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.