Letter From Arch Furray to Stanislaw Culp
August 8, 1965
Dear Professor Culp,
What does this letter mean?
Let’s begin with the idea that I am dead. That means many different things in the body of the letter, and many different things in the body that is me. The letter creates a connection to anyone who reads it, and that breathes life into various details that are part of my identity. I reach through time and space to bring a message.
Isolated, I am meaningless. Connection is the meaning of life. I live in the letter and in the deck of cards that I have sent. Locally, they are known by a term that really isn’t translatable, though cards of “Cards of Healing” is the closest I can give you. I’ve come to call them “Heli0pTx,” naming them in a fashion that calls to mind the things you called PARAd0* as joke played on me.
My body lies in Egypt. Probably. One can only make an educated guess about what happens after we die. I came here looking for answers. The answers are in the cards. The cards contain stories. They contain personalities. They are people, and peoples. And places. They are characters in a story. They are the story’s setting. Together, they form a plot that changes depending on the order they present themselves, a plot that changes as new cards are created and presented. The plot changes every present moment. Each individual card relates to every other, and the relationships explicate the story’s theme.
There was a major archeological find here a few years back, and the place is crawling with all kinds of specialists, and tourists. What place is this, you ask. As I said, the answer lies in the cards. A lot of academic debate goes on nightly in the local bars, and it causes more confusion than illumination.
Numerous professors crowd the tomb excavations these days, and the bars these nights. Your kind of people. According to their lofty discussions, the ancient Egyptians believed that our souls could be transferred into objects. Immortality could be had by merging with something that didn’t live. It gives an illusion of permanency. I’m doing it now, in a letter, and in the cards. Some of the cards, I painted. Others, I only stared at, for long periods of time, an investment in conquering time by wasting it.
A Pharaoh named Akhenaton became a home town hero in the ruins of a town he named after himself, but this only after have been erased from history, due to heresies that were gospel while he was in charge, but quickly fell into disrepute the moment he was dead. Now, the heresies are gospel again, because he worshipped just one God, and the idea eventually became popular, though it took a while to catch on. There’s much loud and drunken debate over whether that’s even true, but I don’t want to be the one knocking the local hero. Learned professors should all be of one mind, I would think, after all the years they spent seeking the truth. You’d think the truth should be one thing, like one god. Details keep messing things up.
Some say Akhenaton acknowledged all the gods, but played favorites. Some say there were many different religions in the area, all competing, and the history books kept getting rewritten, depending on the winners. Details, details, details. Religion, I would think, shouldn’t be a competition. The easiest part of Akhenaton’s history to understand is the part when he was erased, an era that gave rise to the cult of the Priestess of the Perfect Zero.
According to one version I heard, Akhenaton worshiped the Disk of the Sun, named Aton, and that epitomized his one God. It might have been an actual object, an idol that was supposed to contain the entire universe as a single thing. Since that one thing that was everything was a thing that belonged to Akhenaton, the fact of ownership meant the Pharaoh was also the one God. The math doesn’t exactly add up. But it could, if you consider the object that represents Aton as simultaneously the same thing as the entire universe, and still only a piece of stone composed of atoms and energies and puzzles, just as the universe is composed of stones and energies and puzzles. Or perhaps Akhenaton invented the notion of one god to mate with the concept of zero gods, a bit of self-begetting that calls to mind the Egyptian god Thoth, one of Aton’s competitors. That which is within the disk is the same as what is outside it. This sounds to me like the kind of argument that would paradoxically appeal to you, Professor Culp.
Watching the professors drink, I learned they are caught up in a competition, like the gods they study, and like the worshippers of those gods who take up proxy battles on their behalf. The professors are trying to gain prestige within their universities. The fastest way for each of them to gain prestige is to come up with outrageous theories that contradict things that are obvious and simple and easy to understand.
Here’s the simplest explanation for what happened to old Akhenaton. He hit on an eternal truth, and he was worshipping the God recognized by all of the major Western religions, and he should get due credit for being right in less enlightened times, and the bit about getting his name canceled for thousands of years was a bum rap. But easy and simple doesn’t make for much of an intellectual challenge. It doesn’t require years of study. The universities compete among themselves in much the same way the professors do, whether they’re holding drunken arguments in bars or writing learned dissertations. It is a zero-sum game. Right now, in Egypt, in these competitions, the prize is antiquities. Pure golden ones.
Some of the enclosed cards look like Tarot Cards, but they aren’t. The word Tarot originally derived from an Italian word meaning “foolishness”, but then it morphed into notions of ranking and values within the cards, leading to winning and losing, triumph, or trump, and defeat. There was an imbedded hierarchy that held lessons for the world outside. The rules of playing cards were rules that even the gods themselves were obliged to obey—a notion of a universal truth that lies beneath all religions, though the cards on their face were decorated with pagan idolatry, and associated with the vice of gambling. The rules of the card games are absolute truths unto themselves, for the context is so completely limited, one cannot alter the rules without destroying the essential nature of the game.
The enclosed cards are a gift, or a curse, like the gift or curse you presented to me by drawing attention to my paintings. It was you who changed the course of my life, and altered my destiny. You drew attention to me, and then I was drawn to Egypt, where I spent my time drawing.
When you wrote an essay about my paintings, did it not occur to you that there was someone else involved? Who do I mean? What do I mean? What does the conceptually dead person entombed in this letter mean?
Critics find a way to set rules for art, imposing standards that purport to be objective on an essentially subjective and personal experience. Rules for visual composition, rules for color coordination, rules for the way muscles are depicted, even when concealed by clothes or fat. Even rules about who is allowed to break the rules and who isn’t. The rules give critics the means to control works they can’t produce themselves, as if they have put puppet strings on the hands of painters. As if these rules were the ultimate rules for human perception, on par with the rules of cards that even the gods must obey.
Critical rules lay the groundwork for turning something that shouldn’t be a competition into a competition. Art should be about itself, the revelation of each work existing for itself; a portion of the world—only a portion. It shouldn’t be a game. Religion shouldn’t be a game either. Science shouldn’t be a game. But somehow, all of these activities turned into competitions, like the way that ancient cards transformed from tools for communicating mystical insights into tools for gambling.
Alas, is this what mankind ultimately does with whatever implements come to hand and mind?
My life was upended by your essay. Favorably, at first. I liked the attention. I emulated Paul Gaugin and gave up the steady job that earned a reliable salary. But your essay shaped expectations about what I was supposed to produce. My paintings were supposed to be ironic. I was branded with an ironic brand. My paintings were supposed to make fun of pretentious people. Actually, it hurts sales when people think they are being satirized—except, maybe, when Andy Warhol does it. If only I had his marketing machine behind me.
Once you have the right marketing, it doesn’t matter what the work means. The money comes out like heat in a chemical reaction.
Ironically, you were wrong about what I was trying to accomplish. I wasn’t trying to be ironic. I was looking for truth, and trying to convey it in a simple, direct way. The kind of truth I saw. Ironic in my intent. What a joke.
The woman I loved thought I was making fun of her, and she left me.
I was forced to continually experiment, to keep trying new things because whatever I churned out would work for a little bit, and I’d earn a little bit, but not quite enough. I thought Art wasn’t supposed to be a competition, but I found myself ignored in favor of artists who treated it otherwise. I was forced to do crass and rude messages just to get attention. When people got offended, I backed off of controversy and went for the mundane, but no one paid any attention when I aimed for the ordinary, even if it was pretty. If all your work does is hang around and look pretty, what is that supposed to mean? I had paintings in galleries all over the world, but no one was buying them. People just looked at my work, without interest in owning any of it. People treated the galleries like museums. A place to see things, a place to be seen. Not a place to buy things. The joke was on me.