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The Painted Word

by Tom Wolfe
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975
Reissued by Picador, 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-42758-0
$14.00

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The Painted Word charts the erratic course of the social history of Modern Art from its beginnings in revolution-a revolution against literary content in art-to its present state, in which it has become, quite unconsciously, a parody of itself, obsessedly devoted to the pronouncements of certain guru-critics, to the point of reductio ad absurdum, to the point where-turnabout being fair play-it has become as literary, as academic, as mannered, as clubby, as the salon painting against which it first rebelled.

Soon after Modern Art developed, it became fashionable. Society (le beau monde, Cultureburg) and art critics attached themselves to it like pilot fish; but then they grew, and grew, and grew, until-as Abstract Expressionism gave way to Pop, as Pop spawned Op, as Op fell before Minimal opposition, as what was Minimal became no more than Conceptual-Art began to serve fashion and theory. The shark vanished and left the pond to le beau monde and to the critics, custodians of the painted Word. Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Leo Steinberg-these are the big fish, Wolfe argues, not Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, or Jasper Johns. The argument is utterly convincing . . .

. . . and wildly entertaining. Tom Wolfe is our premier social historian, and he is writing at the top of his form. Whether he is describing the Art Mating Ritual (in two parts, the Boho Dance and the Consummation) or taking the census of Cultureburg, he writes with an energy and irony all his own. His style has never been more dazzling, his wit has never been more keen. For everyone but his targets, the publication of The Painted Word is cause for celebration.

Reviews

"He satirizes with such devastating accuracy the process by which the modern-art world affirmed its theoreticians." -Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, 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." -Viven Raynor, The Washington Post

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