Tom Wolfe and “The Painted Word “

by cheri sabraw

Years ago, I sat down on an ugly pink bench in a MOMA somewhere trying to figure out why a large canvas with a gum wrapper and a streak of chartreuse paint was hanging there. In truth, I was just resting my feet. An  alarm sounded and a  large museum worker dressed in a suit wearing a blank face told me to get off the bench, which was part of the installation. I leaped off as if I had been sitting on an original Gustav Stickley chair. That bench was by So and So and it was worth a great deal of money. In truth, it was crap. No design, nothing aesthetic. But it was constructed by You Know Who.

Let’s face it. We have been bamboozled. Come on. You know what I am talking about, right? You’ve been at the Tate in London or MOMA in NYC and looked at a canvas with three stripes and a dot hanging on the cement walls, masquerading as art and said to yourself, ” I could have done that.” The proverbial answer we have all heard is “….yes, but you didn’t,” to which I would answer, ” it shows no talent whatsoever. Which agent, which impresario, which collector trying to inflate the value of his art has deemed THIS canvas worth millions?

Obviously, I must not know what I am writing about. Jackson Pollock’s work is a work of art, right? Just like Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, right?



Thankfully, a real talent skewered the modern art world of New York City in 1975 for its  tofu masquerading as abalone by wielding his razor-sharp knife entitled  The Painted Word.

That writer was Tom Wolfe.

Saucy and provocative Wolfe died last week and with his death  a unique literary voice, one that today is not often heard, has left our airspace. I’m sure he is in Literary Heaven still wearing his three-piece white suit, colorful pocket hanky and spats on his shoes.

Tom Wolfe challenged convention which, for those of you who have not read his books, may seem that he was a typical novelist–a reformer like Frank Norris, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and the like who make their livings by bringing to the fore serious social flaws like political corruption, prejudice, and workers’ rights. In fact, “major” American novelists Norman Mailer and John Updike, two self-professed chroniclers of the American zeitgeist (but overrated from this author’s perspective) rejected Tom Wolfe’s book of business because he was a commercial success, something they resented and rejected. He got even for their elitism in a short story entitled, ” My Three Stooges.”

Wolfe challenged the conventional notions of pretentiousness. Think of the  Hollywood Elite.  Think Modern Art and architecture. Think of all of those institutions that we 60’s kids have elevated in status and importance which really have not much heft, depth, or loft. Think the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Tom Wolfe had no problem reminding his readership that modern art–abstract expressionism, post modern art, pop art, and the Bauhaus School of Architecture were, in fact, drummed up faddish trends that  the New York Elite eagerly bought and monetized.  They knew “something” that we unsophisticates outside of the epicenter of cultural beingness did not.

Here is Wolfe at his best in The Painted Word:

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.



About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
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21 Responses to Tom Wolfe and “The Painted Word “

  1. Richard says:

    I am far from being a connoisseur of art and can only speak as I find.

    Tate Modern (the converted power station on London’s South Bank opened in 2000) certainly has its share of charlatans and the exhibitions become curioser and curioser, sometimes even a source of much hilarity.

    Tate Britain, the original gallery opened in 1897, founded by the famous sugar mllionaire, is more conventional with an emphasis on British artists. In my twenties, I thought I would visit a Picasso exhibition there, more for amusement than anything else. As soon as I stepped into the room I felt the power of the art and it changed forever my perception of non-representative works. There are, anyway, non-representational aspects to a greater or lesser extent in all great art going back to prehistoric times.

    There are other forces at work that attach preposterous monetary value, of course, and they have no reference to true worth. For example, I cannot for the life of me understand what worth there is in an unmade bed or random splashes of paint on a canvas. One may be a statement about low standards and slovenliness and the other about the mysteries of the forces of nature, but neither (in my opinion) is a human contribution or reponse to unanswerable beauty.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you, Richard, for your logical and measured comment, along with your photo of the Great White Horse of Britain. I bought a book about this horse after you told me of this amazing human endeavor, which, as I gaze upon it again, is not abstract to me. Your term ” non-representational art” appeals to me on a number of levels.

      • Richard says:

        You make an imporant point about the Great White horse not being an abstract.

        In a few lines this late bronze or early iron age artist has evoked the unmistakeable impression of a horse. At the same time there is a little fussiness and an almost obsessive perfectionism. That the designer was an individual is as clear to me, at least, as the immediate interpretation of this giant chalk etching.

        I imagine it would not be easy to construct an anatomically faithful image of a horse from the foundation the artist has provided. That, I think, was not his (or her) object.

        Somehow, the artist has grasped what we all recognise to be a horse. A political cartoonist does the same but with the benefit of context (although I guess the only animal to be seen from a distance grazing on a hillside at the time would have been a horse). Someone, according to Wikipedia, has suggested that there is an astronomical connection to mythology: the sun can, on a particular date, be seen riding the horse. Is there a physiological process of recognition? Could a computer algorithm be written to see a horse? Are there any comparable ancient works of art? One thinks of prehistoric cave paintings, but what of ancient historical times? Does your book say anything about these things?

        The photo is not subject to copyright, having been produced by NASA.

        • Cheri says:

          Alas, when I culled all of the books that I had ordered as supplementary when I was writing my thesis (and when I had a brief notion to write about the white horse that crossed the channel with William the Conqueror), I gave away that large book on the White Horse. That will teach me.

          Yes, we all recognize this amazing gypsum (wasn’t it gypsum?) image as a horse. I had a friend of mine call one of my paintings of Jerry, the paint draft horse, abstract. Huh?

  2. It affronts me, as well, to see obviously bad “art” hanging on the walls of a museum. Like Richard, above, I have felt the power of some abstract expressionist art. I think it is like everything else. Not every painting of a lily pad is worth looking at.
    As a professional artist I wrestle with this topic because if I want to sell, I’d better pay attention to what people buy and what they seem to buy is abstract.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Melissa, thank you as well for your candid comment, especially about the art market. And you are correct: not every horse in the field is worth hanging on a wall!! My question to you, and to all artists, is this: why do people like abstract art?

      • Well there is an answer I want to give, and the answer I think is probably more true. For myself, really well done abstract expressionism conveys excitement and clearly took time and effort to build up. It can express energy that straight representation cannot.
        For the run of the mill stuff that I see on people’s walls I think it is something different. I think people have the idea they should have some “art” on their walls, and they like abstract because it is meaningless and they don’t have to put any effort into seeing it. If it matches the couch, is the right size and makes no demands on them, they’re happy with it. As to the lousy stuff that lands on museum walls, that seems to me to be nothing more than a case of the emperor’s missing clothes. It is as though all the museum directors have been hoodwinked! Does any of this sound right to you?

        • Cheri says:

          I do agree with you that abstract art ( some modern, some abstract expressionism, some pop art) can generate thoughts that perhaps a realistic piece of art may not. Abstract art does invite the viewer to see what she sees. One of my good friends sent me a photo which is looking down at a turquoise green sea. A purple flying fish is leaping up. The photo looks like a piece of abstract art. Maybe I should try to paint it so that I can see that it is not necessarily easy to create fine art in that way.

          All of what you wrote sounds right to me. Thank you for your comment!

      • Also, have you seen the mixed media work that has been coming out of the Somerset magazines? I think for the most part these women have little or no training in art, and of course most of it isn’t art. But some of what I’m seeing is actually quite good. I guess you could say they are another branch of Outsiders.

        • Cheri says:

          I actually had to look up what Somerset Magazine is…please forgive me! And yes, there are a number of fine artists out there, some professionally trained, some self-trained, and some not trained. LOL

  3. Christopher says:

    “….Frank Norris, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and the like who make their livings by bringing to the fore serious social flaws like……………workers’ rights.”

    Trying to be provocative, are you?!!

  4. ShimonZ says:

    That great white horse is a fine example of abstract art. Unfortunately, there is some public confusion between abstract art and fantasy, but I agree that there are hypes and con as well in the art world. I enjoyed reading Wolfe, and appreciated his point of view.

  5. Cheri says:

    Very good point and distinction, Shimon. I am going to reread Bonfire of the Vanities.

  6. Lue Perrine says:

    Awe…Tom Wolfe 💛 “The Right Stuff!” baby! What a gift Tom gave to our generation. The right attitude!
    Suburbly written Cheri. 🤗
    Ugly vs. Beautiful expression!
    I agree, it is what it is.

    • Cheri says:

      Yes and can we military families relate to our relatives who have THE RIGHT STUFF!
      I am reminded that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
      What Tom Wolfe railed against was the set-up by impresarios of the art market and the audacity of COLLECTORS. (Wolfe always capitalized COLLECTORS)

      Hope to see you next week, Lue, you-know-where….

  7. shoreacres says:

    No art critic here, but I find that in both art and photography the abstractions that I enjoy still bear some connection to the reality from which they have been abstracted. The first piece I remember is Duchamp’s “Nude Descending A Staircase.” While it was unusual in form, it was at least recognizable, and interesting.

    So much abstract art seems wholly ungrounded, and purely intellectual. There’s nothing wrong with rationality or intentionality, but if a piece doesn’t engage my mind and stir a visceral response, the whole of the art establishment may sing its praises, but I doubt I’ll join in.

    • Cheri says:

      Well put (as usual). I suppose the key word is ” interesting.” I will meditate on your words. Seriously. I may need to educate myself a bit since I came on so strong (as usual) in my blog post.

  8. wkkortas says:

    As I was re-reading this, I was thinking about what you said about Mailer (who I’ve read very little of, because he became such a perfect ass) and Updike (whose work I’ve read more widely). It seems that both of them, and I would certainly say this about Updike with a great deal of conviction, did their best work early and then slowly but surely tailed off to the point of is-this-book-really-necessary. In Updike’s case, I think Rabbit, Run is clearly his finest novel, and some of the other early-ish work — A Month of Sundays, Rabbit Redux— is quite strong, but by the time he gets to, say, Rabbit Is Rich, it’s pretty clear that he’d ridden that particular horse much too hard and too often. I suspect that’s the case with many novelists, but not all of them get the rep of Messrs. Mailer and Updike.

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