On “The Painted Word”

tomwolfe

Image courtesy tomwolfe.com

Note: We are discarding the editorial/royal “we” for today’s post.

As a bit of remedial vacation reading, I finally got around last week to reading Tom Wolfe’s 1975 classic The Painted Word. A brief book with a simple yet devastating thesis, it chronicles the process by which, according to Wolfe, modern art from 1950 through 1975 discarded not only realism and representation but also “lines, colors, forms, and contours…frames, walls, galleries, museums” and “disappeared up its own fundamental aperture” to become “Art Theory pure and simple…literature undefiled by vision.” In this new order of things, prominent art critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and later, Leo Steinberg ascended to reign supreme, while the artists they championed, from Pollock to the Conceptualists and beyond, soon became the servants of the critics’ pet ideas.

Throughout The Painted Word, Wolfe carefully avoids taking aim at modern art per se, which he disparages only indirectly or by implication. (“As for the paintings—de gustibus non disputandum est. But the theories, I insist, were beautiful.”) Despite his famously dandyish suits, Wolfe is not an aesthete but a social satirist first and foremost, and the real subject  of his book is the incestuous art community, which he estimates (in 1975, but perhaps little has changed since then) to comprise no more than 10,000 members worldwide. Having dubbed this community Cultureburg (a weak pun on the surnames of the critics mentioned), Wolfe skewers it by tracing the way in which idiosyncratic, often half-baked theories spread throughout it—”virally,” as we would now say—to become unquestioned dogma. Thus The Painted Word is a study in what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”

As such, it succeeds wonderfully; the apoplectic reactions it received from artists and critics upon its publication testified to the nerve it had struck. An especially ripe target of Wolfe’s scorn is Greenberg’s concept of flatness, i.e., the discarding of all three-dimensional effects such that a painting does not violate “the integrity of the picture plane.” In theory, a recipe for an interesting mode of representation, but in practice, an increasingly absurd dogma that sent artists scrambling to achieve “purity” by ridding their art of all “illusions”—and finally, of any content whatsoever. Following this madness through Wolfe’s jaundiced eye is heady fun, and tends to confirm the worst suspicions of those who, like me, are skeptical of much modern art to begin with.

At the same time, there are some obvious flaws in the argument Wolfe advances, even if the nature of the book makes these somewhat unavoidable. He doesn’t quote the criticism of Greenberg, et al. at length, allowing them to “defend themselves” properly; he savages them rather than engaging with them. But of course, to engage at length would slow the pace of the satire, and the interested reader is free to read these critics’ lucubrations in full if he or she dares. Likewise, Wolfe doesn’t advance any aesthetic values of his own to counter those he mocks—but again, he is interested in social observation, not art criticism, and would have undercut his own detached perspective by posturing as a rival Clement Greenberg. If this approach occasionally causes him to underrate some worthwhile artists—such as Roy Lichtenstein, whose wit and technical skill Wolfe can’t quite bring himself to denounce entirely—then the sacrifice seems necessary to a case that, at the time, was crying out to be made.

In the end, the most serious failure of the book is one of prophecy. Like many a satirist—Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind—Wolfe has a keen eye for the past and present and virtually no insight into the future. At the close of The Painted Word, he imagines enlightened 21st-century art scholars looking back with “sniggers, laughter, and good-humored amazement” at the follies of their forebears. In reality, of course, we have plenty of our own follies to contend with: a contemporary art market facing a dangerous speculative bubble (this can’t be too surprising to the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities); contemporary art that often strives simply to feed that market; and a critical landscape that is still overrun with Theory, less and less of it “literate” in any sense. New voices are needed to satirize these new absurdities, since Wolfe, whose prose in 1975 was already problematic (Oh, exclamation point! How quickly you ruin otherwise decent sarcasm!) and has steadily degenerated since, is no longer the man for the job. Neither is the author of this post, but I hold out hope that the ultimate peanut gallery, the blogosphere, will eventually produce someone capable of filling Wolfe’s shoes—and that the art scene will eventually produce more of the only real cure for bad theory: good art.

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