The Painted Word  

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"Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text." --The Painted Word

"In 1975 Wolfe made his first foray into art criticism with The Painted Word, in which he argued that art theory had become too pervasive because the art world was controlled by a small elitist network of wealthy collectors, dealers and critics. Art critics were, in turn, highly critical of Wolfe's book, arguing that he was a philistine who knew nothing of what he wrote." --Sholem Stein

"In the beginning we got rid of nineteenth-century storybook realism. Then we got rid of representational objects. Then we got rid of the third dimension altogether and got really flat (Abstract Expressionism). Then we got rid of airiness, brushstrokes, most of the paint, and the last viruses of drawing and complicated designs (Hard Edge, Color Field, Washington School)." --The Painted Word

"Though a mere wisp of a book, Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word (winner this month of a retroactive Aristos Award for 1975) has justly earned its place as a "modern classic." Delicately thumbing through my quarter-century-old mass-market paperback edition recently, its last dozen or so pages pages detached from the spine, I was again reminded again what a delightfully trenchant critique it is of the modernist artworld of the 1950s and 60s--in particular, of abstract painting. I also recalled that Hilton Kramer had not liked it very much when it was first published, and presumably still does not. Who can blame him? The very idea for the book seems to have sprung from something he had written the year before, in a review of the exhibition Seven Realists: Pearlstein, Bailey, Mangold, Wiesenfeld, Fish, Posen, Hanson, at the Yale University Art Gallery."Tom Wolfe's Epiphany by Louis Torres[1]

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Painted Word is a 1975 book of art criticism and art theory by Tom Wolfe in which he condemned high modernist art and the art critics Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg. The book was inspired by the ideology of American art critic Hilton Kramer.


By the 1970s Wolfe was, according to Douglas Davis of Newsweek magazine "more of a celebrity than the celebrities he describes." The success of Wolfe's previous books, in particular The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968 and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers in 1970 had given Wolfe carte blanche from his publisher to pursue any topic he desired. In the midst of working on stories about the space program for Rolling Stone—stories that would eventually grow into the 1979 book The Right Stuff—Wolfe became interested in writing a book about modern art. As a journalist, Wolfe had devoted much of his writing career to pursuing realism; in the world of art, even more than in literature, Wolfe was disturbed by the lack of any persuasive theory of realism.

Prior to publication in book form, The Painted Word was excerpted in Harper's Magazine. Wolfe's longtime publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux released the book in 1975.


Wolfe's thesis in The Painted Word was that by the 1970s modern art had moved away from being a visual experience, and more often was an illustration of art critics' theories. Wolfe criticized avant-garde art, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. The main target of Wolfe's book, however, was not so much the artists as the critics. In particular, Wolfe criticized three prominent art critics whom he dubbed the kings of "Cultureburg": Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg. Wolfe argued that the three men were dominating the world of art with their theories and that, unlike the world of literature in which anyone can buy a book, the art world was controlled by an insular circle of rich collectors, museums and critics with out-sized influence.

Wolfe provides his own history of what he sees as the devolution to modern art. He summarized that history: "In the beginning we got rid of nineteenth-century storybook realism. Then we got rid of representational objects. Then we got rid of the third dimension altogether and got really flat (Abstract Expressionism). Then we got rid of airiness, brushstrokes, most of the paint, and the last viruses of drawing and complicated designs". After providing examples of other techniques and the schools that abandoned them, Wolfe concluded with conceptual art: "…there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representation objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes. … Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until…it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture…and came out the other side as Art Theory!…Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision…late twentieth-century Modern Art was about to fulfill its destiny, which was: to become nothing less than Literature pure and simple".

Critical reception

"The Painted Word hit the art world like a really bad, MSG-headache-producing, Chinese lunch," wrote Rosalind E. Krauss in Partisan Review. By ridiculing the most respected members of the art world establishment, Wolfe had ensured that the reaction to his book would be negative. Many reviewers dismissed Wolfe as someone simply too ignorant of art to write about it.

Other critics responded with such similar vitriol and hostility that Wolfe said their response demonstrated that the art community only talked to each other. A review in The New Republic called Wolfe a fascist and compared him to the brain-washed assassin in the film The Manchurian Candidate. Wolfe was particularly amused, however, by a series of criticisms that resorted to "X-rated insults." An artist compared him to "A six-year-old at a pornographic movie; he can follow the action of the bodies but he can't comprehend the nuances." A critic in Time Magazine used the same image, but with an 11-year-old boy. A review in The New York Times Book Review used the image again, clarifying that the boy was a eunuch. The opening of the review in Partisan Review compared Wolfe to the star of the pornographic film Deep Throat. She viewed Wolfe's lack of a suggestion for what should replace modern art as similar in their ignorance to statements Linda Lovelace made about Deep Throat being a "kind of goof."

In defense of critics Rosenberg, Greenberg, and Steinberg, Rosalind Krauss noted that each man wrote about art "in ways that are entirely diverse." Writing in Newsweek, Douglas Davis wrote that The Painted Word fails because of how it departed from Wolfe's previous works. Wolfe's other non-fiction, Davis wrote, was deeply reported, but here "Wolfe did not get away from the typewriter and out into the thick of his subject."

Outside the art community, some reviewers noted that however unpopular Wolfe's book may have been in art circles, many of his observations were essentially correct, particularly about the de-objectification of art and the rise of art theory.

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