“Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” – Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word
About 10 years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend when the conversation turned to the art hanging on the walls. I can’t remember the entire context, but I’m sure I was expressing my lack of interest in anything displayed. Most of it I found ugly, and the specimen hanging directly beside our table was no exception.
I pointed out the picture and the title next to it. I can’t remember now what it was called. Starfish Delight or Evening Triumph or Granny’s Day at the Disco…whatever it was I said there’s no way that picture, by itself, means that. You can’t get there from there.
Tom Wolfe opens The Painted Word with his realization, his Aha! moment, while reading the New York Times. A paragraph by the Time’s Dean of Arts, Hilton Kramer, is what did it:
“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.”
If I had stumbled across that paragraph, I doubt I would have been “jerked alert” like Wolfe describes his own experience reading it. It takes Wolfe to explain to me the significance of it. Because I’m slow.
“In short: frankly,” Wolfe says, ” these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.
“All these years, along with countless kindred souls, I am certain, I had made my way into the galleries… 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…”
How foolish we are to think if we just look at a painting, we’ll “get it!” No, no, no…unless you understand the theory, you won’t get it. Unless you know the words the artists had rolling around in their noggin’ while throwing those paints around, you won’t get it. Unless you read the card next to it you wouldn’t know that the mass of color over your head was Granny’s Day at the Disco.
Wolfe lays out how the term “literary” had become a word that summed up what Modern Art practitioners and aficionados had come to detest about realistic art. While it may have started in describing how older artists liked painting scenes from literary works (from the Bible to Shakesphere and all things in-between) the term morphed to include any painting that was about something else. A painting that pointed to this or that was literary. Time to move on!
The answer became what we broadly call Modern Art. Art for art’s sake. The painting doesn’t point to anything else, the paints on the canvas make an object. That’s it. That’s all that’s there. Or as minimalist artist Frank Stella said, “My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object . . . What you see is what you see. “
It doesn’t take long for the theory to become the key you need to unlock the pictures. In essence, the picture becomes subservient to the words. The picture doesn’t point. Modern art became something else entirely. It doesn’t even become what many practitioners claimed, i.e. art for art’s sake…the arrangement of color and shapes that’s just…there. It trails along behind the word, the theory…the “orthodoxy” of modern art. What does this mean and how did it happen?
We’ll dive in to The Painted Word and see what Wolfe has to say.
-To Be Continued in part 3-