In the morning I felt heavy in the head. I tried to remember what had happened last night. Nothing came to my mind, but a vague mirth fluttered in my chest. I was loath to get up, and tried again to remember the night before. Had I fallen in love? The thoughts came into my head like a plate shattering to pieces. No, I don’t like the idea of being in love. I still need Ida. But she seems to have become less of a woman after I met this girl. The image of a lemon-sweet woman in a white-spotted black mini skirt exploded in my mind. Despite the sour taste in my mouth, I felt a tenderness suffusing my chest.
During my afternoon of recovery, I kept thinking about my vicious drinking habits. I drank because I could foresee spiritual wreckage and because I was failing to find a way to prevent it, the way I had failed to attract supporters. The government had no means to promote the arts in the country. The good artists would go on exporting their masterpieces so they could sustain a living, and the bad artists wouldn’t change their ways if no one chastised them publicly about their degenerate aesthetic principles and underdeveloped artistic vision. If I continued drinking, I would eventually become an alcoholic, and after that there would be absolutely nobody in the whole country to care for the “welfare of the Fine Arts.” I was totally lost and angry. I voiced my concerns, but nobody paid attention. Ignorance for sound criticism meant the demise of an intelligent society — if the laymen were exposed to vulgarities that weren’t discounted, they would accept them as norms in the new times. I took to drinking because it numbed my pain of seeing the wreckage of all my precious investments.
The most terrible thing about the whole fiasco was Hrach’s position. A month ago I still cherished hope, for I had a brilliant idea that he would support me in my selfless endeavour to point out everything bad about the fine arts in Yerevan. With his rejection came my defeat. The only professional who understood me and who could help me illuminate art to society at large backed off. All my years of commitment and effort broke loose. For a whole month, I would wake up with a terrible hangover four times a week. Drinking, however, was a short-range diversion to relieve anger and frustration.
My thoughts were interrupted by the phone ringing. I didn’t feel like answering the call, lying sick with my hangover. A thin voice purred in the receiver. It was an invitation or something. Young painters of the Contemporary Experimental Arts “Produce a stunning series of their latest art.” Entertainment guaranteed. The artistic elite would be coming to the exhibition.
“What’s the point of my being there?” I hardly uttered in response to the heckle of praises that were storming from my sweetheart.
“Gerald, it’s a good place to talk to artists. A lot of celebrities to see and meet. Besides, a new form of art in Yerevan — don’t you want to see our contemporary artists? Get acquainted with them?”
“I know all about these immature morons. They brush something on a canvas and pass it off as a great absurdist artwork. When asked to explain their obtuse masterpiece, they only have one thing to say: ‘It’s there, you should feel it.’”
“There, there, Gerald, you don’t have to necessarily write reviews on the exhibits. For once, just be an observer.”
The speaker’s tone changed entirely:
“Where were you last night?”
I invented an occasion for drinking in the bar with friends.
“It’s not attractive to be so debauched,” the voice said.
I grew sick of the parrot-like monotone that sang in my ear.
“Ida, my headache is killing me, and your scolding me...I don’t care for your celebrities. I don’t care for those stupid young artists.”
“Please! I’m positive you will like this new art. You always say that you want to see a new art blooming in Yerevan. New forms, new styles. Maybe we’ll see it today.”
She spoke to me in her softly purling voice, asking me for the last time, for the sake of our friendship, for the sake of what could be called a little indulgence, which she promised to make up for in case it was a complete disaster. But I was firm about my decision, partially blaming my headache. I said I would call her if I got into the shape and the right mood for a place like CEA. Ida sighed disappointedly.
We hung up. For a second I had painful regrets that I had fooled around with that lemon-sweet woman the night before. I had the feeling that Ida and I were over. Only I didn’t know how to tell her without hurting her. It was difficult to tell Ida that we had better separate for good this time because our views about the arts had grown to be so different.
Lying in bed, sick and forlorn, I had no desire to look at Raphael’s Parnassus on the opposite wall — a reproduction by a Russian professor who had taught me in Leningrad. A picture of ravenous clouds hanging over the city, full of inky rain that would follow my fiasco, fleeted across my mind. All my life I had been taught that the arts served to illuminate human life, and I had devoted my last three years to making an easy and broad passage so the sun of art could enlighten the laymen. If I had to leave, the sort of people at the CEA would eclipse the source of knowledge in one day. The horrible vista of those narrow-minded people gaining dominance in our culture made me shudder. The telephone rang again.
It was my colleague. He told me that I had to fix myself a glass of vodka, and that would take care of my hangover. I told him I would call back and I went to the refrigerator, only to find I was out of vodka. I looked in the bar in vain, too. The sun outside was inviting, and I put on my shoes and shirt and went out. “To buy vodka or to take a walk?” I was wondering. I forgot about my sickness easily, even though my step wasn’t firm. I strolled into a park and took a seat on a bench. There were a few people enjoying the late spring. I thought how brilliant the sunshine was glimmering on the leaves, how full of youth and how blithe the azure sky’s gaze at me was. I had a sudden desire to paint that wholesome feeling: the sun, the sky, and the trees could lend themselves to a therapeutic depiction, if there were an artist who could discern, and then articulate, the medicinal side of nature. I thought of Cezanne’s paintings of nature, in which you can identify a human agency in its response to nature. Form was flexible for Cezanne, because he was interested in essence. Indeed, the essence of Provence is permanent, as you can’t change its blue mountains and red earth. Just like you can’t change the basic mechanisms at work in nature. I believed an artist’s primary task was to address that mechanism. Like Cezanne said: “L’art est une harmonie parallèle à la nature.”
I felt fatigued and got up. On the way home, I stopped by a grocery. As I stepped in, I almost bumped into a gentleman in a nice white waistcoat and a felt hat. For an instant, in between apologies, we tried to recall each other’s identities. Then I whistled in surprise.
He nodded and stared at me in amazement. “I’m sure I’ve seen you, but I can’t…”
“In your workshop, when I was writing about you. One of our good artists who were blown away by the wind,” I chuckled.
“Oh, I remember.”
He was polished, like an exhibit in a souvenir shop. His face was freshly shaven, his moustache trimmed impeccably, and his face was so much livelier than it had been two years ago, when Ida and I had visited him in his studio. I had learned that Robert was a respectable artist during the Soviet years, ordained with awards and known for his exhibitions outside Armenia, and I had decided to write an article about him. Seeing his desolate condition, I tried to show the public that he was the type of good artist we needed to support. He was poor and angry. But now looking at him standing in front of me, I thought he was an angel wrapped by cotton-white clouds.
“What are you doing these days?” I asked, trying to keep a distance so I wouldn’t make him sick with the alcohol on my morning breath.
“I work in a jewellery workshop. I do the engraving.”
“Well, that’s much better than being a day labourer in Russia.”
He smiled a smile that I thought was cynical.
“Better. I would say it’s so good that I will not go back to sculpture. It’s a waste of time. You sculpt, and you are given nothing. People value gold. They buy it. Now I’m skilled in something that makes my life better.”
I wanted to slap him. He had become corrupted.
Luckily he interrupted my evil thoughts.
“Are you going to the show tomorrow?”
“That postmodern event?” I tried to make my speech sarcastic. “No, I’ll probably do something more useful.”
He ignored my ridicule completely.
“I met Ananyan yesterday. You know him, don’t you?” It was Hrach’s last name. “He’s a big name these days. Was my teacher in the 70’s. I hadn’t seen him for ages. We talked about our art, then he said he was going to the show and recommended that I go too.”
“What?” I blurted. Then understanding that I might provoke an unpleasant inquiry, I tried to cover for my incongruent reaction. “Wow! I haven’t seen him at any shows lately, and now he’s going to the CEA. Lovely! I hope you have a good time and give Hrach my regards.”
I tried to cut things short with Robert, as I was utterly stunned to have heard that Hrach was going to the CEA show. I hurried home. On the way I devised a plan, and once at home, I called Ida. I couldn’t even wait a second. She was home. I told her that I had changed my mind and I would like to go to the show.
“I had overestimated my headache, I guess. I’m sure I’ll be all right.”
“I’m glad you decided to come. I know it might be different from what we would expect to be a fine arts show,” Ida said happily.
“Ooh la la. I must offer my opinion, then, mustn’t I? You know that I can’t walk by an exhibit indifferently.”
She kept silent.
“You know that don’t you?”
She was silent again.
“I’m going to blow their works into pieces with language grenades.”
She laughed. Her laughing seemed to lift my burdensome reluctance a bit.
“You’re impossible, Gerald. You will never be able to look at life from an angle different from that of an art critic.”
“Hmm, that does me honour, I suppose,” I said, chuckling.
She told me she would wait for me at six o’clock outside Stanislavski Theatre on Sunday.
Until nightfall, I walked back and forth in the parlour, ruminating. Initially, I hadn’t wanted to attend the show for two reasons. First, I felt guilty about going to the show with Ida, having been with a woman the day before. Second, neither I nor she belonged to that place. CEA was an organization founded by people who strongly believed that the Soviet art was poor and non-professional, thematically limited and philosophically narrow. Largely speaking, they denied most of the art that was extolled by the traditionalists, claiming that visual art traditions were meant to be broken by the spirit and impetus of contemporary life. Many of these men were expatriates who had come to call themselves artists by virtue of having a passion for the visual arts and by being able to make time to create paintings and sculptures; men who stood by the conviction that contemporary art in the West was highly advanced, so they were bringing into our country their unsurpassable experience and brilliant training as Western artists. At once, they attracted many young people who presently called themselves artists. They were rock stars and pop culture nuts. They wore jeans and got weird haircuts. Their jean jackets and pants were always mangy, torn here and there. They drank a lot and thought they were cool. I talked to a few of them and was sad to be confronted by their psychotic passion for Western fashion. Considering it the best in the world, they hungered for the replacement of national traditions with Western ones. Some of these hollow artists went crazy about the freedom contemporary European artists had to work on erotic paintings and statues, and they eagerly wanted to follow their lead.
This unorthodox behaviour and mentality drew disapproval from many intellectuals. Many Soviet Armenian painters, like Hrach, were sceptical about the value of this new movement. Ida and I fell in with this group who believed in academic training and valued the Soviet Fine Art School. The intelligentsia, in general, especially the older generation, felt strongly about these artists’ views and didn’t endorse their activity, sometimes labelling it alien. The main concern was that the Western school was different from the Armenian school, and that its influence in Armenia would threaten our ethnic identity. Hrach and I were concerned with aesthetics. Hrach thought every painter had to learn how to draw objects realistically. I, from the very beginning, had a negative reaction to the new phenomenon that was called abstract or postmodern art. It inclined toward pop culture and as such, fell short of making the kinds of serious, broad, and significant insights that true art is vested in. Postmodern art was practiced mostly by people who led an indecent lifestyle. I had seen these young men’s works in the Fine Arts Institute vestibule and disliked them strongly. None of them had a right to be called artists. None of their works made sense — they were puzzles and rebuses, scratched or painted or sculpted by a spontaneous impulse, sometimes under alcohol’s “inspiring” impact, and other times under the inspiration of drugs. I knew most of these young men thought that great artists had to develop some mania, some schism, and some deviation, and that they could never be normal. These artists were devoid of sense, and their works were deprived of meaning.
The news that Hrach was going to the show and that he had recommended it to Robert, his old student, astonished me. It scared me a good deal. What if Hrach was becoming corrupt like Robert? One had forsaken his vocation, the other was changing his orientation — a complete degradation. I tried to come up with various reasons to justify Hrach’s decision to be at the CEA. Maybe he was invited by somebody he couldn’t turn down. Maybe he had a cousin who was exhibiting. Maybe his wife, or someone in the family, was interested in the show, and he was supposed to accompany them. Among all these more or less positive possibilities, the uncertainty damned me.
In addition to all this, I didn’t want to bump into Armen Mikaelyan, a Soviet-remnant painter who had threatened to eradicate me, with the help of his pious progeny who worked for the government, after I had criticized his and his protégé’s artworks. Armen was one of those painters from the Soviet era who, having been trained in a one-dimensional and nomenclature-sensitive environment, wanted to exercise his power that he had gotten by virtue of his connections rather than by his merits in order to build a good dossier in the newly established republic. Being a prestigious and wealthy artist was Armen’s desire, and that of many others like him. Having obtained the wrong leverages through wrong ways, they represented the nation in the 90s. After his unexpectedly gruesome intrusion into my flat with his KGB son, I had felt very insecure about my work as an art critic. I had been in despair, knowing that my job was truly significant. But no one else had the slightest desire to cooperate with me in analysing artworks and not simply praise them for their valuable contribution to the national heritage, to explore the works by looking for ambiguities, inconsistencies, and underdevelopments, and I had become weary of writing about artists I didn’t know. I also didn’t feel comfortable attending art shows out of disgust from running into Armen and his warmly pampered “prodigy.” I wanted to be vocal about my restrictions, but it would be silly to turn to the police to file a claim for a harassment case — the police wouldn’t mess with the KGB. I was sure Armen, or at least his protégé, would be at the show, since even Hrach was planning to go. But if I didn’t go I would miss out on how Hrach would position himself in relation to that crappy display of what could be called Discharge from a Human Contemplation of the Aesthetic.
Encumbered by maddening thoughts, I sought soothing company. I rang my friends from the magazine with whom I had spent yesterday night and asked them if we could repeat the party.
“We’ll drink lighter this time,” I said, laughing out of nervousness. “And at midnight we’ll go home. No getting laid tonight. I’m going to a show with Ida tomorrow.”
At the end of the day, I still didn’t have any justification for Hrach. He was absolutely wrong in doing a favour to the CEA folks by visiting their show on the first night. Whatever the reason, he couldn’t taint his name. Hrach was a marvellous artist, one of the few serious painters I had met in the last three years. He was one of the few who still painted and had no thought of giving up. He could claim his place in our cultural life, actively seek support from the government, and teach the younger generation the basics of academic painting. He was a respectable Soviet Armenian painter who had stayed loyal to his principles, despite the sweeping changes in Armenia. And he hadn’t lost his head, getting into the “freedom of paint.” He had prepared future artists like Robert, whose lyrical output kept Ida and me under a spell for a long time. But Robert wasn’t able to resist. I only hoped Hrach hadn’t broken down. I hoped he wouldn’t be at the CEA.