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The Painted Word
by Tom Wolfe
ISBN 0553273795 / 9780553273793 / 0-553-27379-5
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In 1975, after having put radical chic and '60s counterculture to the satirical torch, Tom Wolfe turned his attention to the contemporary art world. The patron saint (and resident imp) of New Journalism couldn't have asked for a better subject. Here was a hotbed of pretension, nitwit theorizing, social climbing, and money, money, money--all Wolfe had to do was sharpen his tools and get to work. He did! Much of The Painted Word is a superb burlesque on that modern mating ritual whereby artists get to despise their middle-class audience and accommodate it at the same time. The painter, Wolfe writes, "had to dedicate himself to the quirky god Avant-Garde. He had to keep one devout eye peeled for the new edge on the blade of the wedge of the head on the latest pick thrust of the newest exploratory probe of this fall's avant-garde Breakthrough of the Century.... At the same time he had to keep his other eye cocked to see if anyone in le monde was watching."
The other bone Wolfe has to pick is with the proliferation of art theory, particularly the sort purveyed by postwar colossi like Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and Leo Steinberg. Decades after the heyday of abstract expressionism, these guys make pretty easy targets. What could be more absurd, after all, than endless Jesuitical disputes about the flatness of the picture plane? So most of them get a highly comical spanking from the author. It's worth pointing out, of course, that Wolfe paints with a broad (as it were) brush. If he's skewering the entire army of artistic pretenders in a single go, there's no room to admit that Jasper Johns or Willem DeKooning might actually have some talent. But as he would no doubt admit, The Painted Word isn't about the history of art. It's about the history of taste and middlebrow acquisition--and nobody has chronicled these two topics as hilariously or accurately as Tom Wolfe. --James Marcus [via]