|The Painted Word (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Welcome to the web log of the L.A. Stuckist group. We are Remodernists seeking the renewal of spirituality and meaning in art, culture and society. We wish to build an international art movement for new figurative painting with ideas. We stand against the pretensions of conceptual art - we are anti anti-art. www.la-stuckism.com
American author and journalist, , is certainly one of the country’s best writers. Over the decades he’s penned works as diverse as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities. He also wrote two extremely controversial histories regarding modern art and architecture, The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus To Our House (1981). Despite Wolfe’s conservatism, it’s hard to imagine the critique contained in his essays on art as coming from your average garden variety reactionary. Wolfe’s critical assessment of modern art, and his ridiculing those who defended its excesses, seems wholly prescient when viewed from today’s vantage point. If anything, the extremes in art lambasted by Wolfe have subsequently become worse as postmodernism ascended and took center stage.
"PEOPLE DON'T READ the morning newspaper, Marshall McLuhan once said, they slip into it like a warm bath. Too true, Marshall! Imagine being in New York City on the morning of Sunday, April 28, 1974, like I was, slipping into that great public bath, that vat, that spa, that regional physiotherapy tank, that White Sulphur Springs, that Marienbad, that Ganges, that River Jordan for a million souls which is the Sunday New York Times. Soon I was submerged, weightless, suspended in the tepid depths of the thing, in Arts & Leisure, Section 2, page 19, in a state of perfect sensory deprivation, when all at once an extraordinary thing happened:
I noticed something!
Yet another clam-broth-colored current had begun to roll over me, as warm and predictable as the Gulf Stream . . . a review, it was, by the Times's dean of the arts, Hilton Kramer, of an exhibition at Yale University of "Seven Realists," seven realistic painters . . . when I was jerked alert by the following:
"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."
Now, you may say, My God, man! You woke up over that? You forsook your blissful coma over a mere swell in the sea of words?
But I knew what I was looking at. I realized that without making the slightest effort I had come upon one of those utterances in search of which psychoanalysts and State Department monitors of the Moscow or Belgrade pres are willing to endure a lifetime of tedium: namely, the seemingly innocuous obiter dicta, the words in passing, that give the game away.
What I saw before me was the critic-in-chief of The New York Times saying: In looking at a painting today, "to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial." I read it again. It didn't say "something helpful" or "enriching" or even "extremely valuable." No, the word was crucial.
In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can't see a painting.
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. The fogs lifted! The clouds passed! The motes, scales, conjunctival bloodshot, and Murine agonies fell away!
All these years, along with countless kindred souls, I am certain, I had made my way into the galleries of Upper Madison and Lower Soho and the Art Gildo Midway of Fifty-seventh Street, and into the museums, into the Modern, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, the Bastard Bauhaus, the New Brutalist, and the Fountainhead Baroque, into the lowliest storefront churches and grandest Robber Baronial temples of Modernism.
All these years I, like so many others, had stood in front of a thousand, two thousand, God-knows-how-many thousand Pollocks, de Koonings, Newmans, Nolands, Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, Judds, Johnses, Olitskis, Louises, Stills, Franz Klines, Frankenthalers, Kellys, and Frank Stellas, now squinting, now popping the eye sockets open, now drawing back, now moving closer - waiting, waiting, forever waiting for… it… for it to come into focus, namely, the visual reward (for so much effort) which must be there, which everyone (tout le monde) knew to be there - waiting for something to radiate directly from the paintings on these invariably pure white walls, in this room, in this moment, into my own optic chiasma.
All these years, in short, 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."
And what was the "text" he spoke of? Wolfe asserted that the critics, museum directors, academics, and other "art experts" of the day, had become more important than the artists. These art authorities began operating like the clergy, but their religious duties were to the church of modern art. The proclamations of these high priests - i.e., figuration, narration, and realism in art was archaic and passé - became a divine text and considered the sacred word. No one dared to question the word for fear of being thought heretical. Metaphorically, the painted word began to appear in the work of artists devoted to the new orthodoxy (hence the title of the essay). Wolfe foretold our current predicament when he wrote:
"Every art student will marvel over the fact that a whole generation of artists devoted their careers to getting the Word (and to internalizing it) and to the extraordinary task of divesting themselves of whatever there was in their imagination and technical ability that did not fit the Word. 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 scientists 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.
The more industrious scholars will derive considerable pleasure from describing how the art-history professors and journalists of the period 1945-75, along with so many students, intellectuals, and art tourists of every sort, actually struggled to see the paintings directly, in the old pre-World War II way, like Plato’s cave dwellers watching the shadows, without knowing what had projected them, which was the Word.What happy hours await them all! With what sniggers, laughter, and good-humored amazement they will look back upon the era of the Painted Word!"
[ Read more excerpts from Thomas Wolfe’s The Painted Word, or from Amazon.com ]
Chapter One The Apache Dance
Things like knock-off specialists, money, publicity, the smart set, and Le Chic shouldnt count in the history of art, as we all knowbut, thanks to the artists themselves, they do. Art and fashion are a two-backed beast today; the artists can yell at fashion, but they cant move out ahead. That has come about as follows:
By 1900 the artists arena, the place where he seeks honor, glory, ease, Success had shifted twice. In seventeenth century Europe the artist was literally, and also psychologically, the house guest of the nobility and the royal court (except in Holland); fine art and court art were one and the same. In the eighteenth century the scene shifted to the salons, in the homes of the wealthy bourgeoisie as well as those of aristocrats, where Culture-minded members of the upper classes held regular meetings with selected artists and writers. The artist was still the Gentleman, not yet the Genius. After the French Revolution, artists began to leave the salons and join cénacles, which were fraternities of like-minded souls huddled at some place like the Café Guerdons rather than a town house; around some romantic figure, an artist rather than a socialite, someone like Victor Hugo, Charles Nosier, Théophile Gautier, or, later, Edouard Manet. What held the cénacles together was that merry battle spirit we have all come to know and love: épatez la bourgeoisie, shock the middle class. With Gautiers cénacle especially . . . with Gautiers own red vests, black scarves, crazy hats, outrageous pronouncements, huge thirsts, and ravenous groin . . . the modern picture of The Artist began to form: the poor but free spirit, plebeian but aspiring only to be classless, to cut himself forever free from the bonds of the greedy and hypocritical bourgeoisie, to be whatever the fat burghers feared most, to cross the line wherever they drew it, to look at the world in a way they couldnt see, to be high, live low, stay young foreverin short, to be the bohemian.
By 1900 and the era of Picasso, Braque & Co., the modern game of Success in Art was pretty well set. As a painter or sculptor the artist would do work that baffled or subverted the cozy bourgeois vision of reality. As an individual well, that was a bit more complex. As a bohemian, the artist had now left the salons of the upper classes but he had not left their world. For getting away from the bourgeoisie there’s nothing like packing up your paints and easel and heading for Tahiti, or even Brittany, which was Gauguins first stop. But who else even got as far as Brittany? Nobody. The rest got no farther than the heights of Montmartre and Montparnasse, which are what? perhaps two miles from the Champs Elysées. Likewise in the United States: believe me, you can get all the tubes of Winsor & Newton paint you want in Cincinnati, but the artists keep migrating to New York all the same . . . You can see them six days a week . . . hot off the Carey airport bus, lined up in front of the real-estate office on Broome Street in their identical blue jeans, gum boots, and quilted Long March jackets . . . looking, of course, for the inevitable Loft . . .
No, somehow the artist wanted to remain within walking distance . . . He took up quarters just around the corner from . . . le monde, the social sphere described so well by Balzac, the milieu of those who find it important to be in fashion, the orbit of those aristocrats, wealthy bourgeois, publishers, writers, journalists, impresarios, performers, who wish to be "where things happen," the glamorous but small world of that creation of the nineteenth-century metropolis, tout le monde, Everybody, as in "Everybody says". . . the smart set, in a phrase . . . "smart," with its overtones of cultivation as well as cynicism.
The ambitious artist, the artist who wanted Success, now had to do a bit of psychological double-tracking. Consciously he had to dedicate himself to the antibourgeois values of the cénacles of whatever sort, to bohemia, to the Bloomsbury life, the Left Bank life, the Lower Broadway Loft life, to the sacred squalor of it all, to the grim silhouette of the black Reorig Lower Manhattan truck-route internal combustion granules that were already standing an eighth of an inch thick on the poisoned roach carcasses atop the electric hot-plate burner by the time you got up for breakfast . . . Not only that, he had to dedicate himself to the quirky god Avant-Garde. He had to keep one devout eye peeled for the new edge on the blade of the wedge of the head on the latest pick thrust of the newest exploratory probe of this falls avant-garde Breakthrough of the Century . . . all this in order to make it, to be noticed, to be counted, within the community of artists themselves. What is more, he had to be sincere about it. At the same time he had to keep his other eye cocked to see if anyone in le monde was watching. Have they noticed me yet? Have they even noticed the new style (that me and my friends are working in)? Dont they even know about Tensionism (or Slice Art or Niho or Innerism or Dimensional Creamo or whatever)? (Hello, out there!) . . . because as every artist knew in his heart of hearts, no matter how many times he tried to close his eyes and pretend otherwise (History! History!where is thy salve? ), Success was real only when it was success within lemonde.
He could close his eyes and try to believe that all that mattered was that he knew his work was great . . . and that other artists respected it . . . and that History would surely record his achievements . . . but deep down he knew he was lying to himself. I want to be a Name, goddamn it!at least that, a name, a name on the lips of the museum curators, gallery owners, collectors, patrons, board members, committee members, Culture hostesses, and their attendant intellectuals and journalists and their Time and Newsweek all right!even that!Time and Newsweek Oh yes! (ask the shades of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko!) even the goddamned journalists!
During the 1960s this entire process by which le monde, the culturati, scout bohemia and tap the young artist for Success was acted out in the most graphic way. Early each spring, two emissaries from the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller, would head downtown from the Museum on West Fifty-third Street, down to Saint Marks Place, Little Italy, Broome Street and environs, and tour the loft studios of known artists and unknowns alike, looking at everything, talking to one and all, trying to get a line on what was new and significant in order to put together a show in the fall . . . and, well, I mean, my God from the moment the two of them stepped out on Fifty-third Street to grab a cab, some sort of boho radar began to record their sortie . . . They’re coming! . . . And rolling across Lower Manhattan, like the Cosmic Pulse of the theosophists, would be a unitary heartbeat:
Pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me . . . O damnable Uptown!
By all means, deny it if asked! what one knows, in ones cheating heart, and what one says are two different things!
So it was that the art mating ritual developed early in the centuryin Paris, in Rome, in London, Berlin, Munich,
Vienna, and, not too long afterward, in New York. As weve just seen, the ritual has two phases:
(1) The Boho Dance, in which the artist shows his stuff within the circles, coteries, movements, isms, of the home neighborhood, bohemia itself, as if he doesnt care about anything else; as if, in fact, he has a knife in his teeth against the fashionable world uptown.
(2) The Consummation, in which culturati from that very same world, le monde, scout the various new movements and new artists of bohemia, select those who seem the most exciting, original, important, by whatever standards and shower them with all the rewards of celebrity.
By the First World War the process was already like what in the Paris clip joints of the day was known as an apache dance. The artist was like the female in t he act, stamping her feet, yelling defiance one moment, feigning indifference the next, resisting the advances of her pursuer with absolute contempt . . . more thrashing about . . . more rake-a-cheek fury . . . more yelling and carrying on . . . until finally with one last mighty and marvelously ambiguous shriekpain! ecstasy! she submits . . . Paff paff paff paff paff. . . How you do it, my boy! . . . and the house lights rise and Everyone, tout le monde, applauds . . .
The artists payoff in this ritual is obvious enough. He stands to gain precisely what Freud says are the goals of the artist: fame, money, and beautiful lovers. But what about le monde, the culturati, the social members of the act? What’s in it for them? Part of their reward is t he ancient and semi-sacred status of Benefactor of the Arts. 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 the 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 . . . the feeling that he is a fellow soldier, or at least an aide-de-camp or an honorary cong guerrilla in the vanguard march through the land of the philistines. This is a peculiarly modern need and a peculiarly modern kind of salvation (from the sin of Too Much Money) and something quite common among the well-to-do all over the West, in Rome and Milan as well as New York. That is why collecting contemporary art, the leading edge, the latest thing, warm and wet from the Loft, appeals specifically to those who feel most uneasy about their own commercial wealth . . . See? I’m not like them those Jaycees, those United Fund chairmen, those Young Presidents, those mindless New York A.C. goyisheh hog-jowled stripe-tied goddamn-good-to-see-you-you-old-bastard- you oyster-bar trenchermen . . . Avant-garde art, more than any other, takes the Mammon and the Moloch out of money, puts Levis, turtlenecks, muttonchops, and other mantles and laurels of bohemian grace upon 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 into the milieu of . . . the artists they patronize. They want to climb those vertiginous loft building stairs on Howard Street that go up five flights without a single turn or bendstraight up! like something out of a casebook dreamto wind up with their hearts ricocheting around in their rib cages with tachycardia from the exertion mainly but also from the anticipation that just beyond this door at the top . . . in this loft . . .lie the real goods . . . paintings, sculptures that are indisputably part of the new movement, the new école, the new wave . . something unshrinkable, chipsy, pure cong, bourgeois-proof.