The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe


If you approach Tom Wolfe’s book, The Painted Word, skeptical as to why an accomplished writer would write a critic of Modern Art, then your likely to still be asking that question when you finish.  Wolfe’s premise is that Modern Art or Abstract Expressionism, which became popular after World War 11, is incomprehensible, hard to look at, and produces anxiety.  He says the essential principal of this art is flatness and that three-dimensional effects are pre-modern having been around since the Renaissance. He says that flatness becomes a goal diluting meaning and message.

Wolfe claims his righteous indignation was the result of what was his reading in the Sunday New York Times in April 1974 when he was surprised to find this paragraph:

“Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with the 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 may be the reason he wrote the book, but it looks a lot like a bandwagon that came by and he jumped on to tell the world that the modern artists really don’t have anything to say and, of course, the best and meaningful message is from the writers.

Wolfe refers to the well-educated people who appreciate the arts, saying this smug elite group have made the decision as to what art is for everyone.  This is disturbing to him because he sees it changing a world order that he prides himself in understanding, and believes that the contemporary artists, conspiring with the elites, are changing things for no definable reason.

Tom Wolfe’s message is to critique Abstract Expressionism, which he says evolved to Minimalism and then to Conceptual Art. His real message may be just an approach to satire the social life and radical politics of the art world, and of course to tell us how smart he is.

Quotes by Tom Wolfe

“Andy Warhol. Nothing is more bourgeois than to be afraid to look bourgeois” 

“Aesthetics is for the artists as ornithology is for the birds,” 

“All of them, artists and theorists, were talking as if their conscious aim was to create a totally immediate art, lucid, stripped of all the dreadful baggage of history, an art fully revealed, honest, as honest as the flat-out integral picture plane.”