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Wolfeburg

The Painted Word

by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 121 pp., $5.95

In the spring of 1965, Tom Wolfe, a young writer with a growing reputation for a flamboyant wardrobe and an equally flamboyant prose style, met Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian professor with an idea whose time had come. Normally condescending, Wolfe found much to admire in McLuhan’s ideas about audio-visual-tactile synesthesia and in his instant celebrity. Comparing McLuhan with Freud in “What If He Is Right?” an essay commemorating his momentous Lutèce luncheon with the super-guru of the Sixties, Wolfe characterizes both as great prophets: Freud of sex and McLuhan of TV. If this sounds simplistic, it is fairly typical of Wolfe’s thinking about issues, as opposed to his skill as an observer of social manners. For all his talent in capturing the nuances of fashion, decor, and ambiance, Wolfe has consistently had difficulty in dealing with ideas. Consider, for example, this insight into the likeness of Freud and McLuhan:

Both men electrified—outraged!—the intellectuals of their time by explaining the most vital, complex, cosmic phases of the human experience in terms of such lowlife stuff: e.g. the anus; the damnable TV set.

The advantage of such condensation is to permit readers who have heard of psychoanalysis and communications theory to feel that they are somehow au courant with the urgent issues of the moment, in fact superior to them, without ever having to go through the difficult, time-consuming experience of engaging directly with the substance of either subject.

Tom Wolfe is an attractive writer because he makes hard things easy. He equips one for intellectual name-dropping, the very discourse of the upwardly mobile cocktail-party society of arrivistes for whom Wolfe reserves the greatest measure of his contempt. This is a paradox we can begin to understand if we follow Wolfe’s career, from his early hero-worshiping idealizations of pop culture heroes like Phil Spector and Junior Johnson to his subsequent attacks on the moldy, crumbling remains of the literary and art establishments.

When he deals with pop culture, Wolfe’s inability to grapple with ideas of any complexity is no disadvantage; the pop world can indeed be plumbed to its depth by scratching the surface. Thus a description of Baby Jane Holzer’s or Ethel Scull’s clothes may suffice to communicate their meaning as nouveau-riche celebrities. It could even be argued that a description of the haircuts of the guests and the canapés at Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers described in Radical Chic, Wolfe’s nasty indictment of the romance of New York Jewish liberals with Third World revolutionaries, gives us important insights into the social life of New York in the Sixties. However, when we come to a subject that is beyond entertaining social satire, Wolfe is obviously over his head. In no way can a description of the wardrobe of Théophile Gautier, elaborated on in some detail in Wolfe’s latest book, The Painted Word, put us in touch with the ideas that launched modern art and criticism.

Like the original series of attacks on The New Yorker—published about the time Wolfe had his revelation that McLuhan, “the savager of literary intellectuals,” had rendered the Anglo-English essay form “irrelevant”—The Painted Word sets out to “hit a superannuated target” once again. This time Wolfe plays a daring David to another wobbly Goliath. His target is Cultureburg—Wolfe’s catchy sobriquet for the New York art world—the artistic equivalent of Whichy Thickets, the vacuous suburb of the mind inhabited by New Yorker editor William Shawn and his staff.

The Painted Word really amounts to a sequel to the New Yorker attacks. Once again, Wolfe has nothing to lose by an assault: art critics have no more use for his caricatures, which he exhibited recently at a New York gallery, than The New Yorker had for his jazzed-up social satires. Like his needling of The New Yorker, Wolfe’s Reader’s Digest abridgment of the history of modern art could not affect a reputation he never had as an artist or a serious critic. It could only make him more famous, controversial, and hence salable. Which it has.

Once again, readers are puzzling their way through the confused maze of Wolfe’s bizarre punctuation, zany neologisms, and careening fragments of free association. Not since The New Yorker fracas, which forced some unlikely literary figures to take notice of Tom Wolfe, has he reached such an audience, using a similar strategy of aggression to attract attention. Wolfe has a killer’s instinct for weakness. He has picked a moment when there has never been greater confusion over who is or is not an artist or who is or is not an art critic. He capitalizes on this confusion, as well as on the resentment of all who believe themselves artists and critics and are in revolt against any authority that would deny it.

Undoubtedly the art world today is far from healthy. But Tom Wolfe is hardly the first to notice signs of decay. Among others, Harold Rosenberg has been chronicling its decline in those very Whichy Thickets Wolfe so despises, i.e., the pages of The New Yorker. Of course, knowing the art world well, Rosenberg is at a certain disadvantage when compared with Wolfe; memory restricts him to real events and real people. Rosenberg, for example, would not feel qualified to enter the brain of Jackson Pollock as Wolfe does to carry on an imaginary dialogue with Clement Greenberg on the virtues of flatness in painting:

In any event, if Greenberg was right about Pollock’s status in the world of art—and Pollock wasn’t arguing—then he must also be right about the theories. So Pollock started pushing his work in the direction the theories went. Onward! Flatter! More fuliginous! More “over-all evenness”!

Are we to infer that Pollock should have argued he was not as good as Greenberg said? Or are we to credit accounts that Pollock didn’t talk a lot about anything or pay much attention to art theory? As for the relationship between Greenberg and Pollock, they were friends, and Greenberg wrote in praise of Pollock’s paintings at an early date, thereby establishing himself for generations of terrified investment-minded collectors and curators as the man who picks the winners. That reputation sustains Greenberg’s influence in the art world today, which Wolfe never mentions in the absurd case he fabricates against Greenberg as the evil apostle of “Flatness,” a concept that, with regard to the mechanics of painting, Wolfe appears not to understand. That a painting in some way draws attention to its actual identity as a two-dimensional surface does not mean that “flatness” is literal to the exclusion of all pictorial illusionism. In fact, Greenberg viewed literal flatness as a threat to painting. In his Art and Culture essay on “Collage,” he differentiates between literal and depicted flatness—a distinction incomprehensible to Wolfe. Indeed there is no indication that Wolfe has ever actually read Greenberg’s texts; he appears to have pieced together his muddle-headed account of the triumph of “flatness” from a cursory reading of Leo Steinberg’s Other Criteria, a widely quoted indictment of Greenberg’s “formalist” bias.

Greenberg has been much maligned as the leading practitioner of a criticism called “Formalist” that allegedly descends from the Idealist aesthetics of Kant, the dialectical interpretation of history of Hegel, as well as from the insistence that the form of a work of art is all that we can speak about with accuracy articulated in the criticism of Clive Bell and Roger Fry early in the century. In fact, Greenberg is at his weakest when he tries to base judgments on theoretical categories. His most incisive and enduring insights are intuitive; his gifts as a critic depend on his practical training as a painter, which, coupled with his rare ability to find verbal analogues for visual experience, gave to his analyses of works of art an authority equaled by few writers since Roger Fry. (Fry was a painter whose admiration for Cézanne was so great he could, like Greenberg, paint nothing more interesting than imitations of Cézanne.)

Wolfe interprets the concern of modernist painters with “flatness” as meaning that they wished to make paintings that were literally flat. This is not so. The modernist sensibility does indeed demand a degree of self-consciousness, an overt acknowledgment on the part of the artist of his awareness of the identity of his materials, techniques, and processes. That art is illusion, and the revelation of the nature of this illusion—which in painting concerns the projection of a spatial dimension on a flat surface—are at the heart of the modernist consciousness in all the arts. Wolfe’s dismissal of the issue of “flatness” as an indulgence of Greenberg’s whim is essentially a rejection of modernism itself as an acutely self-conscious analytic state.

As for the stylistic evolution of Pollock’s work from the loose, transparent “drip” paintings to his later experiments with thick crusts of impasto covering the whole of the canvas surface, Wolfe tells us nothing. If Wolfe knew anything firsthand about Greenberg, Pollock, or modern art, he might have realized that not Clement Greenberg but Claude Monet, whose Waterlilies were newly installed in the Museum of Modern Art, where Pollock could study them, was the inspiration behind Pollock’s late works. The only art theory per se that ever influenced Pollock was the theory of Synchromism propounded by his teacher Thomas Hart Benton in class and in essays.

But why should Wolfe bother with the tedious details of the history of art when the public wants to buy a history of art gossip? Wolfe is not wrong in stating that in some way the balance between images and words has been inverted in the art world. But he is wrong about when it happened and why. Clement Greenberg, whatever his shortcomings, never proposed a full-blown theory of art, having the sense to know one would have to be kant or Hegel to do that. He wrote commentaries, reviews of what artists had done, some of them containing the brilliant insights into modern paintings and sculptures collected in the anthology Art and Culture. Wolfe does not comment, however, on problems raised by Greenberg’s more recent work, which has, since the early Sixties, become less analytic and critical, and more hortatory and propagandistic. This created difficulty for people like myself who had admired the earlier Art and Culture essays, but it did not mean that Greenberg was controlling anybody’s mind or art.

Some American art critics in the 1940s and 1950s saw themselves as forced into advocacy and promotion because of public ignorance and because of the rejection of American modernism by museums and collectors. All this changed radically in the Sixties. The press and television began paying attention to art, schools and universities founded new art departments that attracted hordes of affluent deracinated youths interested in the liberation of “self-expression.” Words became more important than works at the point that Americans began to believe that art was a commercial profession, like accounting or medicine, a career that would pay off with a sufficient understanding of marketing and public relations, and that a knowledge of art theory was the kind of key to professional status that, say, statistics is for the economists. When these aspiring professionals began reading Greenberg’s essays as if they were a recipe book for making, or buying and selling, acceptable art (and misunderstanding them as hopelessly as Wolfe does), the decline was in full swing.

Critical dialogue also began to degenerate into the kind of pointless scholastic debate Wolfe tries to describe. For the record, however, one ought to point out that this last development had little to do with Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, or Leo Steinberg—according to Wolfe, the reigning triumvirate of Cultureburg. It was partly the outcome of economic circumstances permitting art schools to bloat themselves with disaffected youths looking for new “life styles,” who had never seen a Titian or a Velazquez, whose education consisted mainly of the contents of the art magazines of the last six months, and for whom Greenberg and Rosenberg had become passeé, replaced largely by a messy blur of misunderstandings of ideas about structuralism, phenomenology, and semiotics imported from France in the late Sixties. Required reading for art students suddenly began to include texts by Lévi-Strauss, Piaget, Merleau-Ponty, etc.

Wolfe absurdly mixes up these developments of the last few years and uses them as an indictment of modern art in general. However, he has already dismissed the relevance of facts to any discussion of his work in his rejoinder to critics of his imaginative re-creation of the world of The New Yorker. Cultureburg is an even more daring flight of fancy, but there is no point in quibbling about the thirty-eight errors, distortions, and inaccuracies I counted in Wolfe’s Classic Comics caricature of the history of modern painting, since he finds facts so boring. He says nothing in any case about the rise of the avantgarde and its subsequent accommodation with middle-class taste that is not dealt with much more perceptively in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man or Hilton Kramer’s Age of the Avant-Garde.

In many ways, Tom Wolfe himself resembles the Conceptual artists who have indeed given up art for language and present in galleries such works as Joseph Kosuth’s sophomoric notebooks of annotations to Wittgenstein, Hans Haacke’s pseudo-commemorative plaques engraved with the views on art of such luminaries as Richard Nixon, David Rockefeller, et al., and Robert Morris’s droning tapes recounting his difficulties with women. The Conceptualists are critics manqué, unwilling to accept the critic’s low status in the art world pecking order. No gallery is going to star Greenberg, Rosenberg, or Steinberg, but the Conceptualists are exhibiting their inane statements all over town.

Tom Wolfe, on the other hand, is a novelist and an artist manqué. He would have us believe that journalism is literature and cartoons are art, even if that means discrediting literature and art for an increasingly confused audience. Like the Conceptual artist, Wolfe would like to figure out in advance the next move on the great chessboard of history because he, too, has succumbed to the notion that innovation proclaims genius. Why else torture the English language with his prose “experiments”? I was puzzled by Wolfe’s hysterical hyperbolic style until I realized that he is in perpetual pursuit of the Perfect Wave of the future. Not only the past, but the present is too tedious to endure. McLuhan, Ken Kesey—the novelist turned acid prankster—these were his models. From McLuhan, Wolfe seems to have picked up the notion that he could simulate the total media experience of sight-sound-touch, warming up the “cold” medium of print with fast action, jump cuts, elliptical dissolves, and other techniques taken from movies and television. From Kesey, he learned about the powerful jolt that LSD-induced confusions of personae permit. Kesey’s “Acid Test,” he decided, was the real “art form.”

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe discovers the process of “total identification” in the science fiction novel Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. Wolfe quotes Clark’s description of the “art form” of the future: “Total identification” by means of which “a man could become—for a while, at least—any other person, and could take part in any conceivable adventure, real and imaginary.” This, in essence, is the experience Wolfe offers a jaded public accustomed to the heightened excitement of TV: the big fix, Total Identification, the sensation that you were there, inside the mind of Jackson Pollock or Morris Louis or Frank Stella. Never mind that none of them wrote treatises or gave evidence of being aware of anything other than the history of modern art as contained in works they could see.*

If Wolfe’s X-ray vision allows him to prowl about Morris Louis’s studio—a studio, incidentally, closed by the artist to everyone while he was working, including Greenberg, Noland, and Louis’s wife, so that no one ever observed the reclusive Louis painting—this is a little liberty the master of Total Identification may permit himself. According to Wolfe, Louis “could put a painting on the floor and lie on top of the canvas and cock his eye sideways like a robin and look along the surface of the canvas….” (There is such a photograph of Kenneth Noland by Ugo Mulas which illustrates Alan Solomon’s New York: The New Art Scene, a pot-boiler of a decade ago which apparently inspired Wolfe with the notion that it was time for another serving of hot gossip about the new new art scene.)

Tom Wolfe amalgamates much of the foolishness of the Sixties in The Painted Word, a book of no merit but a cultural phenomenon that testifies to the existence of a public that does not know much but still demands to be “in the know.” This public grows as publishing houses become more eager to satisfy marketplace demands than to address a smaller, less profitable literary audience, and as our universities graduate increasing numbers of semiliterate students who have not the means to possess modern culture but feel nevertheless that they must have some attitude toward it.

Who is responsible for stimulating this public into an interest in art, no matter how spurious or superficial? I accuse artists of succumbing to the commercial laws of supply and demand, and curators of selecting for exhibitions their demoralized work in the quest for novelty and publicity. I accuse museums of showing comic strips if need be to draw larger crowds, and galleries of exhibiting whatever sells best—even if that means Walt Disney’s studio drawings of Dumbo and Mickey Mouse. I accuse newspapers of running unnecessary headlines stressing the dollar value of art, and magazines of attempting to boost circulation by printing sensational stories about artists’ sex lives instead of information about art. I accuse art publishers of issuing books of illustrated kitsch and canceling serious art books with a more limited audience. (At this writing, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has just collapsed the art department of Praeger Publishers, Inc., not because it was not showing a profit, but apparently because it was not showing a large enough profit.)

Finally, mea culpa. Some of my colleagues and I were so enthusiastic about the art that moved us that we oversold it to an uninformed audience unwilling to make the effort to understand difficult works, an artificial public that could only end by resenting both the art and the criticism they were bound to find unintelligible. It is to this public that The Painted Word is addressed.

  1. *

    No published statement on art by Morris Louis exists. Pollock and Stella gave interviews that were taped and printed, which Wolfe treats as if they were intended as theoretical manifestoes.

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