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The Painted Word Paperback – October 14, 2008

4.5 out of 5 stars 133 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In 1975, after having put radical chic and '60s counterculture to the satirical torch, Tom Wolfe turned his attention to the contemporary art world. The patron saint (and resident imp) of New Journalism couldn't have asked for a better subject. Here was a hotbed of pretension, nitwit theorizing, social climbing, and money, money, money--all Wolfe had to do was sharpen his tools and get to work. He did! Much of The Painted Word is a superb burlesque on that modern mating ritual whereby artists get to despise their middle-class audience and accommodate it at the same time. The painter, Wolfe writes, "had to dedicate himself to the quirky god Avant-Garde. He had to keep one devout eye peeled for the new edge on the blade of the wedge of the head on the latest pick thrust of the newest exploratory probe of this fall's avant-garde Breakthrough of the Century.... At the same time he had to keep his other eye cocked to see if anyone in le monde was watching."

The other bone Wolfe has to pick is with the proliferation of art theory, particularly the sort purveyed by postwar colossi like Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and Leo Steinberg. Decades after the heyday of abstract expressionism, these guys make pretty easy targets. What could be more absurd, after all, than endless Jesuitical disputes about the flatness of the picture plane? So most of them get a highly comical spanking from the author. It's worth pointing out, of course, that Wolfe paints with a broad (as it were) brush. If he's skewering the entire army of artistic pretenders in a single go, there's no room to admit that Jasper Johns or Willem DeKooning might actually have some talent. But as he would no doubt admit, The Painted Word isn't about the history of art. It's about the history of taste and middlebrow acquisition--and nobody has chronicled these two topics as hilariously or accurately as Tom Wolfe. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“If you have ever stared uncomprehendingly at an abstract painting that admired critics have said you ought to dig, take heart. Tom Wolfe . . . is on your side. The Painted Word may enrage you. It may confirm your darkest suspicions about Modern Art. In any case, it will amuse you.” ―New York Sunday News

“Tom Wolfe is a journalist who always manages to combine an encyclopedic store of inside knowledge with the obstinate detachment of a visitor from Mars, not to mention a brilliant style and incisive wit.” ―San Francsico Chronicle

The Painted Word may well be Tom Wolfe's most successful piece of social criticism to date.” ―The New York Times

The Painted Word is a masterpiece. No one in the art world . . . could fail to recognize its essential truth. I read it four times, each of them with mounting envy for Wolfe's eye, ear, and surgical skill.” ―The Washington Post

“His eye and ear for detailed observations are incomparable; and observation is to the satirist what bullets are to a gun.” ―The Boston Sunday Globe


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; 1 Edition edition (October 14, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312427581
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312427580
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (133 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #155,847 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Can I start by saying that this book "saved my art life"? Let me explain. In 1977 I started art school as a not so impressionable 21 year-old with a few years as a US Navy sailor under my belt. But in the world of art, there's a lot of moulding and impressions being made by a very galvanized world. And although I was a few years older than most in my class... I was probably as ready as any to swallow the whole line and sinker that the "modern art world" floats out there.
Then I read this book - it was given to me by Jacob Lawrence, a great painter and a great teacher --- although I didn't get along with him too well at the time. I read it (almost by accident and against my will --- it was a get-a-way "love weekend" with my then-girlfriend - it went sour. And this book OPENED my EYES!!! It was as if all of a sudden a "fog" had been listed about all the manure and fog that covers the whole art world.
I used it as a weapon.
I used it to defend how I wanted to paint and feel and write. And it allowed me to survive art school.
And then in 1991 - as I prepared to look around to start my own gallery - I found it again, in a gallery (of all places) in Alexandria, VA. I read it again, and to my surprise Wolfe was as topical and effervescent and eye-opening as ever!
Wolfe has a lot of bones to pick with the art world -- 25 years ago!!! He destroys the proliferation of art theory, and puts "art gods" like Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and Leo Steinberg (who have ruined art criticism for all ages - by making critics think that they "lead" the arts rather than "follow the artists") into their proper place and perspective. He has a lot of fun, especially with Greenberg and the Washington Color School and their common stupidity about the flatness of the picture plane.
Here's my recommendation: If you are a young art student or a practicing artist: SAVE YOUR LIFE! Read this book!
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Format: Paperback
That would require some element of fiction. This is simply a straight telling (well, almost straight) of the taste-makers and -breakers in the New York art scene of the 1950s to mid-70s. It's already so ludicrous, so filled with poker-faced parodies of sane discussion, that fiction wouldn't be nearly as strange. It's the complete domination of analysis over analyte.

This short book (100 pages, including some amusing cartoons) lampoons the whole theory of art theory as it arose in the salons and saloons of that era. It briefly traces the never-ending search for the new, a Red Queen's race since whatever we have today isn't new enough. In a bizarrely involuted turn, he even describes the rise and fall of different tastes in taste-makers.

If you've ever groaned at the solemn silliness of the intellectoid analyses or nihilist (lazy?) "Conceptual" artists, you'll laugh out loud at Wolfe's descriptions. He runs through the artsy buzz-wording like a buzz-saw.

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Format: Paperback
Well, here we go - time to criticize a culture critic. Try saying that three times fast.
Anyone who knows anything about Tom Wolfe will know exactly what to expect from this 1975 exploration of the 1950-1970 Art World. Considering that he's always on the lookout for something funny to say, he does quite a good job, probably because the Art World is apparently a pretty funny place. Then again, that's always true of any insular group that develops its own vocabulary and learns to take itself too seriously.
According to Wolfe, that judgment applies equally to the artists, their critics, and the small world of collectors that support them both. He uses as an example the following cycle: Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning paint a few pictures using mere blobs of paint. At about the same time, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg conclude in their columns that painting must naturally go in the direction of increased "flatness" to fulfill its destiny (and they do, in fact, write in such semi-apocalyptic terms). To illustrate their point, Greenberg and Rosenberg talk up Pollack and de Kooning. Art patrons in Milan, Rome, Paris and New York read the columns and get interested in Pollack and de Kooning. Thus encouraged, these artists paint even flatter paintings, Greenberg and Rosenberg chat them up even more in their columns, the Art World gets more excited, and round and round we go until a guy named Leo Steinberg smashes into the cycle. He declares that they've got it all wrong, the true "flatness" exists in the Pop Art of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and the whole thing starts all over again. Only with even more feverish declarations of theoretical orthodoxy this time.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
I read both this book and Linda Weintraub's "Art on the Edge" at the same time. I liked both very much and highly recommend both of them to get a full picture of the modern art world.
Weintraub clearly explains the concepts and theories behind the avante garde art of the 70s-90s, including Jeff Koons, Serrano's (in)famous Piss Christ, etc. Tom Wolfe cries that art theory has taken over art (which necessitates people like Weintraub to explain what's going on), that art is controlled by a clique, that some artists just want to shock the masses and to please the clique, and that the masses need not apply. I think these are very valid points, after all, Vanessa Beecroft posed 20 nude or bikini-clad babes in the Guggenheim and Heilman-C showed actual people having sex (See the 1998 review article in the ArtNet website).
But Tom does not discuss the larger issues: "Is this art? What is art?" That, combined with the fact that Wolfe wrote the book more as an opinion piece rather than the more journalistic approach he took in Electric Kool-Aid, forced me to take a star off.
It should be noted that Tom criticizes the art world's need for something new, where he was the "new" thing in the journalistic world in the 50s and 60s, in the nonfiction world in the 60s and 70s, and in the fiction world in the 80s and 90s. It's like the pot calling the kettle black.
It should also be noted that Tom was part of the art world himself, as he has exhibited his caricatures in NYC galleries. Caricatures, of course, are downplayed in the fine arts world. Keep this possible bias in mind as you read this book.
Nonetheless, the Painted Word is a fun, quick read that should make even the most-hardened boho artist think.
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