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Artistis and Aristocrats are Amply, Ably Abused
on 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. True enough, said Warhol, and he added an inspired refinement: nothing is more bourgeois than to be afraid to look bourgeois. True to his theory, he now goes about in button-down shirts, striped ties, and ill-cut tweed jackets, like a 1952 Holy Cross pre-med student."
In the meantime, the idle, inherited rich have to cleanse their money:
"That is why collecting contemporary art, the leading edge, the latest thing, warm and wet from the Loft, appeals specifically to those who feel most uneasy about their own commercial wealth."
Yet they nonetheless, being humans and not theory processing machines, do find themselves drawn to things they can actually understand:
"We may it as a principle at this point that collectors of contemporary art do not want to buy highly abstract art unless it's the only game in town. They will always prefer realistic art instead - as long as someone in authority assures them that it is (a) new, and (b) not realistic"
This is Wolfe, not at his finest, for there is a certain sort of botanist's plodding categorization of the ecosystem at work here, but nonetheless at his sparkling-intermittent-burst best. The art 'warm and wet from the Loft' is a delicious turn of phrase in so many ways and will be my favorite keepsake from this work.
As for the Critic, that is Wolfe's primary topic in this piece, and, being a short piece, I won't ruin or summarize it for you. He does end with a bold prediction for the Year 2000, so you do have something to look forward to.
This book is a good buy for Tom Wolfe lovers, modern art skeptics and free-thinkers, and the social and cultural commentariat. It's a bit less broad in its appeal than Wolfe's other works, including Radical Chic, so peruse the "Look Inside" pages first to make sure you like the style.