January 2006

Tom Wolfe's Epiphany

by Louis Torres

Though a mere wisp of a book, Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word (winner this month of a retroactive Aristos Award for 1975) has justly earned its place as a "modern classic." Delicately thumbing through my quarter-century-old mass-market paperback edition recently, its last dozen or so pages pages detached from the spine, I was again reminded what a delightfully trenchant critique it is of the modernist artworld of the 1950s and 60s--in particular, of abstract painting. I also recalled that Hilton Kramer had not liked it very much when it was first published, and presumably still does not. Who can blame him? The very idea for the book seems to have sprung from something he had written the year before, in a review of the exhibition Seven Realists: Pearlstein, Bailey, Mangold, Wiesenfeld, Fish, Posen, Hanson, at the Yale University Art Gallery.

As Wolfe recalls in the opening pages of The Painted Word, he had been "jerked alert" from his reverie while reading the Sunday New York Times, by this pronouncement of Kramer's regarding the Yale exhibition:

"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."

He could hardly believe his eyes.

Then and there I experienced a flash known as the Aha! phenomenon, and the buried life of contemporary art was revealed to me for the first time. . . . / All these years, along with countless kindred souls [whom Kramer has characterized as that "larger public that knows nothing about modernist art"] . . . I had assumed that, in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well--how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. 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.

Among the countless ("God-knows-how-many thousand") modernist paintings Wolfe had stood before in bafflement were those of Clyfford Still [click on "paintings" link]--whom Kramer regards as "one of the most original" of the Abstract Expressionist painters. Most ordinary art lovers will not, I suspect, have the foggiest idea how their experience of a typical work by Still, such as 1951-N (1951), is supposed to be one of "intellectual commerce," or how modernist theory joins that experience to their understanding of the "values" it signifies. They will understand Frank Stella [more ] (also cited by Wolfe), however, who in 1964 famously averred, regarding his own Minimalist work: "My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. . . What you see is what you see." In effect, the same is true for Still's piece, despite any protestations to the contrary. What you see there is not any signified values but a mottled dark canvas marked by a tumbling streak of red and topped by a tiny jagged sliver of yellow at the top edge. Try having "intellectual commerce" with that![*]

Wolfe derides the inane theories successively advanced in the artworld--beginning with those of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the influential early advocates of Abstract Expressionism. In the process he punctures the inflated reputations of the painters and painter-theorists whom one or the other of them had championed. But he does not stop there. No major movement of the modernist-postmodernist juggernaut--from Cubism Op, and Pop to Earth Art and Conceptual Art--is spared. What drew the ire of Kramer, however, was not Wolfe's critique of postmodernism's absurdities (with that critique Kramer feels considerable sympathy) but his derision of the whole abstract movement in painting and all the critical and theoretical nonsense supporting it--nonsense to which Kramer has both subscribed and contributed in ample measure, as my note below indicates.

An example of another sort of "intellectual commerce" abstract painting has given rise to is suggested by one of the illustrations accompanying Wolfe's text--a black-and-white reproduction of Morris Louis's Third Element, 1962 (not much different from his Third Element of 1961), accompanied by this caption: "No painter ever took the Word more literally; with the possible exception of Frank Stella." If readers cannot figure out what the "third element" of Louis's title refers to just by looking at his work, perhaps a bit of "persuasive theory" regarding Ellsworth Kelly's Minimalist painting Red Panel, 1980, will do the trick. Taken from Contemporary Art & Design (a "teaching packet" prepared by helpful experts at the Dallas Museum of Art--see page 25, which includes color illustrations of Red Panel), it explains:

Traditional paintings have subjects and backgrounds. In a naturalistic painting of a bowl of fruit, the bowl of fruit would be the subject of the painting, and the space painted around it would be the background. If, for Kelly, the painting itself becomes the subject of the painting, what might you consider to be the painting's background? (The wall that it is placed on can be seen as the painting's background. The museum is the background.) The French writer Merleau-Ponty said that there will be a third important element besides the painting and its background that will make this work significant. This third element will be you. When Merleau-Ponty stood in front of Ellsworth Kelly's paintings he said that he became very aware of himself in relation to the painting and that this realization turned out to be an important part of experiencing the work. Keep this in mind when you view Red Panel in person.

Get that? Though Wolfe did not cite Merleau-Ponty's theory, it was just the sort of "painted word" he made sport of.

Wolfe's critique--first published in Harper's magazine in April 1975 as "The Painted Word: Modern Art Reaches the Vanishing Point"--clearly hit a lastingly raw nerve. Kramer immediately responded to it in a lengthy review entitled "Tom Wolfe and the Revenge of the Philistines." Ten years later, that piece was reprinted in a volume of Kramer's collected reviews and essays, giving rise to its title, The Revenge of the Philistines: Art and Culture 1972-1984. His response to Wolfe consisted in part of a string of ad hominens:

If one had any lingering doubt that the revenge of the philistines is upon us, it would surely be put to rest by the spectacle of Tom Wolfe's energetic assault on contemporary art in the April number of Harper's magazine. . . . About art, modernist or otherwise, Wolfe appears to know next to nothing.
[The Painted Word] gives [Wolfe] immediate access to the larger public that knows nothing about modernist art but knows what is rumored to have been said on its behalf.
When it comes to the analysis of ideas, . . . when it comes down to actual works of art and the thinking they both embody and inspire, Wolfe is hopelessly out of his depth.
It is [Wolfe's] fundamental incomprehension of the role of criticism in the life of art--[his] enmity to the function of theory in the creation of culture--that identifies The Painted Word, despite its knowingness and its fun, as a philistine utterance, an act of revenge against a quality of mind it cannot begin to encompass and must therefore treat as a preposterous joke.

Wolfe was hardly the dolt Kramer made him out to be, however. Quite the contrary. He surely lacked Kramer's knowledge of the history of modernism, and just as surely had not spent even a fraction of the time that Kramer had in looking at abstract painting and sculpture. Few have. But he knew enough to have a moment of lasting revelation when he read Kramer's assertion that "realism lacked a persuasive theory," and his observation that "to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial" in the contemporary artworld.

In his response to Wolfe, Kramer concluded that the shortcomings of Wolfe's critique stem from his failure to deal with "the fundamental issue of what, precisely, we want and need the function of art to be in the world that encloses our workaday lives." Nice try, except that the function of art, like the function of food, is not determined by what we want it to be. Art's function derives from the nature of the human mind and how we grasp reality. That is why visual art, if it is to be more than merely decorative, must be representational, not abstract. Seeing is believing--as Tom Wolfe well understood--not Believing is seeing, as modernist theory has implied.

Further reading and viewing:

Preface and Epilogue of The Painted Word, and Hilton Kramer's "Tom Wolfe and the Revenge of the Philistines" in the The Revenge of the Philistines.

* Kramer, however, has had no difficulty in engaging in "intellectual commerce" with such work. "The sense of space that Still achieved in his work . . . [created an illusion] of cosmic boundlessness," in his view. "It suggests something unearthly and immense, a world infinite in dimension and implication--a world, too, of loneliness and isolation." For Kramer, Still also gave "eloquent expression" to a yearning for salvation in the spiritual realm of the individual psyche--and "to the sense of unfettered individualism that was its natural concomitant." All this in works such as 1951-N and others by Still.