Cruel “Jester”

We are writing in regard to the article in the arts section
of the L.A. Weekly titled “The
Jester” by Matthew C. Duersten [December 19–25]
, profiling Joel Mesler and
depicting the art community in Chinatown. The inaccuracies and injustices of
the piece are such that we feel obligated to respond, since the draft that was
shown to us for fact-checking last week bears no resemblance to what was eventually
published. For the record, it had no mention of Giovanni Intra. Mr. Duersten
informs us that the Weekly didn’t think his positive accounting of Pruess
Press and its new record label and art gallery “fit.” He was encouraged to rewrite
the piece altogether, to emphasize vulgar, lowest-common-denominator gossip.
The result borders, when taken as a whole, on slander.

What Duersten calls “a phony fashion show” was in fact the debut of a real fashion line by Bettina Hubby. The show at Dianne Pruess helped launch Hubby’s line, which now is on sale in shops in Beverly Hills. “Mr. Banjo,” described as a “twisted minstrel . . . atop a 10-foot-high stool performing murder ballads and sea chanteys peppered with tasteless jokes about child molestation,” is a traditionally inclined songwriter and performer who got his start at Pruess Press and now is working on a second album and touring the West Coast to happy acclaim. Mr. Mesler and his friends have indeed started a local art school, but it’s called SCA, “Southern Cantonese Association,” not “Chinatown Arts Academy,” and is not a prank. Its last graduating student is now studying art history at Harvard. The Rambler, SCA’s newsletter, is not a “jeremiad-spouting” outlet of Mr. Mesler’s private vendettas. It is not even edited by him. It is a co-authored and co-edited compendium of political journalism, art and cultural criticism and fiction, containing pieces by major L.A. writers such as Chris Kraus, Greg Palast and Norman M. Klein. The Rambler writes honest, researched and thoughtful work that doesn’t seek the lowest common denominator, but gives voice to a living, sharing, unsimulated community. Unlike the Weekly, The Rambler never stooped to putting Mr. Inmo’s private tribulations on public view, as if they were a matter of entertainment, nor did it insinuate that its good friend and inspiration Giovanni Intra was anything but a wonderful writer, curator, co-owner (not owner, as Duersten states) of China Art Objects Galleries, and artist. Not a “junky” or “corpse” in fact, but a tender, brilliant and tragically unlucky victim of an experiment, whose loss Mr. Mesler, as all of Giovanni’s good friends, mourns every day.

In short, Mr. Mesler is more than a “jester” or prankster hounding his friends and neighbors. He has done what he could to help regenerate contemporary fashion, rock & roll, literature and visual art without pretense. He has supported and encouraged his friends and contemporaries to pursue their dreams. He has built a happy and productive bridge between the art community and the local Chinatown merchants and businesspeople. What a pity that this real story doesn’t “fit” the L.A. Weekly and whatever peculiar fantasy agenda it is pursuing at the expense of real people’s lives, deaths, triumphs and tribulations.

—The editors of The Rambler


The writer responds: It is unfortunate that what I have written in “The Jester of Chinatown” has caused such personal consternation among members of Chinatown’s art community, particularly Joel Mesler and those who have known and loved Giovanni Intra and Inmo Yuon.

I wish to respond to the
Rambler editors’ letter to the Weekly on a few points. First, I did not give Joel Mesler and his constituents an advance “fact-checking copy” of the article that was published in the Weekly. Mr. Mesler asked me in September if I would write an introduction to a book he wanted to publish about Chinatown, and what I submitted to them was a personal reminiscence of this unique group of artists and curators — particularly Mr. Mesler, who has been an inspiration to all of them. Some of the raw info in the “Jester” piece also was used in the introduction to the book, including a mention of Giovanni Intra and Inmo Yuon (as well as my observation that Joel Mesler was “the best friend an artist down here could have”). I thought I had made it clear that the piece that eventually would run in the Weekly would be different and would take into account the effects of what happened last year involving Intra and Yuon.

As for references to certain alleged inaccuracies in the text of “The Jester,” I have personally seen Mr. Banjo perform several times and accurately described my perspective on his performances. Similarly, my reference to “the phony fashion show” (which I also attended) described the jovial, almost parodic atmosphere in which the show occurred. References to “The Chinatown Arts Academy” and the classes it offered were taken from the school’s own materials and descriptions of its curriculum.

Finally, on one point I must be very clear: I never told Mr. Mesler — or anyone else for that matter — that the
L.A. Weekly encouraged me to “rewrite the piece altogether, to emphasize vulgar, lowest-common-denominator gossip.” I told Mr. Mesler that the original version of “The Jester” was written for the Weekly’s A Considerable Town section but explained to them that my editors and I felt it would be better placed as a feature in the arts section timed with the one-year anniversary of Intra’s death.

On the whole, I was surprised and saddened by the response to “The Jester of Chinatown.” It is a celebration of Joel Mesler’s accomplishments, his steadfastness in what he believes, and his desire to keep Chinatown art alive in the face of a terrible human tragedy.

—Matthew C. Duersten

LA Weekly