The Revenge of the Philistines
Midway through the 1970's, it looks more and more as if the present decade is destined to become the graveyard of all those illusions and chimeras spawned in the radical culture of the 1960's. The signs of recoil and retrenchment, hesitant and uncertain only two or three years ago, now gather momentum with dizzying speed: the noise of recantation fairly fills the air. In certain notable cases, the very protagonists of the “new sensibility” of the 60's have suddenly reemerged—chastened, one would like to think, but perhaps only well-practiced in their reading of the opportunities—as spokesmen for the values they so recently lavished with furious contempt. When we open the pages of the New York Review of Books to find Susan Sontag energetically rebuking “the infantile leftism of the 1960's,” we may be reasonably certain that we are in the presence of one of those geologic shifts that completely alter the ideological terrain on which we stand.
Because the visual arts have occupied the center of the cultural stage in this country since the international success of the New York School in the 1950's, the evidence of change is perhaps a little more blatant in this realm than in others—but what is happening in the visual arts is surely emblematic of something widespread and momentous. We are witnessing the final collapse of the great myth that dominated the aspirations of high culture in the West for more than a century—the myth of avant-garde intransigence and revolt that gave to all of modernist culture its aura of moral combat—and we are seeing, at the same time, the opening skirmishes of a new contest to determine precisely what the relation of culture to power will be in the post-modernist era upon which we have now entered.
This contest is taking two forms, and it is imperative—imperative, at least, for those of us who wish to distinguish and defend the values of high culture from the onslaught of its trashy simulacra—that we make a clear and unequivocal distinction between them. We have, on the one hand, a growing movement—among artists and art historians, and among the critics and curators who pay close attention to their shifts of taste and allegiance—to reconsider all those options and alternatives so long foreclosed by the pieties of vanguard doctrine. This is a movement of the greatest consequence, for whatever it may eventually produce, or fail to produce, in the way of new art—and it has already reestablished realism as a viable artistic enterprise in painting—it has initiated some drastic revisions in the way the history of modern painting is perceived and evaluated. No longer are the legendary cénacles of avant-garde incendiaries presumed to have an exclusive patent on artistic excellence. The official Salon of 19th-century France, once the most detested of all the institutions that conspired against a just appreciation of avant-garde achievement, is now the subject of an intense and competitive research. Forgotten academicians are being exhumed by the carload, and museums vie with each other for the honor of exhibiting the enemies of Manet and Cézanne, who, coincidentally, are suddenly discovered to have links with the academy never suspected by their radical defenders of yesteryear.
This revisionist attack on the orthodox reading of modernist art history has the virtue of reopening some fundamental questions about the relation of art to the society that produces and exalts it—questions that are now, as the result of this effort, seen as no longer susceptible of the simplistic answers provided by révolté ideology. Bourgeois taste, in this new reading of history, is not regarded as necessarily fatal to the life of the imagination; an art that flatters or at least accommodates itself to established power is not automatically dismissed as contemptible. It is more readily assumed that in a decent and enlightened modern society, art—including the highest art—may have a plurality of functions to perform, and that the one honored above all others in the mythology of the avant-garde—the celebrated charge, épater the bourgeoisie—is not invariably the most important or the most enduring. It does not require any special genius, I think, to see in this sweeping revisionism an oblique, or at least an unacknowledged, reflection of the peaceful accommodation that now obtains between art and the middle class, and—what is already looming as a factor of even greater consequence—between art and the various government agencies responsible for art's support. A society more and more dependent upon government subsidies for its own cultural prosperity will naturally have some second thoughts about the role of patronage and approved taste in the era that allegedly saw the artist and the bourgeoisie locked in mortal combat, though it is still part of the comedy of culture for these thoughts to remain disguised in the rhetoric of disinterested research.
On the other hand—and this is the darker and more threatening aspect of the contest I speak of—this whole revisionist enterprise has contained from the beginning a large element of philistine revenge. That the excesses and exclusivities of modernist art are beginning to be denied the easy ordination and overblown praise that would have been granted them, say, ten years ago, as if by divine right, is not, in my opinion, a vicissitude to be despised. But something other than critical intelligence is also at work in this refusal to embrace the latest inanities of the far-out fringe of modernism—something virulent and reactionary that looks dangerously close at times to an assault on mind itself. It is not merely the peripheral rubbish foisted upon us in the name of modernism that is being scuttled in this accelerating reversal of taste. What we are seeing, I think, is the beginning of a resurgent campaign to discredit the mainstream of modernist achievement. In no other branch of the arts, in no other arena of public taste, has the hegemony of the avant-garde ideal enjoyed such sustained and unbounded patronage and prestige as in the visual arts, and it is the latter, therefore, that provide the broadest and most accessible target for the feelings of revulsion and nostalgia that are now gathering force. Not only is there now an epidemic desire to restore to the highest respectability some of the very worst examples of the kind of art that the modern movement seemed, only a few years ago, to have permanently retired from serious consideration—as I write, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is showing a collection of paintings originally exhibited at the Royal Academy during the reign of Queen Victoria, and the New York Cultural Center, always eager to raise the ante in such matters, is showing French military paintings from the 1870's—but there is, along with it, a correlative passion to turn back the clock of history, to liquidate all those difficulties of perception and discriminations of feeling that are the very essence of the modernist accomplishment.
If one had any lingering doubt that the revenge of the philistines is upon us, it would surely be put to rest by the spectacle of Tom Wolfe's energetic assault on contemporary art in the April number of Harper's magazine.1 There is, of course, a tradition of philistine hostility to modernist art at Harper's—one can read about it in Russell Lynes's history of the Museum of Modern Art, called Good Old Modern, published in 1973—but Wolfe's attack cannot be dismissed as just another peevish argument about styles and reputations. He is out for far bigger game—the kind of trophy he successfully carried off in his celebrated portrait of Radical Chic—and while he does not, I think, score quite the same success in The Painted Word, for reasons that are worth exploring, it would be foolish indeed to pretend that he has not caught hold of a fairly sizable carcass. About art, modernist or otherwise, Wolfe appears to know next to nothing. But about manners and the volatile ethos of our cultural life, he knows a great deal—as much, in my opinion, as anyone now writing—and he brings a buccaneer's audacity to anatomizing the secret scenarios of hypocrisy and pretension that govern the social and intellectual existence of the “advanced” middle class—precisely the class that gave to the votaries of the avant-garde their conspicuous and protracted purchase on our cultural affairs. His sense of timing, moreover, is flawless. If, as I believe, The Painted Word announces that this class has now suffered a surfeit of interest in the avant-garde phenomenon and is in the process of withdrawing assent from the more opprobrious, obscurantist, and addlebrained fruits of its endeavors, then that is news of considerable import. For it means that the “scene” inaugurated by the Pop Art antics of the 60's—not just a style of painting and sculpture, which has. in any event, long since passed into eclipse as an artistic force, but the whole movement that saw swingers of every variety commandeer the institutions of the avant-garde and swiftly transform them into a raucous and conscienceless parody of the once lofty intentions of the avant-garde—has passed into limbo, and the class to whose needs and illusions it ministered is busily nursing a gigantic historical hangover.
Tom Wolfe and his famous style—“Hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia,” etc., to quote from the opening words of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)—are themselves the offspring of this discotheque culture, and this places him at a certain disadvantage in dealing with anything that occurred in the art world before the dawn of the Pop Art era. He writes, so to speak, from inside the bubble, and this inevitably gives him a distorted perspective on everything that occupies a place in the historical distance. At the same time—and this is distinctly not a disadvantage for a chronicler of manners—he sees all of modernist art exactly as the new swinging audience that came to it in the 60's saw it: through the lens of the Pop scene, with its instant reputations and carnival change-. of fortune, whence everyone and everything—art and artist, critic and criticism, collector and dealer and museum curator and the various powers they wield—are perceived as little more than magical counters in a game of money, status, and fashion. He sees it, in other words, exclusively as a form of chic.
And that, really, is what The Painted Word is about: avant-garde chic in the 60's. Its ostensible focus, however, is not on the art itself, but on the criticism written about it, and this unexpected emphasis—on, as the title indicates, words rather than on pictures—allows him to engage in a good deal of high-handed comedy at the expense of the ideas and the personalities that have dominated the discussion of modernist art in this country for a generation or more. It also gives him immediate access to the larger public that knows nothing about modernist art but knows what is rumored to have been said on its behalf, and is alternately irritated, incredulous, and angry that anything serious and “deep” should be said on behalf of a body of work so remote from commonsense notions of urgent human expression. To turn the language of criticism into a form of social farce is not in itself a formidable task: the solemnities of criticism often meet the satirist more than halfway in providing the materials of comedy, and it does not require any special gift to isolate what is patently absurd in its more hermetic disquisitions. But Wolfe once again carries all this a step further than expected: he makes the critics themselves—principally Clement Greenberg, but also Harold Rosenberg and Leo Steinberg—not only figures of fun but (worst insult of all!) fiercely competitive apparatchiks in the bureaucracy of chic. In Wolfe's scenario of the contemporary art scene, theory—ever more elaborate, ever more demanding, ever more jealous of its prerogatives—casts its infamous spell over every endeavor. “Theories? They were more than theories, they were mental constructs. No, more than that even . . . veritable edifices behind the eyeballs they were . . . castles in the cortex . . . mezuzahs on the pyramids of Betz . . . crystalline . . . comparable in their bizarre refinements to medieval Scholasticism.”
According to The Painted Word, these “edifices behind the eyeballs” constructed by Greenberg, et al., constitute the first cause of what artists do, what collectors and museums favor with their money and attention, what you and 1 see, or think we see, when we look at the results, and, most important, what the people Wolfe calls “Le Chic,” or alternately (reaching into Mencken's old phrase book), “le monde, the culturati,” will lavish with their golden publicity and patronage. By combining, collage-fashion, oddments of gossip and invidious speculation of the sort usually confined to cocktail parties and museum openings with tag ends of quotations and bits of potted history, Wolfe constructs a social comedy in which critics issue their absurd fiats and artists hustle to carry them out to the letter until the day dawns when a new generation of artists—seeing where the real power lies—stages a coup, takes over the reins of theory, and exposes the aging theoreticians of earlier days as passé.
Some of this is very amusing, and the general attitude of skepticism and suspicion that Wolfe brings to the subject—the suspicion that something more than disinterested aesthetic inquiry may be at work in this labor of critical theory—is both well-deserved and overdue.2 He has a particularly wicked eye for those moments when the ante is abruptly raised in the avant-garde sweepstakes by hungry newcomers to the scene, thereby calling the bluff of the “advanced” theories of the reigning mandarins and instantly revealing them to be establishmentarians with vested territories to protect. Thus, on the Kulturkampf staged by the firebrands of Minimalism in the 1960's, Wolfe writes:
Faster and faster art theory flew now, in ever-tighter and more dazzling turns. It was dizzying, so much so that both Greenberg and Rosenberg were shocked—épatés. Greenberg accused the Minimalists of living for “the far-out as an end in itself.” Their work was “too much a feat of ideation . . . something deduced instead of felt or discovered.” A little late to be saying that, Clement! Rosenberg tried to stop them by saying they really weren't far-out at all—they were a fake avant-garde, a mere “DMZ vanguard,” a buffer between the real avant-garde (his boy de Kooning) and the mass media. Very subtle—and absolutely hopeless, Harold! Theory, with a head of its own now, spun on and chewed up the two old boys like breadsticks, like the Revolution devouring Robespierre and Danton—faster and faster—in ever-tighter and more dazzling turns—let's see, we just got rid of the little rows of hung pictures, not to mention a couple of superannuated critics, and we've gotten rid of illusion, representational objects, the third dimension, pigment (or most of it), brushstrokes, and now frames and canvas—but what about the wall itself? What about the very idea of a work of art as something “on a wall” at all? How very pre-Modern!
Wolfe is very sharp, too, on catching critics out on those minute adjustments they sometimes make in amending their pronouncements in order to protect their reputations. Thus, about Leo Steinberg's rhapsodic discovery of Jasper Johns, Wolfe notes the following little hedge:
As soon as he realized what Johns's work meant, said Steinberg, “the pictures of de Kooning and Kline, it seemed to me, were suddenly tossed into one pot with Rembrandt and Giotto. All alike suddenly became painters of illusion.” Later on Steinberg changed that to “Watteau and Giotto”; perhaps for the crazy trans-lingual rhyme, which, I must say, I like . . . or perhaps because being tossed into the same pot with Rembrandt, even by Leo Steinberg, was a fate that any artist, de Kooning included, might not mind terribly.
All this is, as I say, amusing and well-deserved, and it remains amusing so long as Wolfe addresses himself to the world he knows best—the world of chic, and the scramble for fame, money, influence, and sheer visibility that makes that particular world go round. Wolfe knows exactly what the role of highbrow theorizing, the role of mind, is in that world, and the exact rewards it brings to the happy few—whether artists or critics or collectors—who become the beneficiaries of what he aptly describes as its “art-mating ritual.” “The artist's payoff in this ritual,” he writes, “is obvious enough. He stands to gain precisely what Freud says are the goals of the artist: fame, money, and beautiful lovers.” And for the collectors who hand over the large sums of money for the art certified by all this critical cerebration? “What's in it for them?” Wolfe asks, and he gives the best answer I have ever seen:
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. This is a peculiarly modern need and a peculiarly modern kind of salvation (from the sin of Too Much Money) and something quite common among the well-to-do all over the West, in Rome and Milan as well as New York. That is why collecting contemporary art, the leading edge, the latest thing, warm and wet from the loft, appeals specifically to those who feel most uneasy about their own commercial wealth . . . Avant-garde art, more than any other, takes the Mammon and the Moloch out of money, puts Levis, turtlenecks, muttonchops, and other mantles and laurels of bohemian grace upon it.
All of this is in a class with Radical Chic, for it addresses itself to the same kind of material: the secret life of the bourgeois psyche, and the marriage of manners and ideology it exacts—the historic vulnerability of the prosperous middle class to any pressure that threatens to expose its lack of perfect alignment with the fashions of the day. (Is it to the dynamic of capitalism, and to the rootlessness and restlessness that its upward mobility induces, that the middle class owes this vulnerability to chic? It would be interesting to know, though a serious account of middle-class society is about the last thing one can expect from the academic historians of the present day: they tend, if I may borrow a phrase, to be part of the problem rather than of the solution.) The kind of cowardice—not only about aesthetics, but about politics and morals as well—that this fear of appearing out-of-date and out-of-style breeds in the middle class—a fear of appearing illiberal in the eyes of one's contemporaries and ridiculous in the eye of history—is, of course, one of the traditional subjects of bourgeois comedy, and it is a subject that Wolfe handles with great finesse. Who will ever forget those “Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts” (“It's the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle”) that usher us into the scene in Leonard Bernstein's living room where the Black Panthers are being entertained by the haut monde? Wolfe is without peer in detailing the world in which the cultivated middle class acts out its elaborate comedies of conformism to whatever taste—“in” taste, “advanced” taste, the taste that distinguishes it from the common herd—requires of it, whether it is a passing political alliance with its own worst enemies or a more benign commitment to far-out styles of painting.
When it comes to the analysis of ideas, however, when it comes down to actual works of art and the thinking they both embody and inspire, Wolfe is hopelessly out of his depth. So long as he is dealing with the theory and practice of art as a comedy of manners, he is illuminating and often hilarious. But a reading of The Painted Ward suggests that it is only as a comedy of manners that these subjects exist for him. He has no real grasp of their inner substance, and he has no language, in any case, in which they can be accurately discussed. The principal reason why The Painted Word fails to repeat the success of Radical Chic is that its subject requires, as Radical Chic did not, an effort of historical exposition and critical explication that is beyond Wolfe's powers (and, no doubt, beyond his true interests). In this realm, he is obliged to rely on secondhand observation and hearsay evidence, and these prove insufficient, to say the least. The Painted Word is a relatively short text, but it has its longueurs wherever the history of either an idea or an aesthetic impulse must be recounted, for these take place offstage, in regions of the mind unfrequented by this expert voyeur of “le monde” and effectively closed to the world of chic until the moment when an idea-whose-time-has-come suddenly emerges, at which point, more often than not, it has already been sadly diluted, distorted, and vulgarized. This vulgarization is, to be sure, a proper subject for comedy, but to mistake it for the real thing—as Wolfe so often does—is also comic, and in a way he does not intend.
Wolfe has some merry moments with Harold Rosenberg, for example, and it would require a more saintly immunity to the emotion of Schadenfreude than it is within my power to muster not to feel that the ridicule is eminently well-earned. But in the end Wolfe is unable to deal either with Rosenberg's career or with his ideas. He correctly recognizes that the term “Action Painting” became, as he says, “the single most famous phrase of the period,” and—always alert to internecine jealousies—that this was “a fact that did not please Greenberg.” Wolfe is amusing, too, about the preposterous image of the painter that emerges from Rosenberg's famous essay on “The American Action Painters”—“a Promethean artist gorged with emotion and overloaded with paint, hurling himself and his brushes at the canvas as if in hand-to-hand combat with Fate”—but he does not really grasp that the autogenous phrase on which Rosenberg's entire career as an art critic was founded was a fraud from the outset. “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined,” the famous passage reads. “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Yet these non-pictorial “events”—the residue of an “action” alleged to be devoid of conscious aesthetic intention—somehow managed to be exhibited and looked at and bought and sold and coveted and written about—by, among others, Harold Rosenberg in the pages of the New Yorker—as if they really were pictures. Rosenberg himself even managed to acquire a sufficient quantity of these “events” to exhibit his private collection of them in a museum just the way you or I would exhibit our collections of pictures. How interesting it would be to know if the insurance coverage of that exhibition was for “pictures” or for “events”: one of the many comic details attaching to this career that Wolfe has missed out on.
The whole concept of “Action” was, alas, a complete fiction, an aborted attempt to confer the luster of an Existentialist ethic—an aura of Sartrean authenticity—on an essentially aesthetic enterprise. “The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life,” we were told in this same essay, and yet in real life, where artists (even “Action painters”) die and bequeath estates and their work becomes the object of investment analysts and the subject of protracted litigation, the distinction somehow persisted. It was the art rather than the life, after all, that brought all those record prices at Parke-Bernet auctions and turned whole areas of the New York gallery world into an obscene money market: a subject you will not find much discussed in the column called “The Art World” that Rosenberg writes in the New Yorker. But then, the art world discussed in that column is a curiously truncated version of the one most of us see with our eyes week after week. Exhibitions great and small fill the galleries and museums season upon season, but only the very few that lend themselves to the purposes of ideology—to renewing the romance of “Action” art as the latest and the last avowal of the myth of the avant-garde—are ever acknowledged and dilated upon. By now, the concept of “Action” has acquired in Rosenberg's universe of discourse a status comparable to that enjoyed by the concept of the Trinity in certain works of theology: it is the vehicle by means of which all contradictions of logic and evidence are rhetorically reconciled.
Rosenberg is a particularly egregious example of the critic as ideologue, trimming every aesthetic reality to fit the procrustean bed of an adored myth. In his latest collection of essays, Discovering the Present,3 he reprints without embarrassment yet another affirmation of the myth—the piece called, simply, “The Avant-Garde”—in which he blithely repeats the notion that “The chief antagonist of the avant-garde is the middle class,” overlooking for the moment that this very discourse was written on invitation, in 1969, for a poshy anthology, entitled Quality, destined for the Christmas trees and the coffee tables of the class he heaps with scorn: which is to say, the class to which he belongs. (And what class is it, I wonder, that Rosenberg imagines he writes for in the pages of the New Yorker? The proletariat?) This, too, would be comic if it were not part of the tragedy of the intellectual life of our time that refuses to acknowledge, in its high-flown social and cultural formulations, the fundamental conditions of its own existence.
Wolfe is no better, either, in dealing with the career or the writings of Clement Greenberg. (As for Leo Steinberg, even Wolfe must be aware that this writer is entirely marginal to the subject, introduced for purely dramaturgical reasons. Steinberg's is the case of a professor on holiday, enjoying an occasional fling in the demimonde of new aesthetic experience, but at home only in the world where reputations are already certified by tradition.) Wolfe does not understand that whereas Rosenberg's criticism belongs only to the ideological superstructure of the art world, Greenberg's belongs, like it or not, to art history—to the making of art as well as to the making of reputations. Even about the latter. Wolfe is curiously ignorant. That Greenberg's ideas wield immense influence over sizable cadres of critics and curators and collectors and dealers and artists, and that these ideas are as influential as they are not only because they now bear a demonstrable relation to monetary reward and worldly prestige but because they answer to some fundamental yearning of modernist sensibility, Wolfe seems totally unable to comprehend. He makes great sport of the issue of “flatness” in painting, one of Greenberg's cardinal tenets, apparently unaware that this was a crucial issue for the critics of Gauguin and Puvis de Chavannes—to go no further back in history than that. He has a lot of fun with the concept of “purity” in Greenberg's criticism—but can he really be dumb to the knowledge that this has been one of the central aesthetic ideals of modernism at least since Mallarmé? The truth is, it is no more absurd to invoke the “flatness” of the picture plane in speaking of painting than it is to discuss the aesthetic viability of the iambic line in poetry or the diatonic scale in music: these are the recognized modalities of artistic expression. In all such matters, Tom Wolfe simply shows himself to be a stranger to the ordinary distinctions of criticism—a stranger, indeed, to the experience of the art that forms his subject.
For this reason, I suppose, he has no notion of what the case against Greenberg's aesthetic really consists of. Greenberg is a formalist who has seized upon one of the essential imperatives of modernist sensibility—the impulse to isolate and aggrandize the purely aesthetic attributes of style, to identify them as entirely coextensive with their technical realization, and thus to elevate them as the true subject-matter, the only permissible subject-matter, of art—and has effectively attached this idea to a dialectic of art history derived from the mechanisms of Marxist teleology. This formalist aesthetic is persuasive for the very reason that it allows its adherents to strip the artistic enterprise of everything that might complicate or compromise its headlong pursuit of an ever more specialized ratification of its own ends. It keeps all intercourse with common experience in abeyance, substituting “laws” of its own for the more familiar empathies of human exchange, and does so in the name of an impersonal history not susceptible to accidents of feeling or taste.
But it is, of course, only a mode of taste itself, and one that expresses, in its larger implications, a profound distaste for the world it inhabits. This is the source of its powerful appeal—that it shuts out the world, in all its imperfections and vulgarities and commonplace emotions, and offers us instead an aesthetic Utopia in which nothing that is merely contingent need ever be considered in the human equation. It makes of art exactly what Mallarmé dreamed of—an alternative universe in which all quotidian realities are dissolved into the vapors of aesthetic sensation and all earthly pain triumphantly transmuted into the untroubled pleasures of the mind.
To reject this aesthetic is to reject something fundamental in the high culture of the modern age, and that is a task not lightly undertaken. Which is the reason why the attacks on this formalist aesthetic tend to be picayune and unpersuasive, confined to local arguments over particular artists and styles and reputations and rarely, if ever, addressed to the fundamental issue of what, precisely, we want and need the function of art to be in the world that encloses our workaday lives.
But to discuss the problem in terms such as these carries us well beyond the drawing-room comedy of The Painted Word. In Tom Wolfe's world, it is comical even to entertain a theory of art, comical perhaps even to create a work of art that attempts to modify consciousness and alter our view of experience. It is this fundamental incomprehension of the role of criticism in the life of art—this enmity to the function of theory in the creation of culture—that identifies The Painted Word, despite its knowingness and its fun, as a philistine utterance, an act of revenge against a quality of mind it cannot begin to encompass and must therefore treat as a preposterous joke.
The case for the function of criticism in our culture has been made many times, and never better, I think, than when Henry James wrote:
Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints; and there is a presumption that those times when no one has anything particular to say about it, and has no reason to give for practice or preference, though they may be times of honor, are not times of development—are times, possibly even, a little of dullness. The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory too is interesting; and though there is a great deal of the latter without the former I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction. Discussion, suggestion, formulation, these things are fertilizing when they are frank and sincere.
It is, I think, because we are no longer certain that the higher criticism of art is entirely “frank and sincere”—because we suspect that its relation to money and the market and the kind of social ambition so expertly delineated in The Pointed Word has compromised its essential disinterestedness—that the revenge of the philistines will now find a receptive audience, not only outside the art world but within it as well. We seem, in any event, to be at the end of a period in art criticism, if not in art itself. If one looks these days into a journal like Artforum, which, month after month, year after year, during the 1960's, published quantities of the most learned and disputatious formalist criticism, one finds that it is the sociology of the art world that now commands the greatest interest. Not the aesthetics of contemporary art, but its socialization is the issue of the moment—which is another confirmation that the so-called “vanguard” is in the process of peaceful assimilation. If the age of criticism is coming to an end in the art world, it is for the same reason that the age of criticism in the literary world—the New Criticism—came to an end a generation ago: its task has been completed, it has placed us in possession of the essential issues raised by the art in question, and no longer seems to have any pressing functions to perform. In this sense, perhaps, The Painted Word is a comic epitaph to a bygone era.
1 The article is to be published in book form next month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux under the same title, The Painted Word, 128 pp., $5.95.
2 Regarding Wolfe's questioning of the pieties of this criticism or the avant-garde mythology on which it is based, I myself, as the author of The Age of the Avant-Garde, feel a bit like Bertrand Russell who, in acknowledging receipt of a book by C. E. M. Joad, wrote: “Dear Joad, I would praise your new book, but modesty forbids.” But Wolfe is, undeniably, the first to turn the subject into outright comedy.
3 University of Chicago Press, 348 pp., $10.95.