Sunday, February 5, 2017

"The Painted Word", by Tom Wolfe

The Connoisseur, Norman Rockwell, 1962

"If you have ever stared uncomprehendingly at an abstract painting that admired critics have said you ought to dig, take heart. Tom on your side. [The Painted Word] may enrage you. It may confirm your darkest suspicions about Modern Art. In any case, it will amuse you."  - The New York Sunday News
"The Painted Word may well be Tom Wolfe's most successful piece of social criticism to date.   - The New York Times
"The Painted Word is a masterpiece. No one in the art world... could fail to recognize its essential truth. I read it four times, each of them with mounting envy for Wolfe's eye, ear, and surgical skill."  -The Washington Post
One of my favourite books of all time is Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) so when this book was recommended to me, it was hard to resist. Published in 1975, it was written just a year after I graduated in Fine Arts. Forty-two years ago. (sigh) It speaks to the state of art at that time, and helps me better understand some of the confusion and conflicts I experienced as a young art graduate.

The focus of The Painted Word is the New York art scene, familiar territory for the author, but his analysis holds for the entire network of North American / European art hubs. Wolfe begins by explaining how the art of the early 1900's was a reaction to "literary art". Think of the iconic paintings of the 19th century, for example, so many of which allow the viewer to read them as a story.

The Raft of the Medusa, GĂ©ricault, 1819

The Hay Wain, Constable, 1821

The Stone Breakers, Gustave Courbet, 1849
(Realist School)

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Renoir, 1881

With the beginning of the Modern movement, around 1900, Wolfe explains,
"Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art.... The idea was that half the power of a realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it, like so much mental baggage."
What was the opposite of literary painting?
"Why, l'art pour l'art, form for the sake of form, colour for the sake of colour. In Europe before 1914, artists invented Modern styles with fanatic energy – Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, Orphism, Suprematism, Vorticism – but everybody shared the same premise: henceforth, one doesn't paint 'about anything, my dear aunt,' to borrow a line from a famous Punch cartoon. One just paints. Art should no longer be a mirror held up to man or nature. A painting should compel the viewer to see it for what it is: a certain arrangement of colours and forms on a canvas."
Allow for a decade or two for the culturati to adopt and champion abstraction. Watch how their tastes evolve in an endless search to distinguish themselves from the bourgeoisie. Factor in a decade or so of strongly leftist politics, which resulted in the 1930's era of Social Realism in art, and make allowances for two world wars. Add in the influence of art theorists like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and observe the dance between them, the bohemian artists and le monde.

Lavender Mist, Jackson Pollack, 1950

What do you get? Abstract Expressionism. Whereas with the realistic art of earlier eras, it was a case of "seeing is believing", the new experience is one of "believing is seeing". Viewers of art could only hope to understand abstract expressionism by having it explained to them by art theory, the theory of "the integral plane", of "flatness". And few were buying it. Writes Wolfe,
"First you do everything possible to make sure your world is antibourgeois, that it defies bourgeois tastes, that it mystifies the mob, the public, that it outdistances the insensible middle-class multitudes by light years of subtlety and intellect – and then, having succeeded admirably, you ask with a sense of See-what-I-mean? outrage: look, they don't even buy our products!"
So what direction could the art scene possibly take after Abstract Expressionism? Pop Art was the next Big Thing, rejuvenating the New York art scene. The flatness that was so sought after in abstract expressionism came naturally to the flags of Jasper Johns, the comic strips of Roy Lichtenstein, and the silkscreen posters of Andy Warhol. The art theorists agreed that these were not literary, that they were symbols; not representations, but "sign systems".

Flag, Jasper Johns, 1955
(Pop Art)

In the Car, Roy Lichtenstein, 1963
(Pop Art)

Campbell's Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, 1962
(Pop Art)

The culturati quickly cycled through Op Art, Colour Field, Minimalism, and Conceptualism.
"How religiously we've cut away the fat! 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, Colour Field, Washington School).
"Enough? Hardly, said the Minimalists, who began to come into their own about 1965."
Further reductions ensued. Frames? Canvas? The wall? The gallery or museum? The idea of a permanent work of art? Even a visible work of art?
"So it was that in April of 1970 an artist named Lawrence Weiner typed up a work of art that appeared in Arts Magazine – as a work of art – with no visual experience before or after whatsoever, and to wit:
1. The artist may construct the piece
2. The piece may be fabricated
3. The piece need not be built
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership."
And here Tom Wolfe sums up the whole business in his inimitable style:
"And there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colours, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes, no more evocations, no more frames, walls, galleries, museums, no more gnawing at the tortured face of the god Flatness, no more audience required, just a "receiver" that may or may not be a person or may or may not be there at all, no more ego projected, just "the artist", in the third person, who may be anyone or no one at all, for nothing is demanded of him, nothing at all, not even existence, for that got lost in the subjunctive mode – and in that moment of absolutely dispassionate abdication, of insouciant withering away, 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." 

Telephone Booths, Richard Estes, 1968

In the book's epilogue, Wolfe discusses the return to realism, including Photo-Realism, which became a hot seller in the 70's as a reaction to all that had preceded it. (The art-buying class must have its meat.) Photo-Realism gives me vertigo.

Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko, 1956
(Colour Field)

As for me, I'm an old-fashioned sort. Colour and form do it for me. Give me a brushy Rothko or the push-and-pull of a Hans Hofmann any day.

Yellow Burst, Hans Hofmann, 1956
(Abstract Expressionism)


Jane Wright said...

Although I aspire to be an artist like Hans Hofmann I find myself more in the Lawrence Weiner vein of accomplishment.

Heather Dubreuil said...

Ahhh, yes, the ultimate manifestation of mind over matter.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I think I now want to read this existential book! Love (and am frightened by) the idea that "the artist" and the naming of such a creature such as "the receiver" may or may not exist. Yikes. Thank you for introducing us to this analysis!