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The Painted Word (originale 1975; edizione 2008)
di Tom Wolfe (Autore)
The Painted Word di Tom Wolfe (1975)
Books Read in 2021 (486)
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No doubt a tremendous influence on the painting styles of the 43rd President of the United States. ( )
I listened to the audiobook and found the narrator's tone of voice and frequent pauses a bit annoying.
Wolfe is basically saying that Modern Art is much ado about nothing, and he backs up his opinion (circa 1975 anyway) with a scathing analysis of various critics and movements. The thesis is that it all revolves around a very small number of people--just a few thousand in the whole world--who decide what is or is not art mainly for their own amusement, and that modern art is not comparable to literature or music in having a true mass audience that creates demand. In modern art, Wolfe is saying that the same people create the demand AND consume the art. I'm not sure how much I care. Even though the book is short (the audio book is barely over two hours), the fact that Wolfe invests any time in it at all perhaps shows that he took the subject more seriously than it deserved. This is occasionally amusing and a bit informative, but that's all.
Wolfe's argument in this short, entertaining, and completely wrong-headed polemic is based on the idea that the non-representational art of the last 100 or so years is a hoax because it can only be appreciated by those who have learned and agree with various abstract theories.
Wolfe is much more supportive of various flavors of representational art of the same period and the preceding centuries because he thinks this art can be appreciated without depending on theories.
The basic fallacy of this argument is that Wolfe doesn't admit (or perhaps he is really unaware) that the "realistic" nature of the art works he champions is no less dependent on a variety of theories that have either been absorbed into modern Western culture but are by no means universal throughout the world (like perspective and other 3-D modeling techniques) and/or are no longer central to the culture most of us live in and must be learned in art history classes (like the iconography of saints, etc).
The book is, as I mentioned earlier, entertaining. Wolfe is almost always fun to read. But that doesn't mean that he knows a lot about his subject here.
If you abjure the chic and dream of a realist approach to art this may be your book. Written by novelist and essayist Tom Wolfe, this is an extended essay on the current state of art (circa 1975). In it he extends his social critique into the world of art with not surprising results. Those results are both witty and amusing. More importantly they are thought-provoking while raising the skeptical bar for art criticism.
Modern art has morphed into postmodernism and beyond since this book was written, but his commentary has not lost its bite. Moreover, there may be good modern art, but there certainly is a lot of bad modern art to sort through before you find it. This short introduction is one good place to find out where and how to look for it.
Jack the Dripper, the king of Abstract Expressionism, an art movement author Tom Wolfe didn't hold in high regard
You will be hard-pressed to find a more lively, wittier book on the phenomenon of modern art than Tom Wolfe’s “The Painted Word,” a 100-page romp through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s where the author jabs his sharp satirical needle with signature debunking flare into Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art. And that’s ‘Painted Word’ as in Wolfe’s epiphany whilst reading an article in the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section containing these words: “Modern Art has become completely literary: the painting and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”
To put it another way, Tom realized, regarding modern art, all his previous trips to museums and galleries to view the work of painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were uninformed since he neglected a critical first step – understanding the theory revealed via the text, those oh-so-important words. Oh, rats, Tom fumed, all my hours squinting and starring at unintelligible paintings and I never comprehended those massive cutting-edge, avant-garde canvases were based on ideas and philosophies outlined by hyper-perceptive, authoritative art theorists.
For the Abstract Expressionists, Clement Greenberg was the first to expound the theory. Wolfe writes, “In Greenberg’s eyes, the Freight Train of Art History had a specific destination. . . . It was time to clear the tracks at last of all the remaining rubble of the pre-Modern way of painting. And just what was this destination? On this point Greenberg couldn’t have been clearer: Flatness.” None of that old-fashion 3-dimensional representation – paintings of portraits, landscapes, bowls of fruit, even if painted in cubes or dots, no, no, no, no. “What was needed was purity – a style in which lines, forms, contours, colors all became unified on the flat surface.” Now, attending an art event armed with Greenberg’s theory, all those Pollocks and Rothkos make abundant sense.
Then as Tom Wolfe points out, a second major theorist, Harold Rosenberg, added another dimension. “Rosenberg came up with a higher synthesis, a theory that combined Greenberg’s formal purity with something that had been lacking in abstract art from the early Synthetic Cubist days and ever since: namely, the emotional wallop of the old realistic pre-Modern pictures.” And then Wolfe quotes Rosenberg directly: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an area in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Oh, Wolfe proclaims, now I get it – understood as pure action painting, all those Pollocks really, really make sense!
As Wolfe continues: “A Promethean artist gorged with emotion and overloaded with paint, hurling himself and his brushes at the canvas as if in hand-to-hand combat with Fate. There! . . . there! . . . there in those furious swipes of the brush on canvas, in those splatters of unchained id, one could see the artist’s emotion itself – still alive! – in the final product.” And after Abstract Expressionism, its Warhol and Pop Art, Bridget Riley and Op Art, Frank Stella and Minimalist Art, Lawrence Weiner and Conceptual Art, all on the receiving end of the author’s cynical, caustic barbs.
And what do I myself think of Tom Wolfe on the subject of modern art? Permit me to answer by way of an experience: When I was 12-years old I accompanied my mother when she took a summer workshop at a local college for Sunday school teachers. She took me to the college bookstore and told me I could pick out any book I wanted. Ah, my very first book, ever! I scanned the bookshelves; there was a series of small books on various types of art and I chose a book with a cover that fascinated me on two counts: first, the picture – a combination of colors and shapes arranged geometrically - orange circles, black half circles, purple and cream rectangles, large dark green squares and a black square in the middle; second, two words on the cover: Abstract Art. ‘Abstract' resonated with me, a word starting with that bold ‘A’ and having such an otherworldly sound, a word with an ‘A’ matching the ‘A’ in art.
Back at the dormitory where I was staying, I turned the pages, both fascinated and mesmerized by all the paintings. The next day I played sick so I wouldn't have to go to the kid’s workshop class. I remained in my room with paper and crayons doing my best copying the art in the book. By the end of the day, when one of the Sunday school teachers returned to the dormitory, I proudly showed her my drawing and my book. She promptly belittled my efforts: "You don't have this black spot in the right place." “Your colors don't match what's in the book at all." She was furious I did what I did. My response to her fury was not to be upset, but to be pleased. I enjoyed being transported to this special, new world of art and how this art could trigger such a violent emotional reaction in an adult.
In retrospect, I can only smile at the encounter - a boy's entering into the world of abstract art and communicating his love to a Sunday school teacher. Now wonder she was so mad! And, predictably, she countered with all the judgment and outrage she could muster as spokeswoman for the conventional, average, bland, mundane world. On reading "The Painted Word" I can't help but wonder how much Tom Wolfe has in common with this Sunday school teacher.
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The author derails the great American myth of modern art in a scathing, witty, uncompromising critique of American art from the 1950s through the 1970s. Reprint. NYT.
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Sistema Decimale Melvil (DDC)759.06The arts Painting History, geographic treatment, biography History 1900-1999
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