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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.
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on May 2, 2003
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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on August 29, 2000
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 illustrated by certain works responsive to these theories: the theory, crucially, preceded and influenced - rather than reacted to - artistic experminent. Wolfe singles out Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg - critics rather artists themselves - who in this way exerted the real shaping influence on the development of art in the last century. How? Simply by determining the tastes of the purveying 'culturati' and thus the activites of the artists they patronized. The simplicity of the argument is both its strength and weakness. Strength because it facilitates a brisk, exclamatory, copious prose style capable of persuasive-seeming overviews. Weakness because potential objections and qualifications are skimmed over in silence. However, this is a popular polemic, not an academic treatise, and in this capacity it works extremely well: its basic premise is strong enough in itself not to look shaky and it is delivered with wit, panache and infectious enthusiasm. Successfully provocative.
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on February 18, 2000
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. He stripps bare the forerunners of the abstract expressionist movement along with others, and disects each in a brilliant new light. Lirerary art is merely an excuse for lack of classical ability and wolf delivers this theory in a hilarious and compelling manner. This book is a must for any artist, and a bible for all critics.
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on May 21, 1999
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 Abstract Expressionism. He reviews the scholarly dissertations and criticism.. the deep and passionate evocation of the intended meanings by painters and their champions.. the social context and views of the public.. and has come to the conclusion.. that it's all about.. promotion.. SELF Promotion. There is always a lot of tongue in cheek truth in a Tom Wolfe work. A nod and a wink that these guys set themselves up for it. But it's easy to lampoon a collection of hard drinking painters who have come to the profound revelation that the guiding principle to all art is that it should be FLAT. The Flatter the better, judged as to its achievement of Flatness. Or a now famous article (in the art world) in which a scholar decided that objects you found on your supermarket shelf were in fact the cultures noblest expression of itself, igniting a fierce struggle for supremacy with its predecessor. I like Pollock, Johns, Liechtenstein and Warhol.. I don't try to understand them. Their aesthetic qualities speak for themselves. But when the hangers on and speculators on 'trends' start lauding ugliness as being a virtue, or as a characteristic perceived only by the untrained eye, things start to get a bit absurd. This funny little (art) treasure.. usually found in some garage these days.. is Totally Charming.
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on December 3, 2002
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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on April 18, 2002
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. But I never could understand fashionable contemporary art. Wolfe has explained to why this is so. It turns out that I'm not supposed to understand it; it's intended for an exclusive audience, and my lack of understanding is what validates it to the people for whom it is intended. Suddenly, it all makes perfect sense to me, and as I think about acquaintances who do immerse themselves in the contemporary art scene, my observations correlate directly with Wolfe's.
Where the book falls short is that it fails to recognize that this remains art. It might be odiously exclusive, but it's still a communication between the artist and the intended audience. In fact, Wolfe has probably helped me understand this communication better than I ever did.
A good thought-provoking read; I take some glee in the fact that art world snobs thought he was skewering them (and perhaps Wolfe thought he was, too), but really, he's just explaining the mechanisms at work. And of course, it has some classic Wolfe lines, especially a laugh-out-loud description of young female admirers doing "Culture pouts through their Little Egypt eyes." Worth it for that line alone.
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on February 9, 2001
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 1975 exploration of the 1950-1970 Art World. Considering that he's always on the lookout for something funny to say, he does quite a good job, probably because the Art World is apparently a pretty funny place. Then again, that's always true of any insular group that develops its own vocabulary and learns to take itself too seriously.
According to Wolfe, that judgment applies equally to the artists, their critics, and the small world of collectors that support them both. He uses as an example the following cycle: Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning paint a few pictures using mere blobs of paint. At about the same time, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg conclude in their columns that painting must naturally go in the direction of increased "flatness" to fulfill its destiny (and they do, in fact, write in such semi-apocalyptic terms). To illustrate their point, Greenberg and Rosenberg talk up Pollack and de Kooning. Art patrons in Milan, Rome, Paris and New York read the columns and get interested in Pollack and de Kooning. Thus encouraged, these artists paint even flatter paintings, Greenberg and Rosenberg chat them up even more in their columns, the Art World gets more excited, and round and round we go until a guy named Leo Steinberg smashes into the cycle. He declares that they've got it all wrong, the true "flatness" exists in the Pop Art of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and the whole thing starts all over again. Only with even more feverish declarations of theoretical orthodoxy this time.
Eventually, of course, the theory becomes far more important in the Art World than the paintings. This gives rise to Op Art, Happenings, Conceptual Art, and the world we live in today wherein the answer to the question "What is Art?" is "That which we find in Art Museums."
Wolfe splashes all this high comedy around in a truly scrumptious style, full of exclamation points. Behind the rhetoric, I suspect, is a man who thinks very highly of himself, but what else can we expect from a culture critic? Fortunately, what with all those exclamation points, it's fairly clear that Wolfe doesn't really take himself all that seriously, so his work is much easier to enjoy than it otherwise would be.
Even more interesting than the language, however, is the odd feeling one gets from The Painted Word that Wolfe doesn't think of the mid-century Art Follies as necessarily a bad thing, or even bad art. And indeed, who says that Art Theory is anything other than Art itself? Why criticize this development? Why not just enjoy it?
So in his last few pages, Wolfe predicts a retrospective in the year 2000. Instead of the paintings, this retrospective presents the true Art of the 1950's-1970's - the columns of Greenberg, Rosenberg, Steinberg, and whatever other Bergs in enormous reproduction, with tiny illustrations of the paintings in question next to them. As I write this, such an exhibit is nowhere yet to be seen, but that may only mean that Wolfe is smarter than the average museum curator (a supposition I can neither confirm nor deny). Be that as it may, Wolfe's craft is undeniable - sarcastic, informed, bitchy, and overwhelmingly funny. If the Word is Art, then the hyper-serious Greenberg, Rosenberg and Steinberg are mere wannabes. Wolfe, like Groucho Marx, is an Artist.
Benshlomo says, in the words of William Shakespeare, better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
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on January 5, 1999
I read both this book and Linda Weintraub's "Art on the Edge" at the same time. I liked both very much and highly recommend both of them to get a full picture of the modern art world.
Weintraub clearly explains the concepts and theories behind the avante garde art of the 70s-90s, including Jeff Koons, Serrano's (in)famous Piss Christ, etc. Tom Wolfe cries that art theory has taken over art (which necessitates people like Weintraub to explain what's going on), that art is controlled by a clique, that some artists just want to shock the masses and to please the clique, and that the masses need not apply. I think these are very valid points, after all, Vanessa Beecroft posed 20 nude or bikini-clad babes in the Guggenheim and Heilman-C showed actual people having sex (See the 1998 review article in the ArtNet website).
But Tom does not discuss the larger issues: "Is this art? What is art?" That, combined with the fact that Wolfe wrote the book more as an opinion piece rather than the more journalistic approach he took in Electric Kool-Aid, forced me to take a star off.
It should be noted that Tom criticizes the art world's need for something new, where he was the "new" thing in the journalistic world in the 50s and 60s, in the nonfiction world in the 60s and 70s, and in the fiction world in the 80s and 90s. It's like the pot calling the kettle black.
It should also be noted that Tom was part of the art world himself, as he has exhibited his caricatures in NYC galleries. Caricatures, of course, are downplayed in the fine arts world. Keep this possible bias in mind as you read this book.
Nonetheless, the Painted Word is a fun, quick read that should make even the most-hardened boho artist think.
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on December 18, 2003
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 progression from Impressionism and they from the great ones of the Rennaissance and beyond. You have to understand Rembrandt before you can understand Jasper Johns".
What a lot of nonsense.
It still ought to be possible to like Jackson Pollack and hold your head up, but please dispense with the balloney.
Art History is both difficult and subtle; but it's also right in front of your face. Why do we need Tom Wolfe to explain to us what we ought to know already? (And how does he reatain any of his friends?)
I don't know, but it's been true ever since The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and it's true here.
It won't take much of your time to read this book, but it will help to make you a better - or at least a more sensible - person.
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