PRINT September 1975

None Dare Call It Boho

Pollock—my God, get out a ruler!
—Tom Wolfe

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE LINE reading Tom Wolfe tell about somewhere along the line reading The New York Times and the whole “painted word” conspiracy tumbling to him, something tumbled to me, having read about one of the Yahoos—Phyllis Schlafly, John Stormer, Gary Allen— telling about somewhere along the line having the Conspiracy tumble to him.

. . . these people have over the years acquired a strong vested emotional interest in their own errors. Their intellects and egos are totally committed to the accidental theory. Most people are highly reluctant to admit that they have been conned or have shown poor judgment. To inspect the evidence of the existence of a conspiracy guiding our political destiny from behind the scenes would force many of these people to repudiate a lifetime of accumulated opinions. It takes a person with strong character indeed to face the facts and admit he has been wrong even if it was because he was uninformed.

Such was the case with the author of this book. It was only because he set out to prove the conservative anti-Communists wrong that he happened to end up writing this book. His initial reaction to the conservative point of view was one of suspicion and hostility; and it was only after many months of intensive research that he had to admit that he had been “conned.” (Gary Allen, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, Rossmoor, California, Concord Press, 1972, p. 9.)

Perhaps it goes with the territory. An imperialist plutocracy grudgingly allows, over the last 50 years, a little social welfare, a little kindness, if you will, into its rhino hide, if not its soul, and sure enough, up pop the suburban falangists to announce the whole thing’s a Russian plot. A dullard, reactionary, visual-arts culture grudgingly allows a little inventiveness to sprout and sure enough, up pops a middlebrow hipster, a milk-and-cookies answer to Hunter Thompson, to announce the whole thing’s . . . well, if not a plot, at least the naked emperor.

Unfortunately, reaction to The Painted Word is as predictable as the provocation itself: 1) “I loved it” (I never understood that modern art shit anyway); 2) “Who’s that asshole to talk about art like that?” (Do you think I can get my key money back?); 3) “It’s so amusing” (I own three de Marias but don’t want to look uncool, you know); or 4) “He scores some points on cleverness, but doesn’t really understand art” (What’ll I tell the students?). A hip debunking of a hip debunking is strategically impossible. To tackle the relentless glib of Wolfe’s essay is to assume that those squishy, sentimental, unprovable bleeding-heart liberal catechisms so easily lacerated by a Rex Reed, Mr. Blackwell, or Tom Wolfe can form an intellectual plank. (That’s why, for instance, James Baldwin has so much trouble with William Buckley; Baldwin’s right but Buckley’s Right.) The Painted Word is, albeit skeletally correct in its sequence of styles and theories, so dangerously, heartlessly, expediently, viscerally wrong that to ignore it, to hope that it will eventually entomb itself in the catacombs of smart-ass philistinism, is to shirk one’s duty to whatever art “community” is extant.

Like I said, Wolfe is college-outline correct: AE followed Social Realism and was leapfrogged in turn by Pop, Color Field, Minimal, and Conceptual art. Each involved its own supportive theory which seized on perceived flaws in previous art and theory. The relation of the art to various publics remained problematic with each style, and each style was populated by artists who mixed, to varying degrees, the venal and ideal, the convivial and integral. But the flesh on those bones is cancerous, so spotted with the scabs of error that even a partial inventory takes up too much room.

By 1946 the scene had cleared for the art of our day—an art more truly literary than anything ever roared against in the wildest angers of the Fauvists and Cubists.

Rothko, Newman and Gottlieb would be pleased to know that in a single swipe they’d slicked the slate of all that American Scene painting which, apparently, never appeared in all those 1946–51 Art Digests and Art News’s. Clement Greenberg, au contraire, would be disappointed to learn that his 1947 Horizon essay—part of the theory which, according to Wolfe, was supposed to have led late modernism by the nose—was a whole year late.

They [collectors] believed, along with the artists, that Abstract Expressionism was the final form, that painting had at last gone extra-atmospheric, into outer space, into a universe of pure forms and pure colors.

Painting had “at last” attained such a state over 30 years beforehand with Malevich, among others, a state which had been fully institutionalized 20 years previous in the Bauhaus and de Stijl—and the Abstract Expressionists knew it. Moreover, if any style comprehended the futility of a “final form,” it was dialectical, existential Abstract Expressionism.

“Well, it was all now blown for Abstract Expressionism.” And if any style—not just its auction prices—was independent of theoretical catch-phrases, and dependent on the individual vitality of its practitioners, it was Abstract Expressionism. Like the often “blown” Karla in Le Carré’s novels, it just keeps turning up alive.

None of the Abstract Expressionist paintings that remain from the palmy days of 1946 to 1960—and precious few are still hanging except in museums and the guest bedrooms of Long Island beachhouses, back there with the iron bedstead whose joints don’t gee, the Russel Wright water pitcher left over from the set of dishes the newlyweds bought for their first apartment after the war, and an Emerson radio with tubes and a shortwave band . . .

You can gauge the shakiness of a Wolfe point by the poundage of cute sociological lard he packs in to shore it up. It just ain’t true ... or no more true than with any other nonantique art. (How long was Blue Poles on Heller’s wall?)

. . . Hans Hofmann, a German painter in his mid-fifties who simply ignored the drillmasters and ran his art school in Greenwich Village as a philosophical outpost for I’art pour l’art and abstract painting. . . .

and it was essentially Hofmann’s ideas and Hofmann’s emphasis on purity purity purity that were about to sweep Cultureburg. . .

The description feels more like Albers. Wolfe slyly portrays Hofmann (as he does Pollock, much more viciously, later) as a historyless curmudgeon of reduction. Hofmann participated firsthand in every movement after Impressionism, and railed only against surface imitation; Search for the Real is not a plea for “purity” but for enlightened inclusiveness.

The only problem was that many of them [the Pop artists] were poor and plebeian in origin and had grown up in bohemia and they didn’t know even the rudimentary manners of life in le monde, but that didn’t stop them for long . . . Andy Warhol, for example, would go out to dinner and wouldn’t know one end of that long line-up of silverware from the other . . .

Warhol apparently brown-bagged it all those years as a Madison Avenue illustrator and art director.

So Minimalists began using colors like Tool & Die Works red and Subway I-Beam green. . . . Henceforth a paint should only be applied in hard linear geometries and you should get the whole painting at once, “fast,” to use the going phrase . . . Kenneth Noland, formerly of Morris Louis’s misty Washington School, was now considered the fastest painter in the business.

The art that I know as “Minimal” has primarily to do with “objecthood” and three-dimensional “gestalts,” i.e., sculpture. “Fast” painting, on the other hand, develops rather slowly, though without deception, in the mind’s eye. Stella’s saying “what you see is what you see” or Noland’s rapid manufacture are irrelevant to the immediate punch of supergraphics.

No, a few raspberries for the “museum-gallery complex” ... and let’s get back to business. Back to business . . . which in the late 1960’s was the monomaniacal task of reduction.

The implication here is that a singly directed art world indulged in a little lip service to the peace movement and then, when the Eyewitness News team packed up their mini-cams, reopened the same old trinket stand. The truth is that thousands of video, body, performance, Conceptual, ecological and political artists were born/tempered during the ’60s politicalization, and the art world hasn’t been the same since.

It’s as irritating to have to write out these corrections as it is to read the distortions demanding them. There are a few score more, if you like picking through trash. Wolfe, however, has the considerable rhetorical advantage of the conspirator; while he races straight ahead with it all fits, you find yourself stepping in chuckholes of “Yeah, but . . .” and “Hold on a minute, I don’t see how that . . . .” He’s the high-flying pundit while you’re the grounded clerk; he’s up there jerry-building field theories while you’re droning actuarial tables; he feeds ’em freeze-dried bullshit while you dole out slow truths. And above all, he doesn’t really care about art, and you do.

While Wolfe’s misinformation is odious his reasoning is even worse. When Hilton Kramer—not an artist and a hardly a theoretical critic, just a workaday journalist—inadvertently sets up the premise of Wolfe’s entire harangue by writing, “to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial,” Wolfe (failing to notice Kramer didn’t say “everything crucial”) sets out to attack, not Kramer for his seeming inability to see without a handbook, but the art world for producing the art which (.001% of it) drove the critic to his opinion. Then again, is Kramer’s statement that unreasonable? Do not other late modern art forms—guerrilla theater, electronic music, structuralist films, anti-novels, post-Martha Graham dance, indeed, other forms in general—sociology, nutrition, training for the 1500 meters, industrial bargaining—likewise “lack something crucial” in lacking a “persuasive theory”? And does Kramer even hint that the “persuasive theory” must manifest itself anywhere else but within the work of art? It’s hard for Wolfe to grasp, but the “theory” of Minimal art, for instance, is “persuasive” via the works themselves—Tony Smith’s Die, LeWitt’s skeletal cubes, Judd’s logarithmic reliefs. Photo-Realism’s underpinning, on the other hand, is not “persuasive” simply because of the paintings themselves—cluttered, fetishy, expedient, handicraftish, and lugubrious; this in spite of accompanying flack. (Photo-Realist paintings are modern art’s midwife toads.) Wolfe, I suspect, can’t draw such conclusions (or their opposites) from looking, never could, and, goddamnit, he’s going to get even.

There’s a long, self-serving introductory description wherein Wolfe describes his plight—years of standing, leaning, squinting before everything from de Kooning to Ellsworth Kelly . . . getting nothing. Just like, he is certain, “countless kindred souls.” Given the existence of other souls who saw something without the prop of theory (I am one: four Clyfford Stills, my head filled with Lebrunesque figure drawing class, in the old L.A. County Museum), you’re left with four options concerning Wolfe’s fruitless peering: a) he’s right, there’s nothin’ there; b) he’s blind—smart, but just can’t see; c) he’s stupid—sees the raw material but nothing really sinks in; or d) he’s a liar—sees and appreciates but, well, there’s this chance to do a fantastically easy number on the art world, a quick book, and Harper’s’ll run it in advance. . . . Wolfe’s convoluted slickness nudges me toward d), but (with some charity) his thinking process lands me on c). (Reading it is like driving a ’52 Chevy Power Glide with 200,000 miles—no low gear and no real high, just an occasional clunk and lotsa smoke.)

Central is Wolfe’s obliviousness to his own premises—or anti-premises—sarcastic, crenulated, facetious restatements of somebody else’s passions—maybe that’s the problem.

Fifty against 140 million! Beautiful; he had outhart-leyed Marsden Hartley; Hartley’s scouting report on the enemy back in 1921 listed only 90 million. It was all sheer rhetoric, of course, the antibourgeois sing-along of bohemia, standard since the 1840’s, as natural as breathing by now and quite marvelously devoid of any rational content—and yet Greenberg pulled it off with—well, not just with authority but with moral authority.

The upshot is clear: the idea of a sparsely populated modern art world laboring against the grain of a centimillionary unsympathetic public is so much Bandini, concocted to engage undeserved compassion for the modern artist. But Wolfe, semicomatose in spite of the exclamation points, talks in his sleep:

The public that buys books in hardcover and paperback by the millions, the public that buys records by the billions and fills stadiums for concerts, the public that spends $100 million on a single movie—this public affects taste, theory, and artistic outlook in literature, music, and drama, even though courtly elites hang on somewhat desperately in each field. The same has never been true in art.

Ignoring of course that a parallel “art” here should mean Peter Max and Bob Peak, Thor and Spiderman, Underdog and the Flintstones, Richard Avedon and Herb Lubalin and the cover of Rolling Stone . . . but never mind . . . comparatively, it’s a small clinker . . .

. . . if it were possible to make such a diagram of the art world, we would see that it is made up of (in addition to the artists) about 750 culturati in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich, and Düsseldorf, 3,000 in New York, and perhaps 1,000 scattered about the rest of the known world. That is the art world, approximately 10,000 souls—a mere hamlet!

Fifty against 140 million is rhetoric, but 10,000 against four billion is fact. Beautiful-er!

A man from Mars or Chester, Pa., incidentally, would have looked at a Morris Louis painting and seen rows of rather watery-looking stripes.

Who the hell cares what some hosiery salesman from suburban Philly thinks . . . unless he represents the consensus of 140 million (more like 200 million now)! That he “would only have seen rows of rather watery-looking stripes” is exactly what ol’ lizard-eyed Greenberg—who makes the un-Wolteish tactical blunder of telling you exactly what he means and from whence he draws it—was driving at. (The Keystone Stater probably couldn’t tell the difference between Tom Wolfe and Joyce Haber, either, only there he’d be a little closer to the mark.)

The art world had been successfully restricted to about 10,000 souls worldwide, the beaux mondes of a few metropolises. Of these perhaps 2,000 were collectors and probably no more than 300—worldwide—bought current work (this year’s, last year’s, the year before’s) with any regularity; of these perhaps 90 lived in the United States.

I once heard Robert Scull say, “Abstract Expressionism was a little club down on Tenth Street. There were never more than 100 people in on it.” Scull was a collector from a later, enemy camp, Pop Art, and he may have set the figure too low, but I suspect that he was, at the core, correct.

And so on. Wolfe adds one more half-twist to this four-and-a-half gainer before splatting the water flat on his back: laughing at the later modern theorists snookered by photo-Realism, supposedly (to their chagrin and Wolte’s delight).the newest “profoundly original art [that] looks ugly at first” ferreting its way into hard-won art footholds. Estes, he gloats, is “reported selling at $80,000 a crack.” Why? Because it’s so profoundly original/ugly? Nope: because its obvious surfeit of manual labor (at two bucks an hour it’d be worth a bundle) and obsessive recognizability (the universal burgher currency of realism) make it a dandy investment. The man from Chester, Pa. probably wants a silkscreen.

Wolfe wouldn’t object so much to late modern art’s being so “theoretical” if it hadn’t started out (early modern) damning 19th-century academic art for being “literary” then turning “literary” itself. Wolfe confuses literary with literal—a late modern work’s being the thing-in-itself object of art-critical theorizing, i.e., “literature.” When Leo Steinberg, championing Pop art, continues to subscribe to the postulate all great art is about art and uses Renaissance paintings as evidence, Wolfe thinks he’s caught him out (“See,” he mocks,“They’re [the figures in the painting] commenting on art.”) Once again Wolfe makes the (unintentional?) slip from apples to oranges: abstract art can comment on art because it’s about the means of art, while figurative art cannot, since the figures are anecdotal. What happened to style? Raphael’s style comments on Perugino’s style which comments on Masaccio’s style which comments on Giotto’s style. The Expulsion doesn’t stick in our agnostic little heads because the idea of Original Sin is such a zinger, but because it’s great art, about art. (Photo-Realism,on the contrary, makes a pass at being about art, but ends up being about iconography.)

And Wolfe wouldn’t object so much to late modern art’s being “theoretical” if the accompanying (please note: not “preceding”) theory were like his own: clear.

On this point Greenberg couldn’t have been clearer: Flatness.

The general theory went as follows: as the Cubists and other early Modernists had correctly realized, a painting was not a window through which one could peer into the distance. The three-dimensional effects were sheer illusion (et ergo ersatz). A painting was a flat surface with paint on it. Earlier abstract artists had understood the importance of flatness in the simple sense of painting in two dimensions, but they hadn’t known how to go beyond that. They still used paint in such a way that it divided neatly into lines, forms, contours, and colors, just as it had in pre-Modern days. What was needed was purity—a style in which lines, forms, contours, colors all became unified on the flat surface.

For an astringent summary, it ain’t bad. But theory drawn from existing art isn’t formula for cranking out doctrinaire masterpieces; “unifying” lines, forms, and colors on a flat surface is no mean feat, and nowhere in such a suggestion—even Wolfe’s own paraphrase—lurks the deduction the physically flatter the better. Nowhere in the “integrity of the picture plane” (which since Cézanne has meant only that you can’t treat it like that “window,” not that every impasto is a felony) are there inspirations for

such subtle distinctions, such exquisitely miniaturized hypotheses, such stereotactic microelectrode needle-implant hostilities, such brilliant if ever-decreasing tighter-turning spirals of logic . . . that it compares admirably with the most famous of all questions that remain from the debates of the Scholastics: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Wolfe, in fact, is irritated that Braque’s statement, “The painter thinks in forms and colors; the aim is not to reconstitute an anecdotal fact but to constitute a pictorial fact,” survives virtually untransmuted to 1966 with Stella saying, “My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen is there; it really is an object . . . What you see is what you see.” The question arising from unifying forms, lines and colors on a flat surface is not how many angels can dance, but how many good paintings can be painted? The beauty of the answer is, if you can see, quite a few.

Pop art is particularly thorny for Wolfe; if the road to Reductivism is as flat and sure as the Nuremburg drill grounds, as confining as a thin desert highway posted “Last Gas for 200 Miles,” as conspiratorial as Wolfe would have it, Pop art couldn’t have been taken seriously. If it was, there must have been some cute footwork by those hifalutin uptown bookish esthetes, and Wolfe thinks he’s got his man in Lawrence Alloway.

Within a few years the most famous images of Pop art were Roy Lichtenstein’s blowups of panels from war comics and love comics and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes. But wasn’t that realism? Not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. Alloway, the Englishman who coined the term Pop Art_, provided the rationale: the comics, labels, and trademarks that the Pop artists liked were not representations of external reality. They were commonplace “sign systems” of American culture. . . . “Pop Art is neither abstract nor realistic,” said Alloway, “though it has contacts in both directions. The core of Pop Art is at neither frontier; it is, essentially, an art about signs and systems.” That may have been a bit hard to follow, but the stamp of approval came through clearly to one and all: “It’s okay! You are hereby licensed to go ahead and like these pictures. We’ve drained all the realism out.”

Wolfe, for one, finds that hard to follow, becoming befuddled enough to conclude that “contacts in both directions” and “neither frontier” equals “drained all the realism out.” Immediately after reasserting his skepticism (“the hell with sign systems”), Wolfe deals out an AAAA confirmation of Alloway:

. . . they just loved the dopey campy picture of those two vapid blond sex buds having their love-comic romance bigger than life, six feet by eight feet, in fact, up on the walls in an art gallery. Dopey . . . campy . . . Pop Art was packed with literary associations, quite in addition to the love scene or whatever on the canvas. It was, from beginning to end, an ironic, a camp, a literary-intellectual assertion of the banality, emptiness, silliness, vulgarity, et cetera of American culture, and if the artists said, as Warhol usually did, “But that’s what I like about it”—that only made the irony more profound, more cool.

In other words, the subject matter of Lichtenstein’s We Rose Up Slowly is not two lovers, but the ironic exploitation of a sign system (love-comic drawing vs. the art world’s white walls) rendering them an intellectual assertion of banality—dopey, campy, silly, vulgar—and likable. (If Alloway has any manners he’ll telephone Wolfe to say thank you. “Your party does not answer,” the operator will say, for Wolfe is out wandering lost on both sides of similar fences: explaining artists’ “double-tracking,” explaining why, given the above, Pop art does not, as Steinberg says it does, furnish the viewer with an “existential situation,” explaining why the most abstract, Minimal art came about at the height of Pop, explaining how “artists like Bladen, Andre, etc.” trudge onward without new Greenbergs to whisper theory in their ears, or explaining why, if the conspiracy aimed singlemindedly at reduction, Lawrence Weiner was not made a Soviet Hero for his ne plus ultra.)

I want to point out one especially gooey, albeit tiny, patch:

The influence of Left politics was so strong within the art world during the 1930s that Social Realism became not a style of the period but the style of the period. Even the most dedicated Modernists were intimidated. Years later, Barnett Newman wrote that the “shouting dogmatists, Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist, and Trotskyite” created “an intellectual prison that locked one in tight.” I detect considerable amnesia today on that point. All best forgotten! Artists whose names exist as little more than footnotes today—William Cropper, Ben Shahn, Jack Levine—were giants as long as the martial music of the mimeograph machines rolled on in a thousand Protest Committee rooms. For any prominent critic of the time to have written off Ben Shahn as a commercial illustrator, as Barbara Rose did recently, would have touched off a brawl. Today no one cares, for Social Realism evaporated with the political atmosphere that generated it.

1) Social Realism was the orthodoxy in the 1930s; 2) Barnett Newman said it was an “intellectual prison”; 3) Wolfe “detects considerable amnesia on that point”—meaning either Newman was wrong (no orthodoxy) or that the Social Realists suffer the same imprisonment (by the modernist orthodoxy) today; 4) Ben Shahn is a mere footnote today—meaning all the space he takes up in the textbooks is hallucinatory; 5) calling Ben Shahn an illustrator would have started a brawl in the ’30s—meaning either Newman would have been beaten in his cell or that Wolfe is courageously inviting a similar fate in today’s modernist prison by bumming Greenberg; 6) Social Realism “evaporated” with the social situation that created it—meaning that natural causes, not modernist orthodoxy, were the death of SR—which means that the “amnesia” of today means only that Newman was wrong about an “intellectual prison”—which means that no one would have been beaten had he/she called Shahn an “illustrator”—which means that, Shahn being a “giant” almost synonymous with SR, there was no Social Realist orthodoxy in the ’30s—which means that it never amounted to enough to “evaporate.” Is that clear?

Wolfe gets away with it because of his prose style; he’s journalism’s Garner Ted Armstrong (the evangelist), George Wallace ’(the politician), or Abba Eban (the statesman)—it doesn’t matter to their respective constituencies what they say, just as long as they say it eloquently (and Wolfe, in an airline-cuisine manner, is eloquent). Eban, to be sure, is the classiest, embossing a lot of righteous foreign affairs twaddle with a BBC frosting of precision. Wallace, further down the ladder, spellbinds his good ol’ boys with nasty tales of “pointy-headed bureaucrats” from Washington giving away food-stamps to “nigras” with El Dorados, while the McKinley free enterprise system he touts as panacea—agribusiness, oil companies, utilities, and under-taxed “new” industry—bleeds ’em dry. George sells his constituency out to a third party. Wolfe, in a comparatively nickel-and-dime operation (no paperback or movie rights to The Painted Word, no Telly Savalas as Greenberg, no Robert de Niro as Frank Stella, no Lee van Cleef as Rosenberg, no Alan Alda as Roy Lichtenstein), sells his parishioners out to himself. He punctures tinsely-trendy social phenomena while the galleys are being set, and packages himself as one of these phenomena. Compared to Wolfe, Andy Warhol is a genuine Boho.

Even the triple-crackers must give their publics something; Eban gives you the quiet humanism of Western Civilization behind every Phantom raid, Garner Ted a Newsweek worldliness around the stone-jawed fundamentalism, Wallace the illusion of the common man’s friend in power (as if a farmer could get through a triple cordon of state troopers’ truncheons and lobbyists’ gabardine butts), and Wolfe that banana-split writing poured over intellectual Spam. It sure as hell is readable: those parenthetical they-won’t-say-it-but-we-know-they-think-it asides (“0 integral planes!”), the metronomic restatement (“that great public bath, that vat, that regional physiotherapy tank, that White Sulphur Springs, that Marienbad, that Ganges, that River Jordan for a million souls which is the Sunday New York Times”), those abandoned human-wave metaphors strewing the battlefield singly (Freight Train“ of art history, ”Boho dance“) or mixed (” . . . the quirky god Avant-Garde . . . one devout eye peeled . . . new edge on the blade . . . wedge of the head . . . pick thrust . . . exploratory probe"), and the tasty nuggets of proper nouns, like the walnuts in Rocky Road (Café Guerbois, Winsor & Newton, Cincinnati, Broome Street, Long March, Dimensional Creamo, etc.).

Oh it’s attractive all right, and I’ve been accused of stealing from Wolfe’s goody-bag myself, for when you read Wolfe you resolve to talk like he writes, at the very next cocktail party. Wanting to see how The Painted Word sounded, I read aloud the whole damned Harper’s version to a captive painting class, my lips puffy with the rolling fake authority of Wolfe’s nectarine sentences, my conscience oblivious to the cracking of coccyxes on the cement floor. Gazing at the dust-jacket photo of the author, I even want to try it out myself.

He’s a little stiff in the suspicion that this is a gaffe, that such a preening vanity is as cloying as anything a double-tracking, mustachioed artist could slap on the mailer for his SoHo debut (“Four grand for ‘fixtures’; pul-yeez, Jesus, they just gotta sell!”). But he’s trapped in this pose by now, the aging Traddles (O why never Steerforth!) boyish tousle of receding hair tossed up over the forehead above that pinched, smirky, leave-a-red-mark-if-you-so-much-as-touch-it-skinned puckered pink asterisk anus of an aristocratic face in that summer version of the trademark professorial dandy suit. “I’ve got control,” the photo speaks, “and never fear, you Mercedes-driving young lawyer with the redwood house and the wife who still looks like Mary Travers with Granola flakes in her hair, tossed there by the brat kid home sick from the Alternative School. I may be Manhattan, but my heart’s in the suburbs, with you, Harper’s subscribers. I may travel to the uriny depths of SoHoBoHo lofts to get the goods, but I don’t load up with meth in front of the children. It’s OK, Liberal readers with your subscription Baskin prints and 5,000-edition LOVE clocks in the 1890s kitchen, your Open Marriage (the book, of course), your just-outside-the-city concern for the Third World. Scratch me and I’m one of you.” Cheez.

All right, all right, so it hasn’t quite the flow, the disguised pretensions of the Real McCoy, so I can’t come close to:

It was there that the Culture buds now hung out, beautiful little girls, with their hips cocked and the seams of their Jax slax cleaving them into hemispheres while they shot Culture pouts through their Little Egypt eyes.

Behind the wordplay, however, Wolfe’s style crosses the rhetorical Rubicon into ethics.

But to say that Abstract Expressionism was a baby that only its parents could love is not to downgrade its theorists in the slightest. Quite the opposite. For a good fifteen years, with nothing going for them except brainpower and stupendous rectitude and the peculiar makeup of the art world, they projected this style, this unloved brat of theirs, until it filled up the screen of art history.

Fits right in with:

With the leaders of the academic and communications world assuming this sneering attitude towards the conspiratorial (or cause-and-effect) theory of history, it is not surprising that millions of innocent and well-meaning people, in a natural desire not to appear naive, assume the attitudes and repeat the clichés of the opinion-makers. These persons, in their attempt to appear sophisticated, assume their mentors’ air of smug superiority even though they themselves have not spent five minutes in study on the subject of the international conspiracy. (Gary Allen, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, p. 11.)

Wolfe is too slick to come down head-on; he remembers his own admonishment of Greenberg; if “in an age of avant-gardism no critic can stop a new style by meeting it head-on,” no mere journalist can derail the “Freight Train” of art history by putting his two pennies’ worth on the tracks. Wolfe feigns sincerity, earnestness in trying to understand, and it’s only reluctantly, of course, while doing extra-credit homework in the New York Times, that he recognizes the conspiracy. This conspiracy isn’t directed from the Kremlin by SMERSH, nor does it infest every event from the Scopes Trial to the Wheat Sale, nor does it aim to control the Dakota missile silos, only the art world, which isn’t worth much anyway, It’s less like International Outlaw Communism than it is like The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, and perhaps less like that than like a huddling group of Lionel Trilling disciples at the English department’s curriculum. committee meeting. Nevertheless a conspiracy, a hoodwinking, a long, stumble-bum, self-contradicting, sleight-of-hand lasting through several administrations: Modern art promised to save us from literature, then sold out to it, thanks to Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Steinberg. In support of the hypotheses Wolfe’s history and reasoning are sorely out of whack, though his typewriter’s in fine fettle. Although he gives it his best shot, the thesis doesn’t quite carry. Well and good, fine fellow, except that in his zeal Wolfe does a hatchet job on a man who has, if anybody has, suffered enough.

Pick me! Peggy Guggenheim picked Pollock. He was a nameless, down-and-out boho Cubist.

Here was the archetypical Pollock gesture: one night he arrives drunk at Peggy Guggenheim’s house during a party for a lot of swell people. So he takes off his clothes in another room stark naked and urinates in the fireplace.

In such well-placed croutons, Wolfe portrays Pollock without apparent history or verve (no totems, no sworls, no passion), a “down-and-out Cubist” who, in spite of his psychiatric/booze problems, contrives “archetypal gestures” for parties of “swell people.” Just like Andy eating candy with the Sculls. Wolfe delivers his coup de grâce regarding Pollock’s relationship with the kingmaker of late modernism, Clement Greenberg, in a pile-driving killer of a paragraph, a lethal amalgam of Wolfe’s considerable powers of stupidity, innuendo, and opportunism..

In any event, if Greenberg was right about Pollock’s status in the world of art—and Pollock wasn’t arguing—then he must right about the theories. So Pollock started pushing his work in the direction the theories went. Onward! Flatter! More fuliginous! More “over-all evenness”! But fewer gaping holes! (Greenberg thought Pollock sometimes left “gaping holes” in the otherwise “integrated plane.”) Greenberg took to going by Pollock’s studio and giving on-the-spot critiques.

In all deliberateness, here is the central image of The Painted Word: the street-smart but Lenny-dumb Abstract Expressionist, lusting for fame, playing monkey to the manipulating critic’s organ-grinder. Sure, Wolfe doesn’t say it, and he doesn’t say Pollock thought it. But whose “Onward! Flatter! More fuliginous! More ‘over-all evenness’!” exhortations, echoing in whose brain, are those supposed to be? Wolfe’s own? Certainly not; he doesn’t stand for anything. Whose “fewer gaping holes?” Pollock’s of course, spurred on (according to Wolfe’s syntax) by “Greenberg thought Pollock sometimes left ‘gaping holes.’ ” (No quotations around the first “gaping holes” because Wolfe is only indirectly, that is, fictitiously, quoting Pollock thinking as he paints; quotations around the second “ ‘gaping holes’ ” to reaffirm, by subtle implication, that Pollock is following Greenberg word for word.) Then, thinking Greenberg “must be right about the theories,” Pollock “started pushing his work in the direction the theories went . . . ” Maybe the hole in Pollock’s gut came from worrying about whether Greenberg was a genius. And then Greenberg, the Whitey Bimstein of the art world, checkin’ on his boy to see if he wuz breakin’ training, “took to going by Pollock’s studio and giving on-the-spot critiques.” Post-hypnotic suggestions to Jack the Dripper, The Manchurian Candidate.

Look: look at a big Pollock painting sometime, look at some early drawings, even reproductions of them. Then reread Wolfe’s paragraph. Reread The Painted Word. Then pity. Wolfe, not Pollock.

At the outset, I thought I might have some fun with this, just a light-hearted little review of a fun book about the art world. I thought I might even do a short parody in Wolfe’s style, so everybody could have some fun. But reading The Painted Word was like going to the party in The Boys in The Band; an hysterical, carnivorous self-hatred waited in the wings; the cute little “game” became an orgy of slashing, which became a depressing gaze into the holes in the soul of high style. It’s painful to be reminded that one supercilious gadfly can wreak havoc on the most beautiful things—like a Pollock or a Rothko—because they’re also the most vulnerable, fragile.