I recently re-read “The Painted Word” – I do so every couple of years just to keep my perspectacles on straight. (“The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1975, Bantam Books, 1976)
“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.”
This excerpt from a review in the Sunday New York Times of April 28, 1974 sparked the “aha!” that led Wolfe to write The Painted Word. The very short time elapsed between the “aha!” and the publication by a major house (in fact, it was published in Harpers’ magazine a couple of months earlier) testifies both to the excitement that Wolfe felt about the subject and the chord that it must have struck with his publisher.
Wolfe states the major point of the book in the introduction. In his not-at-all-humble opinion, art theory and criticism no longer play the role of “… establishing readable texts, in explaining obscurities and clearing up confusions in any art, in supplying background and context for the creations and creators that are difficult because of remoteness in time or place. ...of giving a jewel the setting it deserves.” (Jacques Barzun writing in Atlantic, November 1984). Wolfe states that art scholarship has raced ahead of the making of art to a degree that makes it necessary to establish theory (persuasive or otherwise) before the art will be taken seriously by the museums, collectors, and (especially) the critics – that the art exists to illustrate the text (thus the title of the book).
Wolfe spends the rest of the book explaining how this change has affected the art community. He holds that it has moved the cutting edge of the art world from the studio into the hands of a relatively small number of critics and curators who play the role of kingmakers in today’s museum and gallery world. Kingmakers who are constantly on the lookout for new movements, new faces with radical work and, especially, with passionately written artist’s statements about ways of seeing that are incomprehensible to the untutored eye. The private collectors of art, he holds, have largely become followers of the kingmakers and the artists themselves forced, if they seek recognition, to strive for the unusual, the bizarre, the incomprehensible.
[Parenthetically, there is another artist’s approach to this situation. The painter Od Nudrum has had at least two double page spreads in Art News in which he presents his manifesto. He paints in the style of the Dutch/Flemish masters but uses the style to paint strangely anachronistic, not exactly surreal subjects. In his manifesto, he appropriates the term “kitsch” and redefines it to mean what he does. He then presents his case as to why this is the pure and vital form of painting. He, in my opinion, is attempting to provide a persuasive theory to support what he is doing. Perhaps he read Wolfe’s book, too.]
Wolfe then examines the course of modern art from the 20’s through minimalism to show how his ‘aha!’ explains at least some of the lurching about in the art world. He ends with a cackle of glee that photo realistic paintings (a new wave at the time the book was published) was selling very well in spite of its lack of a persuasive theory and in spite of lofty disdain from the New York critics and curators.
I find this book compelling and much of his argument very convincing. It also makes me feel a bit better about not being able to understand a great deal of what is written about art today. Even if you do not agree with his sweeping generalizations (and they are sweeping, indeed) I believe that you will find food for thought.