Michael Heaton

Art critic pieces together his future

At first glance, I thought it might be the kind of e-mail that could change my life.

A woman from New York had unearthed a column I wrote three years ago. The headline was "Nothing Can Save Your Life Like a Really Good Art Attack." It was about my philosophy of art. In it I referenced assembligist Steven B. Smith and painter Mariah Winiarski, who were, at the time, living in Cleveland. Smith has since decamped to Spain or somewhere with his new poet bride.

In the column I compared and contrasted different artistic styles. I wrote that Smith inspired my own fledgling art form, collecting scraps of discarded and degraded metal and making sculpture from them. I wrote that with an artist's eye, a person can find art any and everywhere.

So the cryptic e-mail from one Michelle Marder Kamhi inquired if I was perhaps being sarcastic in my praise for the work of Smith. I replied simply that Smith was my hero. End of exchange. What I took from it was that Kamhi was wondering if I was a kindred spirit. A true believer.

And in fact that was exactly what she was wondering.

The next day I received another e-mail, this one from Louis Torres, about the same column. It was much longer with many more detailed questions about what exactly I meant in a half-dozen more paragraphs of the column.

Torres explained that he and Kamhi were the editors of Aristos, a monthly online review of the arts and the philosophy of art. I learned there is also an Aristos Foundation that gives out awards. My head began to spin. My ship had at long last arrived.

I could guess what was coming next. I would soon graciously accept a $1 million grant from the Aristos Foundation. They would let me live rent free in the group's palatial villa on the Amalfi coast in Italy for one year. There I could concentrate on my found art sculptures, finish my novel and work on my one-man show of performance art.

At the bottom of the long e-mail from Torres was a phone number I could call to discuss with him my (brilliant? fascinating?) views and thoughts on art. Even though I was on deadline with another story, I called the number. Who cares about the story, right? I was about to get a $1 million grant!

Torres couldn't have been a nicer guy. We talked at length over the phone and had a few laughs. What he and his wife Michelle and the Aristos Foundation were all about though was "advocating objective standards in arts scholarship and criticism, and arguing the concept of art . . . can, and ought to be, objectively defined."

In other words, they and the foundation are wholly and fully opposed to every idea about art I ever, or will ever, have. Me, and people like me, are utter anathema to them. They think us all to be fools, frauds and charlatans. They had hoped I was making fun of Steven B. Smith and artists like him who found art everywhere they looked in the world.

Writers who had received awards from them were people like George Will and Dave Barry, who had written pieces making fun of artists who deviated from the classical forms. You know the drill, critiquing a Jackson Pollack splatter painting by saying "My little brother could have done that."

So, listen, if you have $1 million lying around you don't need . . .

I wonder if Smith and his new bride have an extra room at their place in Spain.

To reach Michael Heaton:
heaton@plaind.com, 216-999-4569

© 2006 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

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