Book #15 (March 21, 2010): The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe
One of my most vivid memories of college concerns a class on American Cinema where, one day, we got sidetracked into a discussion of art and whether it was necessary for art to communicate something — a feeling, an idea, even just the molecular presence of pigment on canvas — in order for it to be art. I don’t know why we were talking about this; maybe there was just too much auteur theory in the air that day. But there was this young woman — a grad student, I think — who stridently insisted that the idea of art as communication was ridiculously restrictive and bourgeois. All art had to do in order to be art was exist. In fact, existence wasn’t even a prerequisite. She got into an argument with a 20-something British guy (or at least somebody with a Brit-like accent) who insisted that, yes, art did have to communicate something to be art. The young woman reacted as though her civil rights had been violated: “Are you saying my thoughts can’t be art?” she shrieked. “Are you saying that I have no right to THINK?!”
The room then descended into a chaos of shouting voices and it was several minutes before the panicked teacher could get it back under her control. Afterwards, though, what I mostly remembered about the event was the sheer ferocity of that young woman’s anger and her insistence that her thoughts were art. Not the precursor of art, mind you, or some spark that would eventually result in art, but the art itself.
Which brings us to Tom Wolfe and his feelings about modern (post-1945) art. When I took art history in college (a much saner course than the one on American Cinema), it was clear that there was a certain through-line to the development of art and that those artists who are considered great are the ones who fell along that through-line and who pushed it in the direction that it was, as viewed in retrospect, clearly going. The qualifier “as viewed in retrospect” is important here. Wolfe’s contention in his 1975 book The Painted Word is that at some point in the 1940s this process began operating in reverse, with art critics deciding in advance the direction where art was headed and the artists deliberately tailoring their work to fit their theories. The most influential theory, according to Wolfe, was Clement Greenberg’s concept of “flatness,” which held essentially that a painting should be no more than it was: a flat surface with paint on it. Any painting that tried to be more than this, to be a representation of something other than what it was, was hopelessly — to use Wolfe’s term — bourgeois. Abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock began altering their style to fit the theory, but by the 1960s even the abstract expressionists were considered hopelessly evocative and sentimental, and an increasingly rapid succession of artistic movements began stripping art of every quality that might give it some meaning separate from the flatland of the canvas, including brush strokes, color, frames, the walls the art hung on — even the physical presence of the work of art itself. At which point all that was left was the theory, which had effectively become the art. A gallery exhibit could consist of some tiny objet — or even the absence of an objet — accompanied by several paragraphs of text explaining why the objet or its absence was art. Thus Wolfe’s title: The Painted Word; the art, if it had any physical existence at all, was little more than an illustration of the text.
Wolfe is clearly having fun here at the expense of what he calls the culturati, the small coterie of Manhattan elites who affect Bohemian ideals as a way of giving themselves artistic street cred, effectively atoning for the sin of having too much money. I would suspect Wolfe of having skewed the facts a bit here to support his own satirical theory — but then I remember the young grad student who believed her own thoughts were art. Maybe they were, at least for their audience of one person, but all the rest of the world would have seen was their description, perhaps hanging on a gallery wall. Wolfe has no patience with literature that pretends to be something nonliterary and I think he would have sided with the young British man who seemed to feel that the grad student was completely out of her bloody mind.