The Art “Puffer”

Camera Work, Oct. 1909

No. 28, pp. 31-32

IN art criticism, this is the age of the “puffer,” the petty puffer, the authoritative puffer, the smiling puffer, the knavish puffer, the gentleman puffer.

If this is not believed read most of the stuff that passes for art criticism in New York. Great is the god Vogue! Mightier is the god Dollar.

Today, art criticism is the art of the stool-pigeon, the go-between the advertising staff of many of the great metropolitan dailies and the art dealers, who pay, pay, pay.

Is the Art Critic honest? Bless you, yes! as honest as your average hireling, as loyal as a parasite on the body of a three-hundred pound newspaper proprietor, as honorable as a puppet—this truepenny of the Avenue, this counting-room hanger-on. For the age of the Hold-up man has gone forever, and it is a pity. There was something elemental and barbaric about the great, burly, unmasked fellow to whom you “forked over” for a column notice in a paper when you gave an exhibition.

But today we have to deal with his eviscerated and castrated descendant, Sir Puff, who kills by his silence and immortalizes the Vogue and fattens the dugs of the cow that he milks.

You have got to be in the ring to get a notice, and, for God’s sake, advertise!

The Puffer is not on the level with the professional blackmailer because the blackmailer follows his profession with the penitentiary staring him in the face if he fails. The Puffer ignores on orders; and, being a skilled serving man, his ignorance of certain places where originality struggles for breathing place rises to genius.

No. The ferret-eyed Art Puffer (which even the counter-boy in the business office of the Great Newspaper calls Art Critic with an ironic gulp and a green twinkle) takes no chances. Bribed? Not he! He knows a trick worth two of that. He slips by certain places on the other side of the street. He is Old Golightly. His nose can smell a penny under a mattress. His vision is oiled. He knows the art of where not to be seen. His sense of direction away from certain places is as unerring as a felon’s. His brain is the organ with which his pocket thinks.

Nearly everybody nowadays aspires to be a Puffer. It is the latest blackmailer’s Utopia. It yields both swag and reputation.

The Puffer is a hawk—he knows where to pounce.

The Puffer is carnivorous—but he knows what not to touch.

The Puffer is a fox—he has the sly air of never seeming to be going anywheres in particular.

The Puffer is a mouse—he never moves while you are looking.

His cosmos is the Public Eye.

How chagrined he looks when a penny rolls into the cesspool! This paid attorney of artistic humbug, ancient and modern (humbug always advertises) would plunge his hand unhesitatingly through the filth to get his penny, but he remembers it will cost him the price of a bar of soap to clean them.

The lines on the brow of the Puffer have the subtle outline of worms. And why not? Is he not a wriggling Worm-God? Ask his owner, the sacrosanct newspaper proprietor.

This King of the Fifth Avenue underworld has neither the ability nor the genius to be really wicked. “My kingdom on the table,” he demands, like Hilda Wangel. And his kingdom is a one-hundred line double column ad. For the Puffer is a Masterbuilder of reputations.

Where, then, will the Dear Puffer go when he dies? He can’t get into Heaven because it would bore him to death. He can’t go to hell because there is no corner down there small enough into which he can crawl.

Will the soul of the Puffer go to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and become a sponge?

Benjamin De Casseres.