The Painted Word

by Tom Wolfe

Who decides which art the cool kids are supposed to like? This book answers that question for the Modernism era, and particularly how Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art came into fashion. The book was published in 1975.

ART COLLECTORS WANT TO BE COOL KIDS. “The arts have always been a doorway into Society, and in the largest cities today the arts—the museum boards, arts councils, fund drives, openings, parties, committee meetings—have completely replaced churches in this respect. But there is more! Today there is a peculiarly modern reward that the avant-garde artist can give his benefactor: namely, the feeling that he, like his mate the artist, is separate from and aloof from the bourgeoisie, the middle classes… the feeling that he may be from the middle class but he is no longer in it.”

“That is why collectors today not only seek out the company of, but also want to hang out amidst, lollygag around with, and enter the milieu of…the artists they patronize.”

THE SECRET HANDSHAKE. “Each new movement, each new ism in Modern Art was a declaration by the artists that they had a new way of seeing which the rest of the world (read: the bourgeoisie) couldn’t comprehend. ‘We understand!’ said the culturati, thereby separating themselves also from the herd. But what inna namea Christ were the artists seeing? This was where theory came in.” 

“We can understand the spellbinding effect these theories had, however, only by keeping in mind what we have noted so far: (1) the art world is a small town; (2) part of the small town, le monde, always looks to the other, bohemia, for the new wave and is primed to believe in it; (3) bohemia is made up of cénacles, schools, coteries, circles, cliques. Consequently, should one cénacles come to dominate bohemia, its views might very well dominate the entire small town (a.k.a. ‘the art world’).”

“All these circles and coteries came together after the war as the cénacle des cénacles, the New York School, or Tenth Street School, creators of Abstract Expressionism.”

“The great theorists to come of this cénacle des cénacles were Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg… Greenberg had been a regular in the Hofmann cénacle—and it was essentially Hofmann’s ideas and Hofmann’s emphasis on purity that were about to sweep Cultureburg… One secret of Greenberg’s and Rosenberg’s astounding success, then, was that they were not like uptown critics—they were not mere critics: they spoke as the voice of bohemia… and naturally le monde listened.”

GREENBERG’S KOOL AID. “In Greenberg’s eyes, the Freight Train of Art History had a specific destination… It was time to clear the tracks at last of all the remaining rubble of the pre-Modern way of painting. And just what was this destination? On this point Greenberg couldn’t have been clearer: Flatness.”

“The general theory went as follows… The three-dimensional effects were sheer illusion (et ergo ersatz). A painting was a flat surface with paint on it… What was needed was purity—a style in which lines, forms, contours, colors all become unified on the flat surface. This business of flatness became quite an issue; an obsession, one might say. The question of what an artist could or could not do without violating the principle of Flatness—‘the integrity of the picture plane,’ as it became known.”

ROSENBERG IN ACTION. “Most of the theory up to 1950 was Greenbergian in origin. Enter Rosenberg… Action Painting… became the single most famous phrase of the period (a fact that did not please Greenberg)… Said Rosenberg, ‘What was to go on the canvas was not a picture, but an event.’ … In those furious swipes of the brush on canvas, in those splatters of unchained id, one could see the artist’s emotion itself—still alive!—in the finished product.”

“Rosenberg’s famous Action Painting piece in Art News did not mention a single new artist by name, but tout le monde knew that when he spoke of ‘one American painter after another’ taking up the style, he was really talking about one American painter: his friend de Kooning… or perhaps de Kooning and his cénacle.

“Greenberg’s main man, as everybody knew, was his friend [Jackson] Pollock… In any event, if Greenberg was right about Pollock’s status in the world of art—and Pollock wasn’t arguing—then he must also be right about the theories. So Pollock started pushing his work in the direction the theories went.”

NOT BUYING IT. “Despite [Pollock’s] huge reputation, his work did not sell well, and he barely scraped by financially… And this gets down to the problems that collectors were beginning to have with Abstract Expressionism and the abstract styles that followed, such as the Washington School. Most of early Modernism, and particularly Cubism, was only partly abstract.”

“Harold Rosenberg… wondered why so little Abstract Expressionism was being bought. ‘Considering the degree to which it is publicized and feted,’ Rosenberg said, vanguard painting is hardly bought at all.’ Here Rosenberg was merely betraying that art world’s blindness toward its own strategies. He seemed to believe that there was an art public in the same sense that there was a reading public and that, consequently, there should be some sort of public demand for the latest art objects… The art world has been successfully restricted to about 10,000 souls worldwide, the beaux mondes of a few metropolises. Of these, perhaps 2,000 were collectors, and probably no more than 300—worldwide—bought current work (this year’s, last year’s, the year-before’s) with any regularity; of these, perhaps 90 lived in the United States… The public plays no part in the process whatsoever.”

“There were brave and patriotic collectors who created a little flurry of activity on the Abstract Expressionist market in the late 1950s, but in general this type of painting was depreciating faster than a Pontiac Bonneville once it left the showroom.”

POP ART. “We may state it as a principle at this point that collectors of contemporary art do not want to buy highly abstract art unless it’s the only game in town. They will always prefer realistic art instead—as long as someone in authority assures them that it is (a) new, and (b) not realistic. To understand this contradiction is to understand what happened next: Pop Art.”

“I don’t know that [Leo] Steinberg finished off Abstract Expressionism. It only needed a little push. But Steinberg was certainly one of the authorities who made it okay to like Pop Art.”

“The Pop Art era is usually dated from the first one-man show of Jasper Johns at the Leo Castelli Gallery [January 1958] with paintings of American flags, letters of the alphabet, rows of numbers, and archery targets. Johns and his friend Robert Rauschenberg were the major figures in a cénacle of younger artists who in the 1950s began to react against the by-now sainted Abstract Expressionists.”

“The new theory went as follows. Johns had chosen real subjects such as flags and numbers and letters and targets that were flat by their very nature. They were born to be flat, you might say. Thereby Johns was achieving an amazing thing. He was bringing real subjects into Modern painting but in a way that neither violated the law of Flatness nor introduced ‘literary’ content. On the contrary: he was converting pieces of everyday communication—flags and numbers—into art objects…and thereby de-literalizing them! Were they content or were they form? They were neither! They were a higher synthesis. ‘An amazing result,’ said Steinberg… Steinberg’s evidence for this theory was far more subtle than convincing. Sophistry, I believe, is the word.”  Ooh, great word! Sophistry: the clever use of arguments that seem true but are really false, in order to deceive people.

“Meanwhile, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg made a grave tactical error. They simply denounced Pop Art. That was a gigantic blunder. Greenberg, above all, as the man who came up with the peerless Modern line, ‘All profoundly original work looks ugly at first,’ should have realized that in an age of avant-gardism no critic can stop a new style by meeting it head-on… No, in an age of avant-gardism the only possible strategy to counter a new style which you detest is to leapfrog it.”

“Steinberg could attack Abstract Expressionism precisely because he was saying, ‘I’ve found something newer and better.’ But one will note that at no time does he attack the premises of Late-Twentieth-Century Art Theory as developed by Greenberg. He accepts every fundamental Greenberg has put forth. Realism and three-dimensional illusion are still forbidden. Flatness is still God. Steinberg simply adds: ‘I’ve found a new world that’s flatter.’”

“Pop Art absolutely rejuvenated the New York art scene. It did for the galleries, the collectors, the gallery-goers, the art-minded press, and the artists’ incomes about what the Beatles did for the music business at about the same time.”

THE PAINTED WORD. “In no time, these theories of flatness, of abstractness, or pure form and pure color, of expressive brushwork (‘action’) seemed no longer mere theories but axioms, part of the given, as basic as the Four Humors had once seemed in human health. Not to know about these things was not to have the Word…But somehow the ethereal little dears are inapprehensible without words. In short, the new order of things in the art world was: first you get the Word, then you can see.”

New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer reinforced this view in an April 28, 1974 review: “‘Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial—the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.’”

Wolfe calls out the extreme irony. “I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing… I had gotten it backward all along. Not ‘seeing is believing’ you ninny, but ‘believing is seeing,’ for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” In other words, Modern artworks are dependent on theory in the same way illustration is dependent on a story.

“How could such a thing be? How could Modern Art be literary? As every art-history student is told, the Modern movement began about 1900 with a complete rejection of the literary nature of academic art, meaning the sort of realistic art which originated in the Renaissance and which the various national academies still held up as the last word. Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art.”


Wolfe, Tom. The Painted Word. Picador, 1975. Buy from Amazon.com

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