How Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word Exposed the Modern Art RacketBeau Albrecht
Visiting an art gallery in Washington, DC long ago, I gazed at amorphous shapes for a good while. Some abstract art is good, speaking directly to the subconscious mind, but this stuff just wasn’t doing it for me. The only message I got out of it was a mild scolding from my superego about wasting a few bucks. However, one exhibit in the entire exhibit actually looked like something. That’s probably the reason why it’s the only item I remember. In fact, it was obvious that some effort went into making it, setting it apart from much of the other Entartete Kunst.
It was an ugly statue symbolizing NATO — late 1980s vintage, if memory serves. It featured a scowling GI’s head, almost animalistic, with a little missile in place of his nose. It doesn’t take an art doctorate to see that it’s a critique of American foreign policy, and none too subtle at that. Surely the curator was of a like mind with the creative maestro. (I was a little annoyed at the time, but as of January 2021, I could hardly care less about snippy digs at “Yankee imperialism” and all that jazz.) This, like the other exhibits, was purchased with federal tax dollars. The Leftist sculptor must’ve been laughing all the way to the bank: paid by the government to criticize the government, and it’s displayed in a government art gallery in the capital! What a clever bastard! I should find the old comsymp and buy him a beer.
In the modest gift shop, I found something that turned out to be even more subversive. There was a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (New York: Bantam, 1975). I recalled that Instauration had described it as a naughty book; in fact, the 1975-1987 index cites it four times. So it was impossible to resist. In fact, if Wolfe’s message had carried further, taxpayers could’ve been spared the expense of buying the forgettable junk cluttering that gallery. In fact, his devastating satire had — and perhaps still has — the potential to give the Western world’s art scene a much-needed reboot.
Back in the day, The Painted Word ruffled some feathers, to say the least, which usually led to the boilerplate “he’s a philistine too ignorant to get it” line. However, it’s obvious that Wolfe understands art theory, and the attacks on him were vehement. The book could’ve disrupted the sinecures of thousands — not only painters with questionable abilities, but also the small industry surrounding them.
Likewise, the wealthy patrons who bought their work might have been troubled by the suggestion that, in some cases, the expensive fashion statements on their walls exhibited little more talent than a toddler’s scribble-scrabble. They wouldn’t have wanted to hear that they’d been gypped, or that they had much more money than taste. This could’ve been the “emperor has no clothes” moment for modern art.
The author was reading the New York Times arts reviews, and the following caught his attention:
Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial — the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.
He took the “crucial” part at face value:
In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.
Wolfe then came to an epiphany. The characteristically Lupine prose – luxuriant, rambling, and full of Célinian ellipses — related how art theory has been the driving force behind a hodgepodge of faddish trends in modern art.
He then provides some brief history. Early on, artists worked for the rich. After the French Revolution, the “starving artist” mystique began:
What held the cénacles together was that merry battle spirit we have all come to know and love: épatez la bourgeoisie, shock the middle class. With Gautier’s cénacle especially . . . with Gautier’s own red vests, black scarves, crazy hats, outrageous pronouncements, huge thirsts, and ravenous groin . . . the modern picture of The Artist began to form: the poor but free spirit, plebeian 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.
When the twentieth century rolled around, they upped the ante:
As a painter or sculptor the artist would do work that baffled or subverted the cozy bourgeois vision of reality.
The location of the art scene changed yet again, to certain fashionable quarters of the big cities frequented by wealthy connoisseurs, who in turn became the patrons of those lucky few who Get Discovered. The bohemian spirit was there, but its Dionysian ideals in their entirety were impractical. One needs money to survive, which for these aspiring maestros meant attracting buyers for their paintings, no matter how un-romantic commercial activity is. Capitalism? Ick!
One of the themes in The Painted Word is the tension between the bohemian pose (including an ostentatious devil-may-care attitude about money and societal approval) and the unspoken yearning for fame and fortune. The starving artists want to attain celebrity status and a pile of loot. Getting Discovered requires following whatever is trendy in the scene, and to develop a specialized type of salesmanship:
He could close his eyes and try to believe that all that mattered was that he knew his work was great . . . and that other artists respected it . . . and that History would surely record his achievements . . . but deep down he knew he was lying to himself. I want to be a Name, goddamn it! — at least that, a name, a name on the lips of the museum curators, gallery owners, collectors, patrons, board members, committee members, Culture hostesses, and their attendant intellectuals and journalists and their Time and Newsweek — all right! – even that! —Time and Newsweek — Oh yes! (ask the shades of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko!) — even the goddamned journalists!
Then, when a couple of talent scouts from the Museum of Modern Art make their annual trek, a buzz of excitement begins among New York’s starving artists:
They’re coming! . . . And rolling across Lower Manhattan, like the Cosmic Pulse of the theosophists, would be a unitary heartbeat:
Pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me . . . O damnable Uptown!
For an unknown bohemian bourgeois painter, Getting Discovered involves a mutual seduction:
- The Boho Dance, in which the artist shows his stuff within the circles, coteries, movements, isms, of the home neighborhood, bohemia itself, as if he doesn’t care about anything else; as if, in fact, he has a knife in his teeth against the fashionable world uptown.
- The Consummation, in which culturati from that very same world, le monde, scout the various new movements and new artists of bohemia, select those who seem the most exciting, original, important, by whatever standards — and shower them with all the rewards of celebrity.
After this, the maestro should pretend reluctance at being showered with fame and fortune, yet tone it down with the bohemian pose enough to get with the program.
For the patrons, being an art collector conveys a certain chic nullifying the unfashionable stigma accompanying having too much money. I’ll add that lately, similar motives may inspire corporate virtue-signaling, allowing obscenely wealthy executives to bask in the glow of being wonderful and progressive and avoid feeling like capitalist pigs:
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 . . . See? I’m not like them — those Jaycees, those United Fund chairmen, those Young Presidents, those mindless New York A. C. goyisheh hog-jowled, stripe-tied goddamn-good-to-see-you-you-old-bastard-you oyster-bar trenchermen . . .
This is already approaching forbidden territory.
The exclusive club
The Painted Word estimates that there were about 10,000 culturati at the time it was written, in 1975, with 90% residing in eight fashionable Western metropolises. We can gather that this distributed virtual village includes the art scene’s taste-makers: critics, museum officials, a handful of wealthy patrons buying for their private collections, promoters, significant hangers-on, and so forth. Therefore, this is much like the literary-industrial complex, which largely determines which authors become popular. Likewise, it’s similar to the small industry concerning itself with the promotion and manufacture of popular music (aside from the musicians themselves). This forms a small subculture, and “the madness of crowds” applies. I’ll add further that these characteristics are things the tricky New World Order types have in common with the culturati, and there’s at least a little overlap between the two circles among the upper-crust art snobs.
The culturati are the true spectators who the painters must charm. Together, these two elements form Cultureburg, Wolfe’s rather daring term for the distributed virtual village of consumers and producers in what passes for Western civilization’s contemporary art scene. Meanwhile, the general public is inconsequential. The opinions and tastes of those outside Cultureburg don’t count, no matter how many museum tickets they buy:
The notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in Modern Art, the notion that the public scorns, ignores, fails to comprehend, allows to wither, crushes the spirit of, or commits any other crime against Art or any individual artist is merely a romantic fiction, a bittersweet Trilby sentiment. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened.
The culturati are the ones with the power to elevate a starving artist to a minor celebrity — or in the following case, a major one:
Picasso, who had once lived in the legendary unlit attic and painted at night with a brush in one hand and a candlestick in the other — Picasso now stayed at the Savoy, had lots of clothes made on Bond Street and nearby, including a set of tails, went to all the best parties (and parties were never better), was set up with highly publicized shows of his paintings, and became a social lion — which he remained, Tales of the Aging Recluse notwithstanding, until he was in his seventies.
Picasso’s now-obscure companions, Braque and Derain, show the importance for a starving artist of getting with the program if opportunity knocks and they Get Discovered; taking the bohemian pose too seriously is a mistake!
Not to beg the question of differences in talent — but here we have the classic demonstration of the artist who knows how to double-track his way from the Boho Dance to the Consummation as opposed to the artist who gets stuck forever in the Boho Dance. This is an ever-present hazard of the art mating ritual. Truly successful double-tracking requires the artist to be a sincere and committed performer in both roles.
When the modern art scene arrived in New York during the 1920s, it wasn’t a grassroots development:
By 1929 it had been established, institutionalized, in the most overwhelming way: in the form of the Museum of Modern Art. This cathedral of Culture was not exactly the brain child of visionary bohemians. It was founded in John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s living room, to be exact, with Goodyears, Blisses, and Crowninshields in attendance.
This development displeased some, but to no avail:
Writing in 1923, at the time of a national debate over immigration (which led to the Immigration Act of 1924), [Royal Cortissoz] compared the alien invasion of European modernism to the subversive alien hordes coming in by boat. “Ellis Island art,” he called it, no doubt figuring he had come up with a devastating label. Well!-as one can imagine!-how everybody sniggered at poor Mr. Cortissoz over that!
By the mid-1930s, Modern Art was already so chic that corporations held it aloft like a flag to show that they were both up-to-date and enlightened, a force in Culture as well as commerce.
Here again I note a similarity of collecting avant garde art to the more recent fashion of sociopolitical virtue-signaling. Still, Entartete Kunst was much preferable to the way culture distortion would roll a century later.
Cultureburg gets in gear
Art theory became increasingly important. However, during the 1930s, there was an interruption in the progression toward absurdism as artists became enmeshed in the politics of the time and started marching in lockstep with the Social Realism style, which was similar to the Soviet Union’s Socialist Realism. (Say what you will about their politics, it did have artistic merit.) Reading between the lines slightly after the conclusion of the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy, they no longer needed to help the propaganda effort for their Soviet buddies, so it was time to shift gears again.
Throughout the Social Realism interlude, some painters bucked the trend and stuck to the abstract style:
They were like a real underground, for a change — in hiding this time not from that rather metaphysical menace, the bourgeoisie, but from their own comrade bohemian drillmasters, the aforementioned “shouting dogmatists” of the Left. Even Franz Kline, the abstract painter’s abstract painter, was dutifully cranking out paintings of unemployed Negroes, crippled war veterans, and the ubiquitous workers with the open blue work shirts and necks wider than their heads. But there were those who kept Modernism alive . . .
In the 1940s, this coalesced into the Abstract Impressionism of the Tenth Street School. Clement Greenberg became a prominent spokesman, with quite an attention-grabbing style:
In a famous essay in Horizon in 1947 he said the entire future of art in America was in the hands of fifty brave but anonymous and beleaguered artists “south of 34th Street” who were about to be wiped out at any moment. By whom — by what? Why, by the “dull horror” of American life. “Their isolation is inconceivably crushing, unbroken, damning,” said Greenberg. “That anyone can produce art on a respectable level in this situation is highly improbable. What can fifty do against a hundred and forty million?”
Of course, this is one of those “Do they really believe their own nonsense?” moments. Still, I’ve got to hand it to Mr. Greenberg for being able to pull that one off and be taken seriously by the “intelligentsia” forming the art scene.
He began the flatness fad. His associate Harold Rosenberg initiated the Action Painting fad. (Photos of the two are in The Painted Word, and it’s inescapable that they look as if they’d just stepped out of the pages of Der Stürmer.) Wolfe’s characteristic prose describes this style perhaps with at least as much verve as the paintings themselves:
It was of Action Painter . . . a Promethean artist gorged with emotion and overloaded with paint, hurling himself and his brushes at the canvas as if in hand-to-hand combat with Fate. There! . . . there! . . . there in those furious swipes of the brush on canvas, in those splatters of unchained id, one could see the artist’s emotion itself — still alive! — in the finished product.
Whew! They got Jackson Pollock on board; his style evolved into drip painting. At this point, Cultureburg was pretty serious about the flatness business. Letting paint visibly add a third dimension to a canvas, even a very small one, was a no-no. However, it was permissible to paint a picture of greatly magnified brushstrokes so long as no brushstrokes involved in producing the picture could be seen. Pretty “meta,” huh? My edition of The Painted Word shows Roy Lichtenstein’s efforts in this regard, and the cover of the very first edition of Instauration reproduces this, too.
Greenberg took to going by Pollock’s studio and giving on-the-spot critiques.
Soon Pollock was having a generally hard time figuring out where the boundary was between Himself — old Jack — and his Reputation or whether there was any.
I’ll add that he was the all-American type more likely to be relatable to us. Unfortunately, he had a drinking problem which ultimately spelled his doom. He kept up the bohemian pose as if he didn’t get the memo that he was famous now:
Here was the archetypical Pollock gesture: one night he arrives drunk at Peggy Guggenheim’s house during a party for a lot of swell people. So he takes off his clothes in another room and comes walking into the living room stark naked and urinates in the fireplace. On the other hand, neither that night nor thereafter did he give up coming to Peggy Guggenheim’s house, where all those swell people were.
I’d say that’s even more expressive with his characteristic part than LBJ was. One could call him the original Wacko Jacko.
Fad after fad after fad
Pop Art came up as a challenger. Reading between the lines, I gather that they got a frosty reception from the old maestros. Leo Steinberg, Jasper Johns, and Hans Namuth exemplified this new style. Was modern art washed up? Heavens, no!
This may have been the end of Abstract Expressionism, but for Art Theory it was a fine, a rare, a beautiful, an artistic triumph. With that soaring aerial aperçu of Leo Steinberg’s, Art Theory reached a heavenly plane, right up there with Paracelsus, Meister Eckhart, Christian Rosenkreutz, Duns Scotus, and the Scholastics . . .
Then the Green and Pink Mountains (a play on their names, which I’m correcting slightly) struck back, though maladroitly:
Meanwhile, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg made a grave tactical error. They simply denounced Pop Art. That was a gigantic blunder. Greenberg, above all, as the man who came up with the peerless Modern line, “All profoundly original work looks ugly at first,” should have realized that in an age of avant-gardism no critic can stop a new style by meeting it head-on.
What could the avant garde do when the next thing came along, that wouldn’t make them seem like the old fogies they overthrew long ago? They needed to create a new fad and one-up the novelty factor. Pop Art was in the lead, with a semiotic flair saving it from being considered — ick! — representational. (I’ll add that aside from that lawyerly twist of art theory, pictures that actually look like things remained taboo. If the maestros had been expected to paint actual objects, then they couldn’t have hidden their lack of talent or effort.) Then, Minimalism became the answer to Pop Art. Another fad called Op Art swept the scene, characterized by visual illusions, something that for once looked cool.
Then an arms race began to remove elements from paintings:
In the beginning we got rid of nineteenth-century storybook realism. Then we got rid of representational objects. Then we got rid of the third dimension altogether and got really flat (Abstract Expressionism). Then we got rid of airiness, brushstrokes, most of the paint, and the last viruses of drawing and complicated designs (Hard Edge, Color Field, Washington School).
Enough? Hardly, said the Minimalists, who began to come into their own about 1965.
The next iterations got rid of soft colors, soft edges, frames, the canvas itself (which meant painting directly on walls), then the walls (which meant creating bulky sculptures within the parameters of the previous new dictates of style, other than the flatness mandate), then the idea of putting it in a museum (a fad that led to some large-scale desert engravings). The next thing to go was the idea of having a permanent installation. This inspired the Arc project involving photographing garbage bags of rotting food, tethered underwater to a rope, until they swelled from decomposition and burst. I’m not making this up:
The photographs and quite a few lines of off-scientific prose provided the documentation, as it is known in Conceptual Art — which Hutchinson thereupon sold to the Museum of Modern Art for . . . well, today Museum officials prefer not to talk about how much they paid for Arc.
Then there was art that was unseen, such as Beautiful Toast Dream, a remarkable and exquisitely-detailed narration about someone imagining a bit of cinnamon toast. (I suppose that “seeing” it involves visualization.) Finally, taking things to the limit, someone produced a masterpiece in 1970 consisting of –surprise, surprise — a blank page. The Lupine prose waxes quite eloquent about this endpoint, and wraps up with the following about the triumph in art theory this heralded:
Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until, with one last erg of freedom, one last dendritic synapse, it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture . . . and came out the other side as Art Theory! . . . Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest, a vision invisible, even ineffable, as ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls.
Trippendicular, dude! The full description, of course, is orders of magnitude better than the actual blank page.
As the epilogue explains, the Pop Art competitors came out with Photo-Realism, causing a bit of a stir. Wolfe imagines the reactions of Cultureburg’s Green, Stone, and Pink Mountains:
Photo-Realism, indeed! One can almost hear Clement Greenberg mumbling in his sleep: “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first . . . but there is ugly and there is ugly!” . . . Leo Steinberg awakes with a start in the dark of night: “Applaud the destruction of values we still cherish! But surely — not this!” And Harold Rosenberg has a dream in which the chairman of the Museum board of directors says: “Modernism is finished! Call the cops!”
Worse, this new fad didn’t have a theory behind it! Horrors! (But . . . you can’t see a picture without a theory! Right?) Then someone provided one, a convoluted explanation of why Photo-Realism paintings weren’t really like the icky nineteenth-century trash that actually looked like something; therefore the Pop Art folks had “permission” to paint. The book ends by envisioning museum-goers in 2000 amused at the days when art conformed to theory like a straitjacket.
When Y2K rolled around, we didn’t exactly have an art scene rebooted to the classical standards of grace and beauty. Formlessness is still fashionable. The prices are so inflated for the works of culturalti-anoinited artists that some suspect it’s really about money laundering. However, it’s entirely possible that the crazy high prices are merely a matter of a tulip-mania bubble that has yet to burst.
There are much worse things in the poz-fest of today’s society, of course. Still, as Instauration put it:
The ideologues who created the concept of modern art, Wolfe thinks, have nothing but theory to go on and have reduced painting to an absurd heap of vaporous schemata. But are these theories as harmless as Wolfe seems to suggest? The hundreds of thousands of yards of canvas dedicated to ugliness, pornography, shock and bad taste cannot be discounted. They may represent theories, but the paintings are still there. The museums are cluttered with them. The university art rooms are bulging with them. Time will only relegate them to the sewers from which they flowed when Cultureburg no longer controls the channels of art communication.
All these mediocre art fads seem like a huge pile of aesthetic silliness, but culture is serious business. I can imagine Plato looking down upon us from the Elysian Fields and promptly doing a facepalm. He described the importance of musical styles and their effects on society; surely he would’ve thought the same thing about art. If he could see us now, he’d wonder why we turned away from the cultural treasures his people passed down to us. What in Hades went wrong here?
Trendiness got the ball rolling, but were there other factors nudging it along, making absurdism practically an orthodoxy for a century rather than a passing fad? On the cultural forensics angle, I could go into subversion strategies and how Communists were trying to make Entartete Kunst popular to degrade our culture. This effort might have been bolstered by the 1922 directive from Moscow’s Marx-Engels Institute:
We must organize the intellectuals and use them to make Western civilization stink. Only then, after they have corrupted all its values and made life impossible, can we impose the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was promoting high art, also including classical music and ballet. Aside from some ugly buildings, their domestic cultural products were quite different from the stuff they exported — and the reason isn’t too difficult to fathom!
We also shouldn’t forget that the CIA also helped promote ugly art — supposedly as a counterweight to the USSR’s Socialist Realism, ironically. (Lesson: never trust a glowie.) Wolfe therefore leaves out a few pieces regarding how the art scene became such a catastrophe.
* * *
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 Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (New York: Bantam, 1975).
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