Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Art of Tom Wolfe

On Friday, I had the chance to read two Tom Wolfe books: The Painted Word, from 1975, and In Our Time, from 1980. Both are short, right around 100-pages each, and In Our Time is mostly pictures, many of which were culled from the illustrations Wolfe had drawn for his other books (including some from The Painted Word). Of the two, The Painted Word is more characteristic of what one might expect from Tom Wolfe. It is written in his hyperventilated style, with exclamation points and ellipses all over the place, and it is a piece of non-fiction. Its subject is purportedly the history of American Art in the Twentieth Century up to the point of its publication, but, as usual, its main concern is the uneasy relationship of the ultra-rich to the rest of society. Wolfe is most successful in these types of outings—there is always a strain in his characterizations of the underprivileged, for he excels at tearing down and ripping up, not at lending sympathy—and he confidently skewers all the culturati he can get his hands on. In Our Time, on the other side, demonstrates that Wolfe is also a gifted graphic artist, able to draw in lines the hideous buffoons he has described often enough before. While The Painted Word allows Wolfe to poke fun at the theory-driven, self-contained art world, In Our Time allows him to show, via example, what interesting, socially-aware art might look like.

The Painted Word begins with a 1st-person description of Tom Wolfe reading the newspaper. Specifically, he is reading the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, and he hones in on a quote from Kramer’s review of a Yale exhibition of “Seven Realists”:

"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 the values they signify."

Wolfe credits this statement as the one that allowed him to understand the New York art scene for what it really is—at least, as what it had been for the previous thirty years. By Wolfe’s estimation, bolstered by the comments of artists themselves, the production of art had been driven by the writings of theorists dictating what art should do rather than the experience of art itself.

The theorist-villians of the narrative are Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. In Wolfe’s caricature, Greenberg is the prophet of artistic Flatness, whereas Rosenberg wanted to synthesize Greenberg’s Flatness with the “emotional wallop” of pre-Modern art. Flatness is Wolfe’s term for the idea that art should not refer to anything outside its own frame—the idea that it is intellectually dishonest to create illusions of people and places residing within a frame, when only shapes and colors are truly there. This sort of theory began with cubism, but continuing theoretical discussions stretched the idea to its logical, if absurd, conclusion. Wolfe, clearly, thinks that this is ridiculous, comparing the endless art-theory debates to that Scholastic dispute involving angels and the head of a pin. When Greenberg cries for more emotional resonance, the messianic figure becomes Jackson Pollock, whose ‘action paintings,’ with their splats of paint thrown across canvases, denote nothing other than the mad lunges of their creator. In these works, the viewer is not invited to imagine that the shapes and colors on the canvas evoke the outside world; all that’s there is paint and canvas—and that’s the point.

The problem, however, is that the uptown folk couldn’t honestly like the stuff. Wolfe’s disdain for the cliquishness of art is evident throughout the passages where he describes how artists become ‘great.’ Artists flock to centers of culture (read, New York) and live downtrodden and abused, honing their craft and creating their works; once a year, the Guggnehiem/Metropolitan crowd comes over to see what’ll be big in the next year’s expo; the artists feign disinterest, not wanting to cave in to bourgeois ways, while the capitalists eagerly lap up the contributions of the hottest new artists, hoping to cast themselves as persons interested in something other than money; and finally, after much arty hemming and hawing, the artist will learn to interact with his worshippers, if disdainfully. This last step of acquiescence is not without its roadblocks. Wolfe relates an anecdote in which Pollock, disgusted at the fripperies of the rich, removes all his clothing mid-party and pisses in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. Whether he was fed up or not, though, Pollock never stopped going to the parties.

From this backdrop of confused earnestness, Wolfe describes two parallel movements that emerged from the Abstract Expressionism. On one side, there was Pop Art, trashy and wildly popular, and on the other side was Minimalism, which pushed Flatness to its extreme limit. Wolfe marvels that both were able to inherit the former art theory with ease, as an act of creative reinterpretation. Although Greenberg, the original theorist of Flatness, hated Pop, another critic named Leo Steinberg came to the rescue. He decided that if the objects of an originally flat nature (like Warhol’s photos, Jasper John’s flags, and Roy Lichtenstien’s comics) were subjected to the decontextualization of art, then they would too be absorbed into the growing hyper-theory. Whatever. As Warhol nicely put it, “There’s nothing more bourgeois than not wanting to appear bourgeois.” The collectors loved it (they always love representational art, says Wolfe—especially when they think it’s non-representational), and art was once again something to buy, not just something to praise.

Carrying the old torch of abstraction were the Minimalists, who made art that was “fast, hard, flat and unevocative.” The frames were gone. So were the warm colors and rough evocations of an artist behind the gesture. All that was left was the Idea itself—which finally brought in Conceptual Art, wherein an artist would not create an art object at all, but would simply describe what the object might be, and how it might function in the light of the developed theories…

Which brings us to In Our Time. Wolfe’s own art is the opposite of non-representational. In his writing (as he has trumpeted in such articles as “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”), he makes a proud point of pouring years of journalism into a single novel, and his drawings also seem to have a certain journalistic flair. In his introductory text he announces his desire in these pictures to briefly sum up the last two decades. He reiterates the thesis of his essay, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening”— namely, that the 1970s were remarkable for two main reasons: 1. Self-obsession, born from their post-war prosperity and lack of pointed political sufferings, became the norm rather than the extreme, and 2. In the ensuing nihilism brought about by Vietnam and Watergate, people looked for spiritual awakening in extraordinarily diverse settings, e.g., orgasms for swingers, UFOs, drugs, health food, Jimmy Carter.

And we get pictures of this. The images are themselves are remarkable. They combine the repulsive flair of a Ralph Steadman with the detailed precision a Gustave Dore. We are treated to a heartwarming father/son hunting trip, where the father informs his son, “No, no, son, that’s not how it works. When you’re forty-five or fifty, you’ll get a new wife, a young one, a girl in her twenties.” A few pages later, we see a series entitled ‘The Evolution of the Species.” The first entry is entitled “Growing Old Gracefully,” and it contrasts a man in 1879 vs. a man in 1979; the difference is between “…as long as they don’t think I’m poor…” (the man wears a top-hat) and “…as long as they don’t think I’m old…” (the man swings a tennis racket). The pages of grotesques go on and on: the hip mommy, the forward-thinking, pederast priest, the tricked-out pimp, plus portraits of some of Wolfe’s old article subjects—Marshall McLuhan, the cultural theorist shown in a leopard leotard with antennae protruding from his forehead; stripper Carol Doda with her ‘twin peaks of San Fansisco’ jutting out frighteningly above an awed crowd; Andy Warhol, his hands folded, bored. Far from Flatness and Academic Nicety, in these works Wolfe grabs his subjects head on, with about as much subtle restraint as a bludgeon.

The criticisms that one might level at In Our Time are much the same as the criticisms that could legitimately be raised about The Painted Word. Both deal in caricatures. Neither one is long on facts (although, to be fair, Wolfe supposedly is very careful about the accuracy of the material that could possibly be checked), and both are long on a sort of exuberant lampooning that could only come from a man of great talent and high privilege. In these works, his style works wonderfully; art criticism (in my opinion, at least) is a silly enough field that jokiness is called for. His art, similarly, describes America as a fool’s paradise, as a place of surfaces, a haven for clueless hypocrites and narcissistic snobs. Both books are cutting, sarcastic, and cruel.

At the same time, in his other works Tom Wolfe has shown himself to be an odd sort of idealist. The Right Stuff was a love song to the gustiness of American astronauts, and in Hooking Up, his latest collection of essays, Wolfe could not stop gushing about the ingenuity of our neuroscientists and electrical engineers. Perhaps Wolfe’s dual strain of cynicism and idealism can be no better encapsulated than by a quote from the last page of The Painted Word, where he describes the art students of the future:

“They will listen to art historians say, with the sort of smile now reserved for the study of Phrygian astrology: “That’s how it was then!”—as they describe how, on the one hand, the scientist of the mid-twentieth century proceeded by building upon the discoveries of their predecessors and thereby lit up the sky…while the artists proceeded by averting their eyes from whatever their predecessors, from da Vinci on, had discovered, shrinking from it, terrified, or disintegrating it with the universal solvent of the Word.”

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