Art Criticism Book Review: Tom Wolfe, “The Painted Word”

The Painted Word hit the art world like a really bad, MSG-headache-producing, Chinese lunch.” – Rosalind Krauss.

[If you know who Rosalind Krauss is, and her writing, you would know to consider the source, especially if you’d ever tried to plow through her attempts to harness and parrot the worse verbal excesses of the French Postmodernists in tortured translation. Having lived in China for over 4 years, I’d take an MSG laden lunch over reading one of her articles any day. See my analysis (OK, shredding) of her criticism here.]

“The Painted Word” sounds good, and towards the end of the book, we end up with just words flatly painted on the wall as the ultimate distillation of contemporary art/theory, but really, what he’s talking about is just the opposite, “The Written Painting”.

I’m not really sure why people were so offended by this little book, or why they thought Wolfe was such a conservative. I have the benefit of reading his subsequent, and much more worthy, 704 page novel, “Back to Blood” [and, Holy F, a little research reveals he wrote that in 2012, when he was 81! Hot damn, aging readers, you can still crank out a prize novel when you are an octoganarian]. In which case I know his mind a bit, and a cornerstone of it is dry wit, comic hyperbole, and funny characterizations. Thus, to take “The Painted Word” solemnly is to miss the point while still in the starting gate. Besides which, the primary targets of Wolfe’s demolition are not artists, but critics (among which he is one himself).

But before I get into that. Let me share some of the choice reactions his book received (aside from the deeply hypocritical Krauss quote). According to Wikipedia:

“A review in The New Republic called Wolfe a fascist and compared him to the brainwashed assassin in the film The Manchurian Candidate. Wolfe was particularly amused, however, by a series of criticisms that resorted to “X-rated insults.” An artist compared him to “A six-year-old at a pornographic movie; he can follow the action of the bodies but he can’t comprehend the nuances.”

Maybe the art critics were pissed off because their lording themselves over artists was rightfully questioned. Wolfe’s chief lament was that artists were too influenced by theory, and people have come to see art as props to illustrate written theories, rather than for art criticism to help us access whatever the artists are saying in their own medium, which is visual language.

I’d already come to these same conclusions myself before reading the book, and have added to and taken some ideas further (than he did in 1975, so I’m just tapping myself on the back here, not vigorously patting). Granted, to tackle the mental corruption of the art world in 100 and some odd pages, one needs to focus on a particular battle, thus Wolfe pounced on how critical theories which were all the rage and exemplified a clearer picture of reality were in their turn replaced by newer, more pure, more ridiculous theories that purported to do the same. Each theory and the art which accompanies it is ultimately invalidated and rendered moribund by the subsequent, more outlandish theory and artifacts. I gather he didn’t really have time to argue why what was being discarded (imagery, space, depth, human content, emotion…) was the best part. I’ll also save that for another article.

Here I’m reminded of a question a fellow teacher asked while I was living and teaching in a small city in China (Hanzhong). Some of us teachers were at a restaurant, and during the course of the meal, this teacher asked, “What do they do with all the meat?”. This is because the meat that one does get would come on the bone, with the cartilage and whatnot, and one would maneuver the whole nugget in ones mouth, remove the residual meat with skill rivaling the ladies who can twist grape stems with their tongues, and then spit the indigestible remains in ones napkin (or directly on the table or the floor if you’d crossed over into going local). His question struck me because I’d never thought to ask it. We ordered meat dishes in a fancy (for that area) restaurant, and there was no meat on the bones. I’d always just thought it was to do with a shortage of meat, and persuading themselves that the leftovers were the tastiest bits, and then learning to believe it, and thus expect it when you ordered ribs in an upscale restaurant. Note that you can order cartilage on a skewer, barbecued and liberally dipped in MSG (Rosalind Krauss style), for your sheer gnawing delight. If they don’t serve the meat to the paying customers, what the hell do they do with it? Throw it out? Feed it to the dogs (who were also on some of the menus)? Yes, I’m suggesting in art we’ve heralded the equivalent of the bones and other indigestibles.

Wolfe traces the evolution of art theory over several generations, via the likes of such luminaries as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg. Greenberg argued for the flatness of the picture plane, or the surface of the canvas. This is nothing new to the art world, as Manet had tackled that before 1900. So had Gauguin. And Matisse, obviously [see pic from 1910 below]. What was new for Greenberg was to do this to the exclusion of imagery, as opposed to having the best of both worlds, which is why the Post Impressionists – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Lautrec, Seurat – still F’ing rock, and Greenbergian’s Rosemary’s babies are already dated.

The Dance, by Henri Matisse (1910). This is FLAT enough, and the bottom two figures on the right are ghastly abominations. Yuck!

[While I was writing this I drew a blank when trying to think of “Seurat”. I asked my girlfriend, “What’s the name of the Pointillist painter?” “Can you be more specific?” she shot back. Irritated, because you can’t have two people who can’t think of “Seurat” at the same time, I repeated, “Y’know the POINTILLIST painter … the Island of La Grande Jatte … George Seurat!” “I thought you said POINTLESS painter!” Now I know why she needed more elucidation.]

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, 1886. This shit’s already FLAT Clement!

While in the Greenbergian era, Wolfe shared what I thought was the most interesting anecdote in the book. Greenberg used to go around to Jackson Pollock’s studio and give impromptu critiques. This is already bad enough, because you’d think an artist who is credited with making enormous, and enormously important innovations in the grand philosophy of painting, and thus altering the course of art history, wasn’t being schooled by an art critic. But he was, apparently. And worse is the shitty advice Greenberg gave him, which was to remove the “holes” in his paintings, and by holes he meant areas that were not all the same pattern (a.k.a. breathing spaces). By me, the best Pollocks are the ones with a bit more variety to them, and not the ones that could pass for energetic wall paper.

Blue Poles, by Jackson Pollock, 1952. Those blue poles are too conspicuous and ruin the wall-paper effect.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Greenberg killed Pollock, but, several of the Abstract Expressionists ended their own lives, and it might have a little to do with styling ones art and waging ones career on precepts which might be a bit narrow and thin. This in turn might bring about DOUBT, or self-doubt, especially when ones relevance was then discarded when the Pop and Minimalist artists came along.

Here I will interject that I’m rather a big fan of Abstract Expressionism, and while the artists might have been overly influenced by now disregarded art theory (and propped up by the CIA), they were not necessarily as limited by it as we might think. For example, I generally am not a huge fan of Minimalism, and have mockingly referred to Minimal Art as “Minimally Art” in the past, which was rather astute of me. But when it comes to music, I really like the Minimalist composers: Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich.

Somehow, a composition with ever evolving, subtle variations on a theme, which is also rich and beautiful, works better than an Ellsworth Kelly (Ellsworth?) painting of a basic shape in a primary color. I gather the musical and painterly varieties of Minimalism subscribe to similar underlying precepts, but the results are entirely different.

Red Blue Green (1963), by Ellsworth Kelly

In the case of Pollock, while Greenberg was chiming on about the flatness to the exclusion of everything else, or at least any trace of imagery, Pollock’s canvases hint at deeper meanings beneath the surface. They always struck me as a splat of brain activity – human consciousness on a slide. There’s certainly existential angst in them.

So, if, or to the degree that Wolfe is arguing that the art of the Abstract Expressionists is actually subordinate to the theory, or dependent on it, or merely a prop illustrating it, I have to disagree. It always helps in the arena of art criticism to be an artist yourself because you can draw on your own experiences, likes, interests, and how they evolved.

For instance, when I was in High School I had a cartooning class, and there were some paints we could use, which were poster paint in squeeze bottles (like Fast Food joints use for ketchup). Without knowing anything about Ab Ex, during one class I started squeezing blobs of paint onto paper, and propelling small amounts of paint under the blobs already on the paper so that they would bubble to the surface and create circular patterns which I thought were intriguing. I was thoroughly absorbed in this process, before having a single art history class, and without the benefit of Greenberg’s theses, when another student angrily grabbed my creation, crumpled it up, threw it in the garbage, and lectured me about wasting paint. From my perspective at the time, he was the one who wasted the paint by throwing out my perfectly good experiment. My point here is that artists could find entirely non-representational art interesting and fulfilling without any recourse to theory. Art, even if it is based on this or that theory, is not necessarily circumscribed by that theory, and quite likely isn’t. This is a point Wolfe never made, though he might very well agree, and is why Ab Ex is still good today, if you ask me.

After Greenberg wanted the flattening of the image so that a painting became an impenetrable visual object, Harold Rosenberg and the Pop artists and Minimalists took it further. Rosenberg astutely noticed that while you could (visually) walk into a Renaissance painting, and in the much more relevant NOW you couldn’t walk into a de Kooning or Pollock, you COULD still theoretically fly into them in a jet or space ship. There was all that evocative airiness, which is anathema. Further sterilization of art needed to occur. In addition to any kind of aerial space in a painting, those expressive brush strokes needed to go as well.

Gray Scramble, by Frank Stella, 1968-9.

Enter the likes of Frank Stella and chevron, herringbone, and concentric square paintings; or Barnett Newman and decades of one stripe paintings. Now painting had been completely flattened, without visible brushstrokes, no subject matter, no emotion (though, Newman still had spiritual pretensions).

Finally we ended up with mere words thinly painted on a wall. Art finally made its way back up – as Wolfe colorfully titled a final chapter – the “fundamental aperture”. Instead of being a visual alternative to linguistics and rational thought couched in language, art became a subsidiary of literature, just words artlessly presented on the wall of a gallery. The visual was completely eradicated in the name of the word, quite literally.

Lawrence Weiner, Learn to Read Art.

Overall Wolfe’s book is a caricature, but I think a knowing and deliberate one. It’s a mockery of the art world, but not intended, I don’t think, as a very serious or thorough criticism. It’s a 100 page rant. It’s strength is in forefronting the excessive influence of theory, while also lampooning the theories in question. I found it more amusing than anything else, and would have liked for it to analyze the theories in more depth, but, as I said, it’s a long-winded rant, and only intended to cast a new and needed alternate light on the subject, not to be a definitive or final statement.


For more on the art criticism of Tom Wolfe, see my analysis of his comical inclusion of “No Hands Art” in his novel, Back to Blood here.

~ Ends

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