I have just finished reading The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe and my mind is spinning with the insanity of the Modern Art world. I’ve always loved Modern Art, but suspected that something was flawed with the movements heaped upon movements and the over-intensity of new theories at every turn. Pieces became more a dissection of art than a complete work to be enjoyed.
Art has always been and always will be a reflection of our culture. The twentieth century was a story of mass consumption and the obsession with the newest, best, latest thing. Suddenly realistic painting was not cool. “Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art… The idea was that half the power of realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it (Wolfe, 5).”
So strip away the story and the vision and all the things that allow us to emotionally connect to a piece of art. Subtract until all you have is color and unrecognizable form and absolute flatness. Build a pile of overlapping theories that sit in the corner like dirty laundry. Then you have the truly bohemian disease; the disease that keeps the artist from becoming a success.
Few artists can make the leap from, what Wolfe calls, “The Boho Dance” to “Consummation.” Few can genuinely double-track between their anti-bourgeois values while kissing the ass of the bourgeois. But who else buys the art?
Picasso was an enormously talented painter but so was Georges Braque. Today we remember Picasso as the great master while Braque remains that neighbor he chatted about Cubism with. Braque clung to his bohemian values and was never going to let go. Picasso, however, adapted to wealth and used it to the advantage of his art. He was versatile and knew he had to constantly evolve as an artist and a man. This is what made him great and gave him such a diverse body of work.
Jackson Pollock, in his time, was lauded by the critic Clement Greenberg as, “the most powerful painter in contemporary America.” But he couldn’t sell a painting, never evolved past the drip-phase, and “… 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 and comes walking into the living room stark naked and urinates in the fireplace (Wolf, 57).” I kind of love him for that.
Within Pollock’s personal values also lies the art that cannot be understood without the theories that go with it. Otherwise you might just look at his work and think, “Well, his mind must have been a mess.” Which leads us back to where realism left off. “Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text (Wolfe, 5).”
The difference is that in twentieth century art, only a very small group knew the text behind the art – the artists themselves and a small group of collectors. But in realism we all have the text to bring to the art – realism is all-inclusive. This is why it’s so hard to sell abstract art. “They will always prefer realistic art instead – as long as someone in authority assures them that it is (a) new, and (b) not realistic (Wolfe, 65).”
I usually have no money to my name. But I am still often driven to buy art, and will find a way (layaway plans) if I love something enough. Great art tells a story that you can get lost in. This is timeless. The same goes for literature. I’ve never liked Hemingway because he is an abstract writer. He only puts ten percent of the story onto the page. It reads so dry and empty – whereas his personal letters were full and rich and honest and true, as he would put it.
After all the Abstract Expressionism came the relief of Pop Art. Art was fun again. The paintings still had the same flatness of abstract art but with recognizable images from everyday life – American flags, soup cans, comic books, celebrities. Collectors bought it up and who was more cutting edge or as obsessed with the rich than Andy Warhol? His work was new, and not quite completely realistic. The Bourgeois ate him up with a silver spoon.