Mt. Airy artist's new novel bashes the art world

by Len Lear
Posted 9/7/23

When you walk into James Douglas Rosenthal's Mt. Airy house of 25 years, you can immediately smell the varnish, turpentine and oil paint in his art studio.

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Mt. Airy artist's new novel bashes the art world


When you walk into James Douglas Rosenthal's Mt. Airy house of 25 years, close to the border with Chestnut Hill, you can immediately smell the varnish, turpentine and oil paint in his art studio. You can also see his art everywhere, as well as evidence of his long career as a singer, songwriter and musician.

But the main reason for this visit was not for the musical and artistic output, as impressive as that is, but for Rosenthal's fascinating novel, “Work Shy,” which reveals his adversarial relationship with the art world. The book, titled after an expression for disliking work and trying to avoid it whenever possible, is definitely not a valentine to the art world. It is more like a Halloween dragon that eats its young.

“I have had my fill of the art world,” said Rosenthal last week. “In New York galleries, how you sell your work is not the issue. It's how you get your work seen. Gatekeepers, like museum curators, decide who gets seen, as opposed to the quality of your work. They help people move up the food chain. So yes. I have a beef with the art world.”

It's not as if Rosenthal, originally from Morristown, NJ, is a neophyte. He has a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from  Syracuse University. From 1990-94 he taught in the graphics department at Pimlico Arts and Media in London, England. For six years he was a senior lecturer in Art History at the University of the Arts in Center City. He was also a visiting artist and senior lecturer at Moore College of Art and Design in Center City, and he was a visiting critic in the University of Pennsylvania's MFA program.

He has had solo exhibits of his work at numerous locations in New Jersey, England and Philadelphia, including the Crawford Gallery in Chestnut Hill and High Point Cafe in Mt. Airy, and was a part of many selected group exhibits in Chestnut Hill (Crawford Gallery), Mt. Airy Contemporary, New York, Boston, New Jersey, etc. He has worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Painted Bride Gallery, Independence Seaport Gallery, Morris Arboretum and Allens Lane Art Center.

“I have had critical acclaim but not enough to make a living,” said Rosenthal, who met his wife-to-be, Jessica Shamash, at Syracuse University, after which they lived in London for 10 years. (Shamash is a conceptual artist who is known for her large murals.) 

In “Work Shy,” after a drug overdose, painter Edgar Bloom is dead. At his funeral, crime writer Douglas Frank, who is 50 percent James Rosenthal and 50 percent fictional (he is more mean-spirited than Rosenthal), is persuaded to investigate what happened to his friend by Bloom's long-suffering widow. He discovers the artist's diaries buried in a slovenly studio. Frank's agent, Ron Cranston, urges him to write a tell-all expose so Frank can rise up the literary ladder.

The omniscient narrator says at one point, “We agreed art school was a con job. It finalized the last remnant of counter-culture in our minds, i.e., that both the Left and Right were a joke … The professors discussed art as if it were a fragile, sanctimonious state of enlightenment that few understand.”

Frank eventually has an ethical dilemma on his hands and mind. Does he do the right thing, or does he take the money and run when the opportunity presents itself? 

“The book (10 years in the making) is part memoir but not my real life,” said Rosenthal. “I wrote a lot of it in the London Grill (restaurant) in Fairmount. I am now on my second book, 30,000 words so far. I have German Jewish roots, a good trait for an artist. That's where my writing comes from.” (Local haunts such as the Mermaid Inn and Cliveden find their way into “Work Shy.”)

In addition to fiction, Rosenthal’s personal blog, Pocket Intellectual, is a forum for quirkier, less formal dialogue that, according to the author, “carries the torch for disenfranchised geniuses of the world.”

A self-taught musician and classical history buff, Rosenthal has also been writing and playing music since he was 10. His band, Clarksville, has played locally at the Mermaid Inn and Royal Glenside, among other venues. They do all original songs, no covers.

“Work Shy” is available from, Barnes & Noble and at the Hilltop bookstore, 84 Bethlehem Pike in Chestnut Hill. Len Lear can be reached at