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The Painted Word [Paperback]

Tom Wolfe
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 14 2008

"America's nerviest journalist" (Newsweek) trains his satirical eye on Modern Art in this "masterpiece" (The Washington Post)

Wolfe's style has never been more dazzling, his wit never more keen. He addresses the scope of Modern Art, from its founding days as Abstract Expressionism through its transformations to Pop, Op, Minimal, and Conceptual. This is Tom Wolfe "at his most clever, amusing, and irreverent" (San Francisco Chronicle).

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The Painted Word + From Bauhaus to Our House + Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
Price For All Three: CDN$ 42.01

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In 1975, after having put radical chic and '60s counterculture to the satirical torch, Tom Wolfe turned his attention to the contemporary art world. The patron saint (and resident imp) of New Journalism couldn't have asked for a better subject. Here was a hotbed of pretension, nitwit theorizing, social climbing, and money, money, money--all Wolfe had to do was sharpen his tools and get to work. He did! Much of The Painted Word is a superb burlesque on that modern mating ritual whereby artists get to despise their middle-class audience and accommodate it at the same time. The painter, Wolfe writes, "had to dedicate himself to the quirky god Avant-Garde. He had to keep one devout eye peeled for the new edge on the blade of the wedge of the head on the latest pick thrust of the newest exploratory probe of this fall's avant-garde Breakthrough of the Century.... At the same time he had to keep his other eye cocked to see if anyone in le monde was watching."

The other bone Wolfe has to pick is with the proliferation of art theory, particularly the sort purveyed by postwar colossi like Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and Leo Steinberg. Decades after the heyday of abstract expressionism, these guys make pretty easy targets. What could be more absurd, after all, than endless Jesuitical disputes about the flatness of the picture plane? So most of them get a highly comical spanking from the author. It's worth pointing out, of course, that Wolfe paints with a broad (as it were) brush. If he's skewering the entire army of artistic pretenders in a single go, there's no room to admit that Jasper Johns or Willem DeKooning might actually have some talent. But as he would no doubt admit, The Painted Word isn't about the history of art. It's about the history of taste and middlebrow acquisition--and nobody has chronicled these two topics as hilariously or accurately as Tom Wolfe. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"If you have ever stared uncomprehendingly at an abstract painting that admired critics have said you ought to dig, take heart. Tom Wolfe . . . is on your side. The Painted Word may enrage you. It may confirm your darkest suspicions about Modern Art. In any case, it will amuse you."--New York Sunday News

"Tom Wolfe is a journalist who always manages to combine an encyclopedic store of inside knowledge with the obstinate detachment of a visitor from Mars, not to mention a brilliant style and incisive wit."--San Francsico Chronicle

"The Painted Word may well be Tom Wolfe's most successful piece of social criticism to date."--The New York Times

"The Painted Word is a masterpiece. No one in the art world . . . could fail to recognize its essential truth. I read it four times, each of them with mounting envy for Wolfe's eye, ear, and surgical skill."--The Washington Post

"His eye and ear for detailed observations are incomparable; and observation is to the satirist what bullets are to a gun."--The Boston Sunday Globe

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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Artistis and Aristocrats are Amply, Ably Abused June 28 2003
The Painted Word is part of a pleasant little triptych of social commentary produced by Tom Wolfe in the 70s (more or less) of which Radical Chic and From Bauhaus to Our House make up the other titles. Even with lots of pictures, whitespace and margin, Painted Word only runs to 99 pages. I bought all three and read them over the course of a weekend, what with travel time and all.
Tom Wolfe very devastatingly takes a prominent Modern Art critic's unwittingly accurate sentence and elaborates it into a social, cultural and intellectual critique of the prentensions and foibles of this tiny self-referntial world.
This is a send-up, a satire, and a de-bunking. And a field for which such a come-uppance, if not long overdue, was at the least fully due for just this particular sort of biting insightful up-comeance.
Wolfe takes us through the motives and psychological drama of the three actors in this story - the Artist, the Patron, and the Critic.
The Artist has undergone a change as his role evolved from the glorification of the royals in the Old World to the affliction of the middle class in the New:
"The modern picture of The Artist began to form: the poor but free spirit, plebian but aspiring only to be classless, to cut himself forever free from the bonds of the greedy and hypocritical bourgeoisie, to be whatever the fat burghers feared most, to cross the line wherever they drew it, to look at the world in a way they couldn't see, to be high, live low, stay young forever - in short, to be the bohemian."
It is ultimately up to Warhol, of course, to perfect this stance Warholicly:
"Warhol learned fast, however, and he soon knew how to take whatever he wanted. The bohemian, by definition, was one who did things the bourgeois didn't dare do.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Can I start by saying that this book "saved my art life"? Let me explain. In 1977 I started art school as a not so impressionable 21 year-old with a few years as a US Navy sailor under my belt. But in the world of art, there's a lot of moulding and impressions being made by a very galvanized world. And although I was a few years older than most in my class... I was probably as ready as any to swallow the whole line and sinker that the "modern art world" floats out there.
Then I read this book - it was given to me by Jacob Lawrence, a great painter and a great teacher --- although I didn't get along with him too well at the time. I read it (almost by accident and against my will --- it was a get-a-way "love weekend" with my then-girlfriend - it went sour. And this book OPENED my EYES!!! It was as if all of a sudden a "fog" had been listed about all the manure and fog that covers the whole art world.
I used it as a weapon.
I used it to defend how I wanted to paint and feel and write. And it allowed me to survive art school.
And then in 1991 - as I prepared to look around to start my own gallery - I found it again, in a gallery (of all places) in Alexandria, VA. I read it again, and to my surprise Wolfe was as topical and effervescent and eye-opening as ever!
Wolfe has a lot of bones to pick with the art world -- 25 years ago!!! He destroys the proliferation of art theory, and puts "art gods" like Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and Leo Steinberg (who have ruined art criticism for all ages - by making critics think that they "lead" the arts rather than "follow the artists") into their proper place and perspective. He has a lot of fun, especially with Greenberg and the Washington Color School and their common stupidity about the flatness of the picture plane.
Here's my recommendation: If you are a young art student or a practicing artist: SAVE YOUR LIFE! Read this book!
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1.0 out of 5 stars a biased reviewer Dec 3 2002
By A Customer
Yes, I ma an artist ...(sorrY) who cannot think ... or write. All I can do is ... paint pictures like Norman Rockwell. Tha's art right there. No thought required, no deeper meanings...
On a more erudite note, Mr. Wolfe makes some notable errors:
1. He indicts not just contemporary art, but all art that is not realistic or pictorial alone. This includes the great populist movements of Impressionism (based on optical color theory), and Surrealism (based on psychoanalytic theory). Wolfe's desire for strict realism dates back to the era of Gustave Courbet, who created starkly realistic work to the disgust of the general public and critics, who were used to the idyllic romanticizing in the art of that time. Before you judge Mr. Wolfe's argument, check your own tastes and see if they fit his narrow criteria. Van Gogh--there's emotional representation informing his colors and brushwork. Too theoretical!
2. Mr. Wolfe conveniently forgets that art in the 1960's became theoretical in an effort to eradicate the artist's dependence on a gallery system that rejected content in favor of decoration(the type of work that sells the best). Installations, performances, conceptualism were started by the artists themselves, not by critics or tastemakers, as a reaction to art strictly as a decorative commodity. When no one would or could show this type of work, they exhibited/performed in their own studios, far from the eyes of critics and curators.

3. Mr. Wolfe assumes that no part of the public is interested in non-realistic art. How many people visit the Maya Lin Vietnam memorial versus the Frederick Hart Vietnam memorial (created because the former was too theoretical?) As with much art, what initially seems challenging and controversial (remember how many paintings Van Gogh sold in his lifetime) becomes accepted, even loved, over time...
Ultimately, this is an intellectually lazy book destined to preach to the (un)converted.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars What a hoot
I was talking to an artist friend of mine about selling art versus creating art and she let me know about this little gem of a book. Read more
Published on Feb. 22 2004 by R. BULL
4.0 out of 5 stars Wolfe, again, to the rescue
I like to think of myself as an intelligent, discriminating person with independent views. But I have gone along with style and said things like "Cubism is clearly in a... Read more
Published on Dec 18 2003 by GEORGE R. FISHER
4.0 out of 5 stars Now I get it
I've always had a fascination with highly creative people, enjoyed jazz that was ahead of its time, the things that broke the earlier bounds. Read more
Published on April 18 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars Theory As Art As Theory As...
Well, here we go - time to criticize a culture critic. Try saying that three times fast.
Anyone who knows anything about Tom Wolfe will know exactly what to expect from this... Read more
Published on Feb. 9 2001 by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Come And Get Me!
This short tract of a book sets out a single, streamlined argument: that twentieth-century art is really a series of art theories (such as Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art) as... Read more
Published on Aug. 29 2000 by Tom Adair
4.0 out of 5 stars the art world exposed...again!
Art theory, literary modernism and every other pretense that dangeles in front of the contemporary art scene is laughed upon in sincere honesty by Wolfe. Read more
Published on Feb. 18 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read for artists and art lovers alike!
Artists: Are you tired of the gallery system? Tired of being told that your work won't sell, that realism is dead (killed by the camera)? Fight back -- read this book. Read more
Published on Feb. 4 2000 by A.C. Cargill
5.0 out of 5 stars I don't know what art is, but I know what I am told to like.
Tom Wolfe is the master of cunning expose. With history and humor he describes the New York City Art scene in the 1960s. Read more
Published on Nov. 3 1999 by Thomas Stamper
2.0 out of 5 stars Archie Bunker on Art.
While this book is not without its moments of humor, it is obvious to art lovers that Wolfe has little idea what he is talking about. Read more
Published on Aug. 6 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars A Hilarious Lampoon of the New York 'Schools' of Art
Tom Wolfe turns his caustic wit and pen to the world of art in this social essay. Specifically here he deals with the New York Schools of Abstract Impressionism, Pop Art and... Read more
Published on May 21 1999
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