open hatch cover, his bald head blending perfectly with the contraption’s officious beige. Another reason for my surprise was that my under-caffinated attention was otherwise absorbed into the task of sorting out a thick pile of mail that had
accumulated during my three-month escape from academic duty. Most of it was quickly dispatched to the recycling bin, but I did stash a few items in a tattered file folder marked NORTHERN CALIFORNIA SCHOOL OF ART AND DESIGN (NCSAD) / SPRING SEMESTER 2001, including the roll sheet for the class that would commence later that afternoon. I also salvaged a few handwritten notes from various students pleading for special dispensations. Some of these were addressed to “Professor Jason Fowler,” these no doubt having been penned by new enrollees who had not yet been informed that I much preferred to be called Jay. Similar missives from returning students were clear on that particular point, and they usually contained the polite bribes of music CDs specially mixed to help garner the petty academic privileges that I might provide. A decade earlier, the bribes would have consisted of marijuana cigarettes, or small quantities of the over-cut cocaine in which some of our more entrepreneurial charges would have invested their student loan money. But those days were long gone, and I was not unhappy to see them go.
When Vic stood up, he lurched to one side so his head would clear the fluorescent lamp dangling from the room’s low ceiling. As he righted himself, I responded to his query with deliberate pronunciation and a diffident tone of voice, saying, “it was good.” I wanted to keep my story straight, which of course meant that I was lying, and I was pretty sure Vic knew it. The sabbatical that was supposed to be good; the sabbatical that was supposed to be a time for serious scholarly work, psychological refreshment and deep introspective reflection; that very sabbatical was almost completely wasted in the paralysis of a depression that ensued after my mid-summer break-up with Jensene Reynolds. For over six months, I had been disinclined to talk about this particular setback in my personal life, in large part because I didn’t want to hear the chorus of richly deserved I-told-you-sos about the inadvisability of getting involved with former students who were two full decades my junior. Just because I knew what I was getting myself into did not mean that the getting out of it was any less painful or any less awkward.
Vic was the veteran of no less than three painfully expensive divorce proceedings, so he would have definitely told me so, he having been told as much many times before. But on this occasion, he refrained, no doubt because he had no real interest in my personal affairs beyond whatever was minimally required to stay abreast of late breaking institutional gossip.
To change the subject, I asked Vic about the photocopier. “When did that thing get here?”
“Right after the holidays. I guess someone wanted to wait until the panic of the new millennium was over for a full calendar year before investing in any new technology. Watch this.” Vic turned to the machine and jabbed his massive forefinger at a chirping video screen. Suddenly, the sleek behemoth sprang into readiness, and a few seconds after that, commenced its churning of paper and ink. Making a sound that resembled playing cards being struck by a rotating bicycle wheel, it spit out neat little document piles into a tray, all sorted and stapled with a perfect regularity. “No more ordering out at Copyworld, that’s for sure!”
Vic seemed sincerely thrilled with his access to such a machine. This was understandable, because in his role as coordinator of the Undergraduate Foundation Program (which was called the UFP for short), he provided the freshman population with lots of photocopied reading material culled from a great many sources. Since most of those freshmen were also enrolled in my Art History Survey course, he and I would occasionally conspire about those reading lists. At first, we did so to eliminate redundancy. Latter, we discovered that we could get better results by strategically orchestrating an optimal level of redundancy — not too much and not too little — but just enough to give students the encouraging illusion of actually being able to wrap their undernourished minds around the unlearnable subjects that we were pretending to teach. The document sets that had just been printed were collections of black-and-white student illustrations of scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was one of the final projects that Vic had assigned at the end of the fall term.
At that moment, the small room was filled by another familiar voice. It was Danika Norris, my senior colleague in our school’s tiny art history department. She was standing behind me at the door, arms akimbo, playing the impatient schoolmarm, a role that was accentuated by her tweedy blazer and jaunty scarf. “Well, if it isn’t Jason Fowler back from holiday! Tell me Jason, are you ready to jump back in to the fray?” Danika grew up in Rhodes Island, but she enjoyed peppering her talk with phraseology that sounded like the heavily accented English spoken in her favorite BBC television comedies.
“Ready enough!” I said, but my attempt at enthusiasm stumbled and sounded flat. In keeping with a habit of mind that has always served me well, I tried to recover from this failure with another abrupt change of subject. “Any bell ringers from last semester?”
Danika’s posture relaxed as she delivered the unfortunate report of no noteworthy bell ringers emanating from her Art of Ancient Cultures survey conducted during the previous fall. I was disappointed to hear the news.
Vic couldn’t stand being left out of the conversation. “Bell ringers?” he asked, even though he was a bit intimidated by Danika, who always looked smart and dapper. Lucrative royalties from a book about ancient deities that she published several years earlier had continued to roll in, this owing to its having become the basis for a semi-popular documentary film. But the real truth to her high level of financial comfort (as she herself would admit with matter-of-fact pride) was that she had “married well, and divorced even better (!)” no less than three times during the past twenty-five years. Her fashionable outfit provided the starkest contrast to the trademark Thorsness wardrobe of battered denim jacket sported as outerwear over a hooded sweatshirt. The contrast was further exaggerated by the fact that Danika was small and slender, while Vic was tall and heavy-set, conveying the appearance of a retired defensive linemen on his way to seed.
This was my moment to shine. “Bell ringers are those rare and wonderful feats of missing-the-point that can only be accomplished by undergraduate essay writers at this very institution.”
While Danika was flashing an approving smile, Vic asked for further clarification: “Your mean like the nave running down the center of a Gothic cathedral being a kind of fast-moving medieval clown?”
Danika could no longer contain herself. “Oh, we’ve got way better than that! Two years ago, one young genius proclaimed that the Erechtheion was an ancient Greek temple consecrated to Priapus!” For Danika, this particular incident was the pinnacle of bell ringer heaven. I had to admit that it was pretty good, but there was another worthy contender that I was trying to recover from a sabbatical-fogged memory, without success.
Vic responded with his own entry into the bell ringer contest by saying “I must have had the same student. Near the end of the last semester, I asked my class to write short essays about Michelangelo’s David, and one responded that he thought that it was ‘a bad statue because he didn’t like dicks in art.’” Pointing his forefinger skyward in John-the-Baptist fashion, he added, “In red ink, I wrote ‘the fact that you don’t like dicks in art cannot be held against you! C-minus!’“
The uncomfortable silence that filled the room was only broken when Danika took her turn to change the subject. “Coming to the big meeting later this after?” The question was directed to both of us, but Danika already knew that Vic had no choice about attending the meeting. As one of the elected faculty representatives to our school’s Board of Trustees, he was obligated to be on the search committee that had hired Theda Vohn der Pahter as our school’s new President. She was having her first meeting with the Academic Senate latter that same afternoon, and the entire faculty had been invited to attend. Vic needed to be there, even if he wasn’t sure whether he would be taking credit, avoiding blame or just trying to save face.
Suppressing a sardonic chuckle, I said, “wouldn’t miss it.” I was curious about the new president, having read the recent announcement of her being hired in the San Francisco Hort-Dispatch. Accompanying that article was a short interview with her conducted by Kenworth Bascomb, the paper’s highly respected art critic. It seemed that the new president had big plans to connect the school to what she called “the Silicon Valley money tree,” as if she was unaware of the fact that the overbought stock market was well on its way to tanking. Even though Bascomb clearly wanted to direct the conversation in other directions, I remembered being taken aback by the frequency of her stringing the words “art” and “technology” together in the same sentence, as if she was trying to hypnotize whatever tech moguls who might be reading her words. But that misgiving aside, I also thought that we must have been doing something right, because we were able to lure her from what appeared to be a prestigious job as the Executive Director of the Varney Tepes Family Fund in Baltimore so that she might try her hand at running an art school that pretended to want to regain a long lost glory. It was widely agreed that the most important qualification for being president of NCSAD was something called “fundraising ability,” and her background certainly suggested that she either had it, or could call in enough markers to get it.
Danika reckoned that the short pause in conversation was her moment to make a quick exist. “Well, off to class I go.” Since it was over an hour before the start of the afternoon round of classes on the second day of the semester, I suspected that the “class” that she was off to was an early two-martini lunch over at her preferred Fisherman’s Wharf bistro. I also knew that I could set my watch to her walking into her History of Women’s Art class exactly five minutes late, completely unperturbed by her noontime beverage intake.
After Danika stepped out, Vic said “La Presidente wants to get things moving fast, so you can bet that this afternoon will be more than a perfunctory meet n’ greet. Did you see the new lobby?”
“No, I just stepped into the building through the roll-up service door in back of the sculpture area. I never come in through the front.” I wondered how the lobby might have changed, but I knew that any change would have to have been an improvement. Responding to Vic’s projection, I asked, “In what direction do you think that she wants to move?”
“During the final interview, she came right and said that all of the school’s problem boiled down to its historical refusal to think big, to see itself as part of a ‘larger picture inhabited by larger players with larger horizons of ambition’…those were her very words. She was already acting like she knew that she would be offered the job, and that her salary demands would pose no problem. If you could stand watching the inauguration festivities on television tuesday, you might have caught a glimpse of her milling about in the Clinton entourage, so her connections must run pretty deep.”
“In other words, you think that she wants to improve the profile of the school in relation to folks with money? Are we going to end up as a clubhouse for cyber-yuppies?” I was wrestling with the question of how such an improvement could be construed as ‘direction’ in any academic sense of the word, but my thinking was clouded by another disturbing image that Vic planted in my head, one that required me responding with a verbal exorcism: “Watching Bush Jr. put his hand on the national bible was something like waking up and discovering that the student who you gave a C-minus to had just become your boss.”
My conjuring of the young Michelangelo scholar made Vic wince, but then he added his own view on the sad state of our national embarrassment: “yeah, I guess the banjo-pickers in the flyover states have finally found their man.” But Vic had more pressing interests, so he refocused the conversation back to the subject of Theda. Speaking in a conspiratorial hush, he said, “She was evasive when we asked her about her view of the role of the faculty. At some points, she was acting like she would just go out and hire anybody she wanted without any consideration of expense. There was another moment when she said something to the effect that “we need to rethink what the institution means when it uses the word ‘accountability,’” All of this was brought out when we asked her to explain what she meant when she described her primary skill set in terms of being a ‘facilitator of synergy.’ She characterized herself as being the ‘driver of a speedboat towing a bunch of people on water skis—some would hang on and others would fall by the wayside.’ My assumption was and still is that the faculty are the skiers in this little piece of marine fantasy, but from her point of view, it might also be that the whole academic staff is too.”
I viewed this report as being the worst kind of omen, but at that moment, I decided to avoid editorializing to that effect. “What did Photobitch think?” I was referring to our most recently hired member of the tenured faculty, Russet Vodavitch, recently anointed as Assistant Professor of Intermedia studies and Vic’s fellow faculty representative on the presidential search committee. The semisecret nickname was given to her by Ben Simonian, he being the most senior member of our Painting Department, and as such, the one most indifferent to any real or imaginary imperatives for greater gender sensitivity. One day, Ben literally stomped out of the room when, in all pious seriousness, Photobitch said that she thought that the real history of art began with the invention of photography.
Despite the patent offensiveness of that particular proposition, I was able to feel some sympathy for Photobitch, who I always addressed as “professor,” simply because being called so always brought such a broad and radiant smile to her otherwise dour, colorless face. Calling any other member of our faculty by that title would represent an open invitation for disdainful smirking or worse, because long experience in the deepest of academic trenches had taught us hard lessons about where we truly stood in relation to real professors teaching real subjects at real schools.
But Photobitch still believed in it all; indeed, she needed to believe in it all, and for that reason that I was able to recognize in her something of my younger, less cynical self. Just a few years earlier, it was I who was the young-professor-who-wanted-to-make-a-difference, and after a multi-year taste of the frustrations that always accompany such hopes, I was happy to pass the baton of pedagogical idealism to anyone, even someone with Photobitch’s perverted views about the history of art.
This was one of the rare moments when Vic broke from his normal taciturnity in the direction of offering a detailed explanation, which meant that he had spent some time pondering some of the tangential issues raised by the presidential search process. “Photobitch was beside herself with enthusiasm for Theda from the very beginning, claiming on more than one occasion that Vohn der Pahder was the only serious candidate, and that we should do what ever it takes to get her to take the job. The student rep—I can’t remember her name now…Sally something…anyway—she was also swept off of her feet, following and supporting whatever Photobitch was saying.”
I was not surprised to hear Vic’s report about Photobitch’s enthusiasm. After working among us for two years, it was fair to assume that she was getting exasperated at being typecast as our school’s token art-and-technology person in a city where high technology had recently been crowned as king, queen and bitch-goddess all in one. For that reason, she had become rather shrill in her promotion of “technological art for technological times,” which caused her to lose any chance of gaining sympathy from her colleagues, despite her efforts to perform above and beyond expectation. This was predictable. In general, recent hires in podunk academic settings work extra hard to impress their resentment-addled fellows, and Photobitch followed suit. She was a tireless volunteer for committee tasks, and although this invited the suspicions of older, more clannish colleagues, no one refused to let her do their academic dirty work. Sooner or later, resentment was sure to follow, until such time as the next youthful overachiever would be hired into the same faculty that would mercilessly exploit his or her desire to do well.
Because forewarning is always a kind of forearming, I decided to press Vic for more information. “How about the rest of the Board?”
“The all are on board, so to speak. Agnes Braithwaite is letting Theda stay in an apartment in her house, and Dick Cutler is filling her dance card up with his investment banker buddies. From what I can tell, it seems that the board wants to back a play that will draw a lot of attention to the place.”
“It figures that Agnes would want to keep La Presidente to herself.” I had been tracking the Agnes Braithwaite story for years. She seemed to do nothing else beside get herself on the governing boards of cultural institutions, and the range and subtlety of her influence peddling was remarkable, even as its purposes were more than a little bit mysterious. Dick Cutler was the Chairman and CEO of Bank of the Pacific as well as the Chairman of our own Board, even though he never attended board meetings. The actual conduct of those meetings was relegated to Theresa Reingold, who was the board’s Vice-Chair as well as a junior VP at BOP. Clearly, having Cutler’s name at the top of the school’s official stationary was an asset that was worth special accommodation.
Vic looked up at the clock and calculated how much time he had before the start of his Introduction to Sculpture class. “First day of class, new boss—sounds like the perfect time to surprise everybody and show up early!” He then picked up his pile of documents and moved toward the door. A few minutes later, I followed, right after I produced slide lists on the new photocopier. Since my slides were already home-ported in the same plastic carousels that were their first and only home, I was confident that I could walk right in to the lecture room and start talking about the foreshadowing of the Reformation in Giorgione’s Tempest as if I had never stopped. Soon thereafter, the adventure known as Art History Survey B would be well underway, with excellent prospects for some worthy bell ringers on the horizon. All I needed was strong coffee and a sandwich.
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About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.
© Mark Van Proyen 2020