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The Painted Word

by Tom Wolfe

Buy the book: Tom Wolfe. The Painted Word

Release Date: 05 October, 1999

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Tom Wolfe. The Painted Word

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. 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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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 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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