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Gilded Robes

Paul Fleminger ambled slowly from easel to easel quietly observing his student's paintings.  I paused for a moment holding the glossy end of my paintbrush between my teeth.  Another week at the School of Visual Arts was ending. Gliding smoothly across the canvas with my brush, I applied a rich coat of Prussian blue creating the darkest shadows on a Vietnamese gir's vacant face.  Smoldering skeletons of thatched huts receded into the hazy background, where an soldier stood ushering his troops away from the mayhem and carnage.  I entitled the monochrome painting, Massacre at My Lai. The War in Vietnam was still raging. 
It was 1971. There were no more than a dozen painters in the entire country making a living exclusively from their paintings.  However, there were thousands of painters and artists in the country creating significant and masterful works of art. They survived by taking various jobs: bussing tables, cleaning houses, delivering pizza, ushering in theatres, teaching, driving taxis - anything that could keep the paint flowing.  Fighting recklessly against time, I knew some would die young from poor health, while they painted furiously.  
"The exaggerated contrasts of color give your picture impact.  Keep up the good work. Don?t let me distract you". Fleminger whispered and then continued wandering around the large studio. Hearing the master's praise, I blushed with pride.
"Take a ten minute break".  Fleminger called out and opened the door to the hall.  Just beyond the entrance in the dark corridor stood an older man in his mid sixties waiting for the room to empty.  All  fourteen of us filed out.
I thought about my Grandfather, who was a muralist.  I thought about the thousands of painters and living artists who had given up or had buried their talents alive. I never met Grandfather Schwartz; he had committed suicide during the Great Depression.  So many artists leave their talents behind in one way or another. Some are consumed by guilt for pursuing their art.  And, some became homeless bums walking the streets grieving silently.  I feared that I might join the ranks. 
"How's the school teacher doing these days",  the peculiar stranger asked, as he watched Fleminger stroll back into the studio.  Following the short break, I eagerly returned to my canvas. 
"A guest will be visiting with us in a few minutes; please do not let him distract you - no matter what; please just continue your work".  He urged with a weird smile on his face.  Not a minute passed before the odd looking man, who had waited in the hall promenaded across the room, like an old barnyard rooster.  Cocking his chin up, he sat down in the front of the room next to Fleminger and began twisting the pointed ends of his waxed handlebar mustache. 
"Did you tell the class that I'm here"?  His guest whispered.  Limiting himself to nothing but a subtle smile, Fleminger replied deceptively, "Yes, I let everyone know.  Maybe they're not interested in surrealism, anymore." Befuddled by the lack of recognition, the visitor twirled the tip of his mustache more quickly as he scrutinized the room of busy students.       
"I'm only in town for a few weeks; I'm preparing for an opening in Cleveland.  You know... the Morse's devoted one wing of their building for the purpose of showing their collection of my paintings".  Fleminger's friend boasted loudly enough for everyone to overhear.  However, abiding by Fleminger's request, the class ignored the visitor and continued painting diligently.
"I'm only in town for a few weeks; I'm preparing for an opening in Cleveland.  The Morse's devoted one wing of their building for the purpose of showing their collection of my paintings".  Fleminger's friend boasted loudly enough for everyone to overhear.  Abiding by Fleminger's request, the class ignored the visitor and continued painting diligently.
I was a boy when I first visited my father's fine pottery showroom in Manhattan.  I pictured the splendid collections of dishware imported from Italy and France.  My father's importing firm, Mitteldorfer Straus, wholesaled their pieces to many of the largest and most prestigious retailers across the country.  Hand painted ceramic lamps with spectacularly colored peacocks lit up the sparkling showroom.  A pair of candles nestled between the flaring white wings of two ceramic swans rested upon an elegant mahogany table.  Mounted on the walls of the showroom were Italian platters with brilliantly colored roosters, wine barrels, peasants, grape vineyards, and white rabbits.  Harvested from the artist's labor were magnificent ceramic vases with intricate landscapes of the French countryside.  I marveled at the artist's brush strokes, which produced their distinctive designs.  In the fiery kiln, the artist captured the crystalline beauty that made my father's business flourish.
I once asked my dad if I could get a job painting pottery, when I grew up.  The question irritated him.  On that day, I learned that these artisans labored in bleak factories earning a very paltry wage.  Nevertheless, from the gifted hands of these poor artisans, my father made a good living. 
An unpleasant perception of reality emerged. I lifted my hands feeling the rims of my antique gold eyeglasses.  My eyes fell; I looked at my bell-bottom jeans that draped over my dark brown leather boots.  My education, the canvas, the paint brush in my hand, down to the clothes I wore, were all paid for with the money that my father made from the artistry of underpaid artists.  The comforts of my upper middle-class life had shielded me from the plight of the poor and the harsh realities of exploitation.  The unique beauty of the pieces sold by Mitteldorfer Straus were created by impoverished artists.
I looked up from mixing a lighter shade of Prussian blue.  I noticed the visitor strutting around the room examining each student's work.  The leather heals of his expensive Italian shoes tapped on the wood floors and then stopped behind me.  The man grunted, "huh", as he looked and then strolled out the door waving back half-heartedly to Fleminger.  
"As many of you know, the man who just left is Salvador Dali.  From time to time, he stops in - usually to showoff.  I didn't want to waste time with his clowning around.  He's a clever businessman and an artist who used to do excellent work and now he sells his signature at high prices and expects unconditional awe. Pretending to love his work has become quite vogue in some circles. Thank you all for your cooperation; I just was not in the mood for that today".
 I suddenly remembered the first time that I had seen Dali's paintings;  it was back in '65.  My mother and I had first stopped at Columbus Circle to buy a bag of hot chestnuts from a roadside vendor.  I could still smell the delicious aroma of steaming-hot chestnuts on that cold day in New York City.  We had stolen away to the Gallery of Modern Art to see a comprehensive collection of Dali?s paintings. Comparing Dali's recent work to his earlier compositions, I had to agree wholeheartedly with Fleminger's critique.  
It was particularly disconcerting to me that my privileges in life had come from the oppression of artists.  The irony disturbed me.  To justify the inequities, my father once said, "Without my company, their paltry wages would disappear altogether.  They're all used to poverty over there anyway and without our work they would starve ".  You must look at this with that perspective".  He explained.  I began to fear that I was no different than my Grandfather - no different than the poor artists, who painted his merchandise. I was more than his son, I was an artist too.
"A true artist cannot be faithful even to his family; for the sake of a painting he would betray them all". It was all too easy for my father to curse the artist.  His bitterness began many years ago with his father's demise.  I was torn.  I knew he hated supporting my art  education. It was my mother's influence that kept me in school and his begrudging financial support was precarious, at best. 
I concealed these thoughts fearing that some would find my youthful idealism and righteousness laughable and others would attack my bourgeoisie duplicity.  Like Moses discovering his true birthright after living the life as the prince of Egypt, I was lost to both worlds.  Dishonored by my clean and gilded robes, I stood at the edge of the mud hole beside the Hebrew slaves.
Over the years, Fleminger had witnessed a regrettable change; Dali had become a different man and a different artist.  On more than one occasion, he had urged Dali to drop the phony act .  Dali had the rare opportunity for a living and wealthy artist to combat the myth that all famous artists are crazy. Dali had fabricated the role of a surrealist clown to capture the attention of the media - even after establishing his name.  After painting a number of great pictures, he resigned himself to marketing his name and his artwork became clever at best.  

The late afternoon sun generated parallel beams of light through the windowpanes onto the stark white wall behind Fleminger's desk.  The studio clattered with noise.  Across the wooden floors, the easels shuffled.  My time to leave had come.  


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