Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word is one of the finest hatchet jobs ever done on modernist art. Modernist art is of course a fairly easy target but Wolfe’s little book, published in 1975, goes beyond the usual aesthetic criticisms and penetrates to the very core of the great 20th century art scam.
Wolfe’s starting point is that the weird and wonderful theories which have been such an endemic feature of the modern art world are not there merely to enhance our experience of the art. They are actually there to replace our experience of the art. The art itself is nothing without the theories. In fact the actual pictures are not even necessary. All that matters is the theory. This is rather ironic. The modern movement in art started as a revolt against “literary” art – art was supposed to be experienced and judged purely on its aesthetic qualities without any regard to meaning. What actually happened was that art became almost entirely literary – the pictures became unimportant while the text that explained the theories behind them took centre stage.
One result of this was movements like Abstract Expressionism. The Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock became celebrated as the greatest artists of their day even though absolutely no-one actually wanted to buy their paintings.
The reason for this, as Wolfe explains, is that the art world was a very very tiny world. In consisted of perhaps no more than 10,000 people in about eight cities in Europe and North America – these were the artists, the theorists, the patrons, the dealers, the collectors and assorted hangers-on. The public was not part of this world and was entirely excluded from it. Out of the 10,000 members of the art world perhaps a few hundred were collectors and only a small minority of those collectors bought contemporary work. The market for art was very very small. While artists like Pollock could be lionised as geniuses within that world that didn’t mean there was an actual market for their paintings.
That didn’t really matter because artists like Pollock didn’t count. The people who counted were the theorists like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg.
Wolfe also points out that by the late 19th century the main purpose of art was to shock the bourgeoisie. The problem with that was that the art world became a tiny enclosed little club existing purely to upset the bourgeoisie. The end result was that for all the efforts of the artists to shock, the people who were supposed to be shocked mostly didn’t notice.
Once these things are understood the whole sorry sordid tale of the degeneration of art in the 20th century becomes clear. The fact that art became increasingly ugly and irrelevant didn’t matter as long as theorists continued to come up with elegant theories to explain each new batch of aesthetic horrors. There was of course fierce competition between the theorists who had to keep coming up with new theories, each new theory spawning even more dreary and worthless pictures.
While Wolfe is concerned with art this book also tells us a good deal about the way in which our civilisation has collapsed into decadence.
It could have been a very depressing tale but Wolfe’s sparkling rapier wit makes the book immensely entertaining. It’s a joy to see such a target receiving the skewering it so richly deserves. If you want to find one book that explains the entire history of 20th century art then The Painted Word is that book. Highly entertaining.