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Tom Wolfe, New Journalism Bon Vivant and Critic of Modernism, Dead at 88

A powerful critic of Modernism, Wolfe was an important writer who transformed every subject he touched.

Tom Wolfe at a literary event in Frankfurt in 1988 (photo by MoSchle, via Wikimedia Commons)
Tom Wolfe at a literary event in Frankfurt in 1988 (photo by MoSchle, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the titans of New Journalism died today at the age of 88. Tom Wolfe, best known in art circles for his scathing satire of High Modernism, The Painted Word (1975), and another that tackled Modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), was an important American writer who penned such widely read books as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), The Right Stuff (1979), and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), all of which were made into major motion pictures.

Tom Wolfe participating in an event at the White House organized by Laura Bush in 2004 (photo by Susan Sterner, via Wikimedia Commons)
Tom Wolfe participating in an event at the White House organized by Laura Bush in 2004 (photo by Susan Sterner, via Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Wolfe became a journalist and worked at the Washington Post in 1959 and later at the New York Herald Tribune and other papers. He was a pioneer of the New Journalism style that mixed the hard news style of newspaper writing with literary techniques, while chipping away at the notion of journalistic objectivity. He covered a wide range of topics and he benefited from the emergence of American imperial power around the globe, which created audiences for US fiction and non-fiction works.

In The Painted Word, Wolfe lampooned a type of doctrinaire Modern Art he associated with critic and curator Clement Greenberg and other theorists. Filled with zingers and literary twists and turns (but also a lot of fascinating observations), the book was dismissed by many of the players in the 1970s contemporary art world — which was still largely based in New York and a few other Western cities. Reviewing the book for the New York Review of Books, Barbara Rose offered a typical take:

Tom Wolfe is an attractive writer because he makes hard things easy. He equips one for intellectual name-dropping, the very discourse of the upwardly mobile cocktail-party society of arrivistes for whom Wolfe reserves the greatest measure of his contempt. This is a paradox we can begin to understand if we follow Wolfe’s career, from his early hero-worshiping idealizations of pop culture heroes like Phil Spector and Junior Johnson to his subsequent attacks on the moldy, crumbling remains of the literary and art establishments.

The cover of The Painted Word (1975)

The anger of art world insiders toward Wolfe is palpable in many of the reviews. From Bauhaus to Our House addressed modern architecture in much the same way as The Painted Word criticized Modern Art, and it is also an enjoyable take on the orthodoxy of one type of Modernism.

Some notable passages from The Painted Word, include this skewering of contemporary art benefactors and their slumming with artists:

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.

On the in-joke of Modern Art, which he liked to capitalize:

The notion that the public accepts or rejects in Modern Art, the notion that the public scorns, ignores, fails to comprehend, allows to wither, crushes the spirit of, or commits any other crime against Art or any individual artist is merely a romantic fiction, a bittersweet Trilby sentiment. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened.

On how non-controversial Modern Art truly was:

By the mid-1930s, Modern Art was already so chic that corporations held it aloft like a flag to show that they were both up-to-date and enlightened, a force in Culture as well as commerce. The Dole Pineapple Company sent Georgia O’Keeffe and Isamu Noguchi to Hawaii to record their impressions, and the Container Corporation of America was commissioning abstract work by Fernand Léger, Henry Moore, and others. This led to the Container Corporation’s long-running advertising campaign, the Great Ideas of Western Man series, in which it would run a Great Idea by a noted savant at the top of the page, one of them being “‘Hitch your wagon to a star’—Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Underneath would be a picture of a Cubist horse strangling on a banana.

On the role of the “Word” in visual art:

A curious change was taking place at the very core of the business of being a painter. Early Modernism had been a reaction to nineteenth-century realism, an abstraction of it, a diagram of it, to borrow John Berger’s phrase, just as a blueprint is a diagram of a house. But this Abstract Expressionism of the Tenth Street School was a reaction to earlier Modernism itself, to Cubism chiefly. It was an abstraction of an abstraction, a blueprint of the blueprint, a diagram of the diagram — and a diagram of a diagram is metaphysics. Anyone who tries making a diagram of a diagram will see why. Metaphysics can be dazzling! — as dazzling as the Scholastics and their wing commands of Angels and Departed Souls. But somehow the ethereal little dears are inapprehensible without words. In short, the new order of things in the art world was: first you get the Word, and then you can see.

And finally, on collectors:

We may state it as a principle at this point that collectors of contemporary art do not want to buy highly abstract art unless it’s the only game in town. They will always prefer realistic art instead — as long as someone in authority assures them that it is (a) new, and (b) not realistic. To understand this contradiction is to understand what happened next: Pop Art.

Rest in Peace, Tom Wolfe, you insightful curmudgeon.

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