#58- Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word: The History of Tastemakers and Influencers
Scott and Karl are back at it again, this time with Tom Wolfe and his book, The Painted Word. Wolfe is a mid-century American writer and the inventor of New Journalism. He’s known for straddling multiple genres at once, reporting back to his readers on a world we ultimately couldn’t see without him.
In The Painted Word, Wolfe provides a critique of modern art and the world that surrounds it. In a way only Tom Wolfe can, he’s able to describe how the art world of the 1970s was controlled by an insular circle of rich collectors, museums, and critics with outsized influence.
For Wolfe, modern art has become completely literary— the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text. To understand modern art, one must know the words of current criticism. In other words, can you know if modern art is any good unless someone tells you?
Tune in to hear an enlightening conversation on the history of taste-making, “Cultureburg,” and the project of modern art. In the process, Scott and Karl reveal their criteria for good art. Do you agree?
- Introduction to The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe
- Henry David Thoreau “driving life into a corner”
- Discussion of post-adolescent reading
- Books that observe a niche in American life
- Karl tells a story about gym life
- Scott and Karl conduct a psychoanalysis of Tom Wolfe
- Discussion of New York Art Critics
- Discussion of different art styles
- Discussion of CIA/modern art connections
- Henry David Thoreau’s Walden
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned In The Podcast
- The Painted Word.
- Henry David Thoreau
- I am Charlotte Simmons
- The Right Stuff
- The Dharma Bums
- John McPhee’s Oranges
- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tes
- Bill Bradley, A sense of Where You Are
- Jackson Pollock
- Andy Warhol
- Marshall McLuhan’s The Media
- Hilton Kramer
- Studio 54
- “The Young Trad Wife”
- Munch’s “the scream”
- Goya- Cronos
- Socialist Realism
- Oppenheim’s “Fur-lined Cup and Saucer,”
- Lichtenstein’s, “We Rose Up Slowly.
Scott Hambrick: I’m Scott Hambrick.
Karl Schudt: I’m Karl Schudt.
Scott Hambrick: today, we’re going to discuss Tom Wolfe’s book The Painted Word.
Karl Schudt: Yes.
Scott Hambrick: We bought this thing on Amazon. I hate that I have to buy books from Amazon, I hate that I have to buy anything from Amazon, by the way. It’s by Picador Press, a little book: one hundred pages. You said you’ve been working on Walden; we’re going to be doing a show on Walden next week.
Karl Schudt: Yes.
Scott Hambrick: That’s my fav. Do you love it?
Karl Schudt: I do. It’s eloquent, wonderful…
Scott Hambrick: Screed?
Karl Schudt: Bomb-throwing defense of laziness. We’re working to build a telegram line from Maine to Texas but Maine and Texas don’t have anything to talk about.
Scott Hambrick: They don’t want to speak to each other.
Karl Schudt: It’s from 1840. Henry David Thoreau, it’s kind of famous, he went out and built a cabin and lived in the woods for a couple of years, he built it himself, dug out the cellar. It was $28 for the house. He tells you; he gives you the bill.
Scott Hambrick: Exquisite, perfect book-keeping- down to the quarter penny.
Karl Schudt: He’s trying to show you that you don’t need to work very hard.
Scott Hambrick: He “Wants to drive life into a corner,” he says.
Karl Schudt: It’s eye-opening. I remember reading a little bit of this in high school. He’s mad all the time, and it’s wonderful and I’m looking forward to talking about it in a future podcast.
Scott Hambrick: Go pick up at walden.org. It’s out of copyright, you can get one everywhere. Read whatever you can, at least the chapter on economy and follow along. Today we’ve got Tom Wolfe. Love me some Tom Wolfe. How good is that guy?
Karl Schudt: I’ve read a few of his things: I have read I am Charlotte Simmons. I’ve read his thing on language which was funny. It was about language and Darwin. He’s like a podcast, he goes wherever he wants to. He’s funny, his language is perfect. If you’re interested, he’s the man who wrote The Right Stuff which I hear is wonderful.
Scott Hambrick: I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test when I was a post-adolescent. I read The Dharma Bums and all that stuff like you’re supposed to when you’re fifteen. This Wolfe thing- he’s this mid-century, American phenomenon of people that write journalism and literature and memoir and a whole bunch of things wrapped up in one. I think it’s an interesting genre that straddles two to four different things. Wolfe is a Master of it. My favorite is John McPhee Oranges, he wrote about oranges and about the orange industry in Florida, and it’s a deep dive on that industry. He writes beautifully, like Tom Wolfe, and you’re hanging on every word about oranges. He wrote a book about a professional basketball player, Bill Bradley, A sense of Where You Are. He wrote this beautiful literature about observing, a niche about American life. He wrote about truckers. McPhee is like Wolfe and I enjoyed this kind of thing- a keen observer who writes beautifully, throws the window open and lets us look in on a piece of the world that we couldn’t see without them.
Karl Schudt: That’s an interesting take, I have diverse thoughts now.
Scott Hambrick: What part of that’s an interesting take.
Karl Schudt: Talking about revealing little bits of reality to you that you wouldn’t ordinarily see. And then your last line, “not seeing it without the people,” which goes right into painted word. Let me tell you my story from yesterday. Yesterday I went up to the gym on the North side of Chicago, I live on the South side, (I don’t live in Chicago I live in an unnamed suburb of the Southwest part of suburbia) and I had to get up early and go for a 6 AM, and the guy didn’t show. I talked to my friend Mark, who’s one of the people at the gym and he was having a good day at the gym and we were chatting about all the things we like to do, and I went medieval on him. I told him that the medieval thought that being and truth and goodness and beauty were convertible which means that anything that is also beautiful which means that I like hearing all the cool stuff that everybody likes to do because it’s a reflection of reality. He took exception to that, being Mark, he questioned the notion of truth, whether there is any such thing. We had a fun hour and a half, but it maps into the art world because you and I like Tom Wolfe and you like John McPhee because they’re revealing to you little bits of ordinary life that have their own interest. Who cares about oranges, you might think, but I bet the book’s really good. I bet there’s something to care about with oranges. Everything is neat if you look at it with the right attitude and so writer’s like this reveal it. When we get into the art world, one of the themes of the book is 20th century art- it’s a reaction against Realism. Realism would be painting pictures that look like stuff. There were no styles in ancient Greek sculpture, they were going to make beautiful stuff. Phineas didn’t have a cubic period where he just did cubes. It’s generally realistic and the artists might emphasize different things and the artist is generally trying to show beauty. If you don’t, as the Modern Age does with its doubts about truth, what kind of art can you make if you don’t believe that there’s something to make art about.
Scott Hambrick: If you don’t believe that there’s truth or that there’s an objective reality, there’s no subject matter.
Karl Schudt: I started thinking about art about a year ago, but I like looking at pretty stuff. I found this website artrenewal.org that is in defense of realism and (there’s) fantastic stuff by modern artists and contests for people. They had an associate school, The DaVinci Initiative, and the founder Mandy Theis was on a podcast and said something very interesting (I believe it’s the Thriving Artist podcast) and Daniel DiGris were talking about if you go into the art gallery as a collector, you don’t know if it’s good. There is no way for you, the consumer, the potential collector, if modern art is any good. Whereas ancient art you can look at it and say that it’s good. Is there any doubt that Michelangelo is any good? In order to look at modern, abstract, non-realist art to know if it’s good- they said you have to ask the critic.
Scott Hambrick: Is there anything else that any sane person would do that would be like that? You go to a restaurant and you eat whatever they put on their plate and you have to ask an expert if it was any good?
Karl Schudt: I thought it was put really well. Young art students have to be taught how to draw because they don’t know anymore. Basic technique isn’t taught very much because what do you need it for if you’re doing Jackson Pollock abstracts, dripping paint on a canvas? What technique do you need for that? Modern art is a weird thing and this book came up recommended on the internet and I read it and I thought it was funny.
Scott Hambrick: Tom Wolfe is so smart and he’s a keen observer and a good story-teller, he’s a good writer. It’s fun and it lilts along, and he gives us an insight into a world that I could not see otherwise. It’s not that I need somebody to mediate it, I don’t have a passport into the New York City world of modern art and art critics (that whole weird circle). But Tom Wolfe being Tom Wolfe, in the 70s, if he knocked, people opened the door and he was able to investigate this world and report it back to us.
Karl Schudt: Is he like Andy Warhol or is he the odd person pretending to be the normal person?
Scott Hambrick: I think he’s an odd person pretending to be normal. He always wore a suit, and a straw hat, and always looked right. He’s kind of like an alien. Whenever he sees something he sees it completely new. I remember being a little kid and seeing when women would paint their fingernails red and thinking it was crazy- blood-colored talons. I was able to see that outside of any context like an alien would see it. I think he’s able to do that with all kinds of things. Of course, he carries his baggage to because he’s Tom Wolfe and he’s very opinionated. He kicks this thing off, the first sentence, he quotes Marshall McLuhan, isn’t that funny? We just read Marshall McLuhan’s The Media. He kicks this off, “People don’t read the morning newspaper,” Marshall McLuhan once said, “They slip into it like a warm bath.” He said he was just skating through the morning paper, like we do, and then something extraordinary happened. He noticed something in the paper, in the art section of the New York Times where they wrote that “Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the intellectual nature of our commerce with art, the lack of persuasive theory is the lack of something crucial. The means by which experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.” That woke him up and that was the genesis of this book.
Karl Schudt: That’s a quote from Hilton Kramer, that he noticed. Well what’s the thing in there that’s of note? I love the language around it. I want to give you a flavor of Tom Wolfe. This is right after he says he slipped into the newspaper like a warm bath. “Soon I was submerged, weightless, suspended in the tepid depths of the thing in the arts & leisure section to page 19 in the state of perfect sensory deprivation when all of a sudden and extraordinary thing happened, I noticed something: yet another clam-broth colored current had begun to roll over me as warm and predictable as the gulf stream. A review, by the Times, Dean of the arts Hilton Kramer, of an exhibition at Yale University. Seven Realists, seven realistic painters when I was jerked alert by the following.” “Now you may say ‘My god, man, you woke up with that? You forsake your blissful coma over a mere swell in the sea of words?’ But I knew what I was looking at, I realized that without making the slightest effort, I’d come upon one of those utterances in search of which psychoanalysts and state department monitors of the Moscow or Belgrade Press are willing to endure a lifetime of me tedium. Mainly the seemingly innocuous opener dict of words in passing that give the game away. What I saw before me, was the critic and chief of the New York Times saying, “In looking at a painting today, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial.” I read it again, it didn’t say something helpful or enriching or even extremely valuable. No, the word was crucial, in short, frankly these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.” That’s Tom Wolfe.
Scott Hambrick: He’s a generous guy. I can imagine that that made him angry. “I can’t see a painting.” How dare.
Karl Schudt: You can’t see it without knowing the theory around it. Think about that. That’s what they were talking about on the podcast I listened to- you can’t know if a painting is good unless somebody tells you if it’s good. This is just a fact or at least it was a fact in the 20th century. I don’t know the art world now. I like the painting on the front cover. Did you see that? This is a Norman Rockwell painting called the “Connoisseur.” It is a man in a grey suit.
Scott Hambrick: Much like Tom Wolfe would have been.
Karl Schudt: Very stylish, standing there looking at a Jackson Pollock or an imitation of Jackson Pollock done by Norman Rockwell. He’s standing there looking at, to me (random), drips on a canvas and somebody says, “Isn’t it breathtaking?” It’s a perfect example of the ferruginous flatness.
Scott Hambrick: Wolfe says, in this modern art, “People stand before that and they’re waiting for the visual reward to come into focus and it never happens. There’s no amount of time that you could spend in front of the Pollock splatter art and realize anything but a loathing of Jackson Pollock (probably).
Karl Schudt: There could be a different vector on this. Let’s say you do know the theory, which for Pollock, it’s Greenberg’s flatness- everything flatness. That’s what I was quoting “the thick ferruginous flatness of Jackson Pollock.” You see, ancient paintings were painting illusions, they were three dimensional, which isn’t real, the canvas is two dimensional but if you look at Frangelico doing the vanishing point stuff, that’s an illusion. You can’t walk into the painting; it only looks like you can walk into the painting. So, we want to “get rid of illusions,” says Greenberg, “We want to have flatness.” You can’t walk into a Jackson Pollock painting. Now, you’re armed with the theory and you can stand before one of the drip paintings and you can say, “This is a perfect example of non-illusory, non-3-D,” finding the joy of clicking something into its proper category. The square peg goes into the square hole.
Scott Hambrick: But if you hold the theory in your mind, do you even need to look at that painting? The only thing important about it is the theory. The medium is the message? These art critics who typically write in the New York Times have to reduce the paintings to something they can write about. Because they are writing about art, they have to make the art about something that can be written. They have to make it about that or they’re out of work. That’s what they did.
Karl Schudt: you traffic in words, but Wolfe is saying that the words come before the painting. In fact, it’s not that somebody went and looked at a bunch of Jackson Pollock paintings and noticed this about them, it was that Greenberg discovered Jackson Pollock, would drag him to the salons, would promote him as an example of something and then Pollock proceeded to make paintings in accord with that. The theory comes first and then you make the paintings in accord with the theory.
Scott Hambrick: What’s the final cause of the painting?
Karl Schudt: Are you asking me? The final cause is to match up to the theory.
Scott Hambrick: It’s not about the potential audience for the art at that point?
Karl Schudt: Right. There’s a marvelous thing at the end on page 97 at the end of the book.
Scott Hambrick: We’ve covered this one quick.
Karl Schudt: “It was that in April of 1970, an artist named Lawrence Weiner, typed up a work of art that appeared in “Arts Magazine” as a work of art, with no visual experience before or afterward whatsoever and to it.” One. The artist may construct the piece. Two. The piece may be fabricated. Three. The piece may need not be built, each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion upon receivership.” That’s the work of art- the words. That art has become poetry but purely an expression of words at that point.
Scott Hambrick: I don’t even think it’s about poetry, Karl, he reduces it to this written formula here and that’s what art is here on page 97. Most of this book is about the history of taste-making after the center of the visual arts world moved from Paris to New York City. He really describes how that taste-making process took place once the center of this world had moved West. He describes a very small circle of people, probably no more than fifty people, and certainly not any bigger than two hundred, in New York City who hung out in weird lofts in certain neighborhoods. The hangers-on who would want to hang out with these “cool people” and the art critics who would write about them. The art critics were either from the New York Times or maybe working for the MOMA which was new in New York City and those people created an incestuous marketplace for a product that frankly no one wanted. Because they had the bullhorn, that was the New York Times, they ended up being Bernaisian influencers and got people in other places to buy into this modern art movement. There’s nothing democratic about this, not that there’s anything great about it but the marketplace of potential consumers of art never voted on this. Is that fair what I just said?
Karl Schudt: I think so. You left out my favorite word in the book “”Culture Berg”.” It’s like Studio 54 in the 70s in New York that would establish a taste for everybody else and this is a view into that in the art world. He’s got a line here somewhere about the Martian or the man from Chester, PA would only see a series of watery lines because he doesn’t have the theory. This stuff didn’t sell very well because it’s not pretty.
Scott Hambrick: He says that there are two hundred potential buyers at some point. Let’s talk about their discussion of Realism, brought up here early in the book: page 5. He says, “The idea was that half the power of realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiment the viewer hauls along to it, like so much mental baggage.” I certainly don’t buy that. What do you think that the value of realistic painting is? I tried to make a list of what I thought the value of great pieces of art was or were or is, I realized I’m not sure. One of the things I wrote down is that there is enormous value merely in the craftsmanship of the thing. They are so finely wrought you can appreciate them regardless of the content.
Karl Schudt: When you see that Michelangelo has sculpted the veins on the back of the hand and the foot of David, that took some doing.
Scott Hambrick: That craftsmanship says something amazing; it points to the amazingness of the human being- the fact that they have the capability to do that, that goes for any art. They could be fine furniture, the joinery is so careful and so well-done whether you like it or not, you can recognize that the joinery is superb and that the person who did it is extraordinary in doing that. I think craftsmanship is important.
Karl Schudt: You look at that statue that might be the best sculpture ever done. It’s nine feet tall and I haven’t been to Rome to see it. It’s a big naked guy standing there ready to sling the stone at Goliath. What are you supposed to get out of it?
Scott Hambrick: I believe that the artist is selectively reproducing elements of reality in order to influence your senses to bring you to a particular conclusion that he or she wants to magnify.
Karl Schudt: Is there a propositional content to David? Premise one, premise two conclusion.
Scott Hambrick: I think he wants to emphasize the power of the human form, maybe saying something about bravery or boldness, and maybe he wants to say something about content of biblical stories. He’s shining a light on those things, I think.
Karl Schudt: What does it add to have it done up in marble rather than to see all of those qualities in the humans around you.
Scott Hambrick: He freezes that in time and like you said David in that statue is in the wind up. The wind up happens too fast, you can’t see the taut sinew and the coiled steel and the potential energy for long enough to study it. if you watch a great athlete in the backswing to hit a golf ball or hit a rock, he’s able to freeze that moment in time. There’s something about the permanence of the stone that gives permanence to that whole aesthetic and those ideas.
Karl Schudt: I really like that, by putting this idealized young man into marble, you’re making him eternal, as such things are, elevating it, magnifying it. I like poking around on Art Renewal and there’s a guy named Bouguereau, I believe, paints a whole bunch of country scenes of girls doing ordinary stuff but it’s beautiful. Could it be that it cycles back so that when you see your ordinary folk doing ordinary stuff you think that it’s beautiful too? That by having it isolated and out of canvas or carved in marble that when you go back to look at the things in your life you can see how it’s neat. Realist art, for me it’s about beauty, it’s about revealing something that you won’t necessarily see when you’re walking through the day.
Scott Hambrick: They selectively reproduce reality in a way that brings your attention to things that they want to bring attention to.
Karl Schudt: But there are actual things that they want to bring your attention to, not theories. It might have theories but it’s still a picture of somebody.
Scott Hambrick: According to Wolfe, I think, would say that you are actually looking at a painting, it’s paint on a canvas or you’re looking at a rock, it’s really not David it’s just a rock. That’s what they say. The whole thing is an illusion and as such it’s busted. It’s an illusion because it isn’t actually David. If we could find David and measure him with a scanner he probably didn’t look like that.
Karl Schudt: You didn’t think he was nine feet tall?
Scott Hambrick: No, he was not nine feet tall and he was not jacked, and they said the whole thing’s an illusion so let’s actually look at rocks and let’s actually look at paint in canvases instead of looking at these illusions. They had to write twelve hundred words for the Sunday paper because they are not smart enough to say anything about real art (would be my guess). They say, “let’s quit fooling ourselves and let’s quit playing these games of illusions and let’s actually look at canvases and paint as it’s own thing without respect to any illusion or selective representation of reality. I think that the art that they describe is mediocrity. These are people that can’t do these other fine things that I appreciate. It takes a lifetime to do that.
Karl Schudt: Let’s try to defend the moderns.
Scott Hambrick: The art critics?
Karl Schudt: Yeah.
Scott Hambrick: I think the art critics are the problem here.
Karl Schudt: I want to be open but not so open that I accept everything but what are they reacting against? What is so bad about Realism?
Scott Hambrick: I literally don’t think it’s a reaction. I think that they have a deadline that they have to meet, and they have to create content for the old gray lady for the Sunday paper.
Karl Schudt: So, the medium is the massage. You’re working for the New York Times; you have to format everything in the way that fits in the New York Times.
Scott Hambrick: That’s right and what are you going to say about Michelangelo’s David? It was awesome, I was awestruck, it’s beautifully done. What are you going to say about that that hasn’t already been said?
Karl Schudt: I might say I noticed the veins or the contrapposto.
Scott Hambrick: Sure, but what are we going to say about that that hasn’t been said before? That’s the thing, they have to put out original content and they can’t do it.
Karl Schudt: For me, art criticism if I were an art critic, I don’t know if I could do it without theory. My job as an art critic, if I wrote for the New York Times, I would point to the good stuff and then I might talk about the curves in the painting. I might point out some things, like we do in the podcast that just came out today of Beethoven, so that you could see the original painting better. But am I doing the same thing they’re doing?
Scott Hambrick: No.
Karl Schudt: Am what way am I different?
Scott Hambrick: If you say to go to someone’s parlor, you are making an effort to do taste-making but if you say, “I saw William Bouguereau’s painting “The Young Trad Wife” from 1885,” whatever and then you say, “This is why I think it’s wonderful,” and you address it for what it is, I think it’s different.
Karl Schudt: I don’t want to fit it into a category. I don’t want to make an example, it’s hard to do without theory. Maybe some theories are good, and some are bad.
Scott Hambrick: I think that’s true. You mentioned the contrapposto– it’s a classic posture that heroes would take in Greek and Roman statuary. But there’s a reason that the proportions in those paintings or those statues that use the contrapposto posture are pleasing. We could probably have a little talk about the Golden Mean and geometry and describe why these proportions and why framing these paintings in certain ways makes them more visually appealing and there is some theory behind these things that is measurably verifiable.
Karl Schudt: I want to go back to something you said in the middle of that. You said it’s “pleasant.” Maybe that’s enough for art?
Scott Hambrick: It sure doesn’t hurt.
Karl Schudt: Maybe that’s ultimately what it is and that’s what makes good theories and bad theories distinct? For me, the bad theories are telling you should like this because it’s important. Does anybody say that the flatness of the paintings which was Greenberg’s big thing.
Scott Hambrick: The craftsmanship matters (for Scott and Karl). Two, there has to be a pleasantness to the thing. Is Munch’s “the scream” good art? I think it’s good art because it meets some of my criteria about selectively reproducing elements of reality in order to focus the attention of the viewer on a particular thing.
Karl Schudt: Maybe not necessarily pleasant. What I’m thinking is the introductory track to our own podcast, “Mars,” depending on who’s conducting it it can be really ugly. It’s about war so, it’s a depiction of reality, it’s bringing your attention to something, for me, that piece of music moves from the ugly and dissonant to the beautiful and joyful and back again. It’s probably on purpose. Maybe clarity is part of beauty- it’s showing me something.
Scott Hambrick: Munch is a little modern. You’ve got Goya- Cronos eating its young. “The Third of May ” people being executed, it’s dark stuff but moving into something true and interesting about the human experience that needs to be said. Things that meet my criteria are when the artist is using his craft or a selective representation of reality or even an altered reality in order to deliver a message to the observer. In terms of visual arts, I think they should probably transcend language so that you don’t need to know a theory to know that Bosch is awesome.
Karl Schudt: I’m discarding my category of the pleasant.
Scott Hambrick: Sophocles is better than Shakespeare.
Karl Schudt: I just picked up a bunch of Folger Shakespeare.
Scott Hambrick: I think we’ve defined what we think what art is and this modern stuff isn’t that. On page 16 he says, “During the 1960s this entire process by which Le Monde, the culturati, scout Bohemia and tap the young artists for success who has acted out in the most graphic way. Early each spring two emissaries from the Museum of Modern art, Alfred Barr Jr. and Dorothy Miller, would head downtown from the museum on West 53rd street down to St. Mark’s Place, Little Italy, Broome Street and tour the loft studios of known artists and unknowns alike. Looking at everything, talking to one and all, trying to get a line on what was new and significant in order to put together a show in the fall. My god, from the moment the two of them stepped out of 53rd street to grab a cab, some sort of boho radar began to record their story, ‘they’re coming.’ And rolling across Manhattan, like the cosmic pulse of these Theosophists, would be a unitary heartbeat, ‘pick me,’ pick me,’ ‘pick me,’ ‘pick me,’ ‘pick me,’ ‘pick me,’ by all means denied asked what one knows and what one’s cheating heart are two different things. So, it was that the art-mating ritual developed early in this century: in Paris, in Rome, in London, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and not too long in New York.” It became about being picked by taste-makers because the value of the stuff was not evident to consumers. It didn’t contain a theory; you couldn’t see it.
Karl Schudt: You don’t know if it’s any good unless somebody tells you it’s good, and you need somebody to tell you.
Scott Hambrick: It’s a metaphysical problem. What is this so-called modern art actually for?
Karl Schudt: What would be the benefit in getting rid of Realism? Jackson Pollock was a C.I.A asset, he was funded.
Scott Hambrick: Rothko too.
Karl Schudt: The U.S government was into modern art meanwhile, I’m looking at this pretty, young shepherdess…What benefit would it be to anyone to take that away from me?
Scott Hambrick: If you break notions of what is beautiful, good, and true then it becomes more acceptable to not comply or conform with those notions of what is good, beautiful, and true. If we break that in people’s minds, if they have no “yardstick” whereby to measure those things that are ugly, false, and mean.
Karl Schudt: That’s the “tinfoil” hat thing. I like beauty and I think that people don’t like that I like beauty. That makes me a little bit angry. I’m not making up the C.I.A/modern art connection. That’s not me being crazy, this is actual stuff.
Scott Hambrick: Freedom of information act, it came out. In that same program, they funded Pollock, Rothko, and some jazz artists as well. You talk about when jazz went off the rails, they had funded these way-out jazz artists.
Karl Schudt: I want to take us on a left turn. Wolfe talks about from ’30-’41 they didn’t do this stuff, it was social realism (Socialist Realism). I love Socialist Realism, I feel bad about it because it’s communist but what I like about it is that it’s all these young, blonde kids on tractors pointing to Stalin’s glorious future but it’s clearly propaganda but where I think it’s right is that it still has form, it still has color, it’s directed towards an end. It would be wonderful if the collective farms were like that, it’s like a fairytale. I like fairy-tales.
Scott Hambrick: If you ever go to Rockefeller Center in New York City, that thing was built in this Social-Realism period, it’s an Art Deco piece. Over the entrances of the building, there are relief-carvings and at the 45 Rockefeller entrance there’s a commemoration to the workmen of the Center. There are all these healthy people operating the crane and setting the stones and bucking the rivets and so on. Not Communists but it celebrates the people who had the craft and the knowledge and the ability to create this glorious human thing which is that building. I love that about social realism. It’s not all about Uncle Joseph, for me anyway. Social Realism lasted in Tulsa until the 60s. Tulsa, during the oil boom in the 20s and early 30s, built more Art Deco buildings than anywhere other than in South Beach in Miami. We have an enormous number of Art Deco buildings with all these terracotta sculptures and friezes and reliefs around the entrances of these buildings. We have the Tulsa County Fairgrounds Pavilion has Social-Realist art about agriculture that I think is amazing. We have the Golden Driller that is a narrow-hip, broad-shouldered workmen, standing proudly by an oil derrick; he’s proud of what he does and he’s admirable for it. I love Social-Realism.
Karl Schudt: Have you ever been to the Mitchell Corn Palace?
Scott Hambrick: I have not but I like the idea of it already.
Karl Schudt: It’s in South Dakota, it was built in 1892, it’s a celebration of corn. It’s an exhibition hall and they make art out of corn every year. There are corn murals on the outside. You can buy corn paraphernalia, lots of corny stuff there, there are concerts there. It’s the glory of the farmer, which there is glory which goes back to what we were talking about in the beginning when you were talking about Tom Wolfe and McPhee because they are writing about real life and the beauties of real life. It’s not “Culture Berg.” I used to love Paul Harvey- read his stories about people from the middle. There’s a lot of beauty from people in the middle (and they don’t buy Jackson Pollock. They buy from the painter of light). Thomas Kincaid is the “painter of light” and he’s got technique, not a lot of variety, it’s a lot of well-lit cottages glowing on the snowy landscape outside. It’s not for me but it’s something. There are three guys, who Tom Wolfe thinks are the great artists of the 20th century, and none of them painted; it was Greenberg whose big idea was the purity of the flatness, it was Rosenberg who was action painting, and Steinberg who popularized Pop art like Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein. You like you’re Lichtenstein?
Scott Hambrick: I do.
Karl Schudt: But do you like it for the wrong reasons? The Pop art, says Wolfe, “was a reaction against Abstract Expressionism which wasn’t flat enough, it wasn’t pure enough. Art about symbols was pure because symbols are even flatter than brush strokes and paint. You want to get beyond brushstrokes to make art that is a symbol of a symbol? Do you like Lichtenstein because he’s postmodern and doing art about symbols or do you like it because there are good-looking comic book people that are blown-up to 9’ x 12’?
Scott Hambrick: I like it because I’m a simpleton; it’s a ton of fun and he uses that new medium to say something about the human condition. You’ve got the man and the woman in an embrace and she’s got a single tear and it’s a comic book theme or styling, but it says something. I’m not getting too meta like it’s commentary on Rembrandt or Pollock, you see these well-wrought images in an embrace. There’s always a caption and somebody expresses a sort of angsty theme and there’s a single tear running down her cheek and I like it.
Karl Schudt: On 72, Wolfe quotes Steinberg, saying, “Whatever else it may be, all great art is about art.” I don’t think so.
Scott Hambrick: It’s about reality.
Karl Schudt: I think this young shepherdess is about the young shepherdess. To me it’s about what it looks like, it’s not a commentary on Rembrandt.
Scott Hambrick: He says, “Whatever else it may be, all great art is about art.” Wolfe says, “Steinberg’s evidence for this theory was far more subtle than convincing.” Sophistry I believe is the word, he rejects his arguments and I do too, and he restates some of the arguments. He says, “To be against what is new is not to me modern, not to be modern is to write yourself out of the scene, not to be in the scene is to be nowhere.” I think that is the project of modern art. This whole postmodern movement is to break the persistent notion to break what is good, beautiful, and true that people hold in their minds from clear images in their minds, like the young shepherdess, so that it makes it more difficult for them to evaluate things against that standard they could hold to their mind easily. It’s also to marginalize people who do not blindly embrace those things which are new. I want to read it again, Wolfe says, “To be against what is new is not to be modern.” It’s a syllogism, “Not to be modern is to write yourself out of the scene, not to be in the scene is to be nowhere.” I think that’s part of the project, I think that people like Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg, these art critics, maybe they didn’t overtly have this in their minds, but I’ll flip it. I think they wanted to be somewhere, and they wanted to be someone, and I think they had to create an arena which they could do that.
Karl Schudt: They couldn’t paint.
Scott Hambrick: They couldn’t do it in a world of Realism, they could not go toe to toe as writers with someone like Tom Wolfe so they had to create an arena whereby they could be somewhere and could be someone. I think this is the art of the social reject, I think this is the art of the degenerate and the outcast.
Karl Schudt: “Resentment,” as Nietzsche would say.
Scott Hambrick: Maybe.
Karl Schudt: We can’t do the beautiful so we will make the not beautiful be the good. You were talking about the comic books, the Lichtenstein, the Pop art stuff: I have occasionally read some comic books and for volume of really fantastic art, there’s a whole lot. Comic books are a mixed bag, I recently read five volumes of “Battle Angel Alita.” It’s a dystopian future anime thing, I think he was nineteen when he started drawing these things. It’s ludicrous, it’s all cyborgs putting their heads on other bodies, and the main character is a cyborg girl who’s been made to be a warrior and she doesn’t know who she is and the story’s kind of ridiculous but there are some sparse line drawings that are fantastic. It’s not art, it’s not important.
Scott Hambrick: I think it is, it’s an enduring art that I think people will be protecting and stewarding but it’s art. There’s a continuum of art from the pleasing and fleeting to the immortal. Just because it’s more pleasing and fleeting than David.
Karl Schudt: We’ve got to talk about the problem with permanence and archiving and all that at some point. What makes something worthwhile? Is it because whoever had it kept it? Is it because it gets scanned into a database and it’s accessible? There’s a whole lot of wonderful representational art that nobody’s ever going to see, so how do things get preserved? For me, it’s also part of what I think’s the dark side of the modern art movement: they are going to pick what’s in the museum. It’s not your local school or town council that’s going to decide what’s going to go in. (We went to a museum in Cuba, Missouri that had all the stuff that the people from there thought was neat to have in their museum like programs from band concerts from 1928 and wedding dresses. I thought it was neat but none of this stuff would make it into the museums in “Culture Berg”, but I didn’t want a taste of “Culture Berg” I wanted a taste of central Missouri.
Scott Hambrick: A few podcasts ago, I mentioned seeing a piece of modern art in the Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, in 1993, which was a fur-lined cup and spoon. Do you remember me mentioning that?
Karl Schudt: Yep. It’s in the book here.
Scott Hambrick: He mentions it on page 33. He says, “All we ask for are a few lines of explanation.” I wrote “no!” He’s saying, “Meret Oppenheim’s “Fur Covered Cup, Saucer, and Spoon” of 1936 is an example of the surrealist principle of displacement. You say the texture of one material- fur- has been imposed upon the forms of others china and tableware in order to split the aural, the tactile, and the visual into three critically injured. But for the first time fiercely independent parties in the subconscious find to get to the word was to understand…any work of art that could be understood as the product of a journalist.” says Tristan Tzara’s manifest.
Karl Schudt: Do you know about Dadaism? It’s kind of fun. You’d have three people go up on a stage and one of them’s going to read from Henry IV and one of them’s going to read from Ayn Rand, and somebody else is going to read from the phone book and the weird thing is if they start uttering their lines with conviction, your mind will start to make it make sense. So, it’s interesting as an exercise in showing something about consciousness but I don’t think it’s not art.
Scott Hambrick: I wrote in the margin that these people should be ridiculed: they are absurd, the things they assert are absurd, they do it with the most earnest expressions on their face, and they use the biggest vocabulary that they can, and they try to impart legitimacy on it and the things they say on it are illegitimate. I think as responsible people that love the good, the beautiful, and the true should make fun of them and ridicule them and take their ability to put themselves to create a society where they are relevant and take it away from them.
Karl Schudt: Shots fired. I think I might ignore them and look for beautiful stuff. My favorite moment in modern art is when the Banksy painting shredded itself right after the sale was closed at the auction. I thought that was beautiful and I don’t know who Banksy is, but I love him just for that. There was a shredder built into the frame of the painting and Banksy was watching from somewhere and as soon as the auction closed and the million dollars went for the painting, he triggered the switch and made it destroy itself. The primacy is not the painted word it’s the printed word on the dollar bills.
Scott Hambrick: We need to raise money so that we can secure some of these pieces of work like Oppenheim’s “Fur-lined Cup and Saucer,” we’ll get a museum together and then we’re just going to ridicule all these pieces.
Karl Schudt: What would be the name of this museum?
Scott Hambrick: It would be the Hambrick Museum of Art.
Karl Schudt: I was thinking the Ridiculium of Art.
Scott Hambrick: I like that better.
Karl Schudt: It could be the Ridiculium Wing of the Hambrick Museum of Art.
Scott Hambrick: It’s going to have graphic novels in there, and we’re going to buy the Golden Driller and he’ll be in there. But back to your Banksy thing. I think it’s really interesting what he did for art there. I think it became an interactive play when he did that. It’s not going to be a persistent thing like you talked about the permanence of art, it won’t have that, but he directed everyone’s attention, selectively, to something he wanted them to know and he did it very well. It’s not abstract and I don’t know how much craftsmanship is in it.
Karl Schudt: Installing the shredder?
Scott Hambrick: It’s crafty, it’s clever, whereas I think a Pollock painting isn’t particularly clever.
Karl Schudt: This is where I think modern art should go. You and I are always talking about what is the next big thing. I think the next big thing is right after ridicule comes recovery. You realize that the “emperor has no clothes” and that this is all ridiculous and maybe you go back and learn how to draw? For me, the future should be a recovery of the past. Obviously I work at Online Great Books; we read old books on purpose. Thoreau said, about the great books, they are the record of the noblest thoughts that anyone has ever done. You learn from them; we need to get back to them.
Scott Hambrick: The whole notion of modern art trips you up from the beginning.
Karl Schudt: Art is art whether it’s modern or not.
Scott Hambrick: Is there anything not modern about David?
Karl Schudt: Good art hits you right between the eyes no matter how good it is.
Scott Hambrick: How much do we actually talk about this book?
Karl Schudt: We used it as a jumping off point. It’s an easy read, it gives you the big names of 20th century art, but as a narrative of the progress of 20th century art, it’s valuable.
Scott Hambrick: He talks about this Pop art as being ironic in camp. Karl, I hate irony and I hate sarcasm. That whole ironic sensibility prevents people from having values that they can express actively; they constantly react and it’s not a positive thing.
Karl Schudt: I thought Wolfe’s comments about pop art were interesting, that people were secretly enjoying the Pop art for Realism. When I look at Andy Warhol’s bits on Marilyn Monroe, I like it because it’s Marilyn Monroe, not because of what he did with the print.
Scott Hambrick: Because she’s beautiful and it’s colorful and it draws our attention more to Marilyn. Pag 78, he’s got one of these Lichtenstein’s, “We Rose Up Slowly.” It’s a man and a woman and it looks like they are under water, in an embrace, about to kiss and it says, “We rose up slowly as if we didn’t belong to the outside world any longer. Like swimmers in a shadowy dream that didn’t need to breathe.” If he’s shooting for irony and campiness and a literary and intellectual assertion of the banality, emptiness and silliness of culture, I don’t care. I think it’s lovely.
Karl Schudt: You go through the central aperture of the irony and you come back out the other side thinking that that would be a perfect picture for you Instagram.
Scott Hambrick: I like the cover art from Pulp novels.
Karl Schudt: I like it because it’s not mocking anything.
Scott Hambrick: Irony mocks, sarcasm destroys, I don’t like it. Wolfe says, “For what in the world requires more courage than to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish? Modern art always projects itself into a twilight zone where no values are fixed.” He’s actually quoting Steinberg here. But he states his project, he thinks it requires courage to applaud the destruction of values we cherish and that modern art projects itself into a zone where no values are fixed?
Karl Schudt: It’s what teenagers do all the time, it’s not courageous.
Scott Hambrick: But real humans mature beyond that into a part of their life where they create. That’s what marriage is, it’s what having children is, it’s what paying off the mortgage is, but not these clowns.
Karl Schudt: You’re not being at all ironic or sarcastic here.
Scott Hambrick: No, I think they’re a bunch of clowns and fools and I think that they couldn’t get traction in the way that normal people do with life. Maybe they could but they didn’t feel like they were to the task.
Karl Schudt: If this was just the weird stuff that Bohemians, in some mid-century neighborhoods in New York City did, fine, go make your art and if it’s any good we will find out about it. But it’s made the official art of the cultured class and that bugs me and if you’re not in then I guess you don’t count. There’s beauty all over the place and you don’t need the New York Times art critic to tell you that it’s there.
Scott Hambrick: At the end of the book, Wolfe says about people of the future, “What happy hours await them all with what sniggers, laughter, and good humored amazement they will look back upon the era of the painted word.” Which is this art era from ’45-’75 that he describes. They won’t even know about it. Hard times come sometimes; wars, pandemics, London burns sometimes, like the whole damn thing. Do you grab the Pollock when the city’s being sacked, or do you grab the young Trad wife of 1885? I’ll tell you that you’re not going to grab the Pollock and deep down inside, Greenberg and these other critics (whether they know it or not) they wouldn’t have grabbed the Pollocks either, so they won’t persist.
Karl Schudt: Should they read the book?
Scott Hambrick: Absolutely, you should read the book.
Karl Schudt: It’s fun, it’s short, introduction to Tom Wolfe, maybe read some of his other stuff. He just recently died, had a long career.
Scott Hambrick: That guy made a living just being smart.
Karl Schudt: Did you notice the line art in the front of each of these chapters?
Scott Hambrick: I did not notice that.
Karl Schudt: His drawing of Andy Warhol here, that’s Tom Wolfe’s drawing of Andy Warhol. He knows enough about art to be a fair hand with a pencil.
Scott Hambrick: Chapter two: the public is not invited and never has been- that’s the title of the chapter. Flip the page and it’s a picture of a guy wearing a dinner jacket and a bow-tie, but he’s got Levi’s, and he talks about them wearing Levi’s and gumboots.
Karl Schudt: What’s a gumboot?
Scott Hambrick: Old work boots, I guess. So, he’s wearing work boots and jeans that are paint splattered and his arms are crossed, and I think that this is supposed to be Pollock and it says underneath it “Where’s the champagne?”
Karl Schudt: It’s real funny, Wolfe’s a treasure.
Scott Hambrick: Wolfe’s slightly postmodern because he comments on other things. His main stuff is derivative like he’s commenting on other people’s work.
Karl Schudt: All art is about other art.
Scott Hambrick: He’s indirectly part of this movement too.
Karl Schudt: He’s an outsider looking in at it.
Scott Hambrick: I guess Bonfire of the Vanities is his own creation, it’s not a journalistic piece of work but most of his stuff is comment on the things one way or another. I like it, it’s got a good beat, it’s easy to dance to, I give it two thumbs up. Next week, though.
Karl Schudt: What are we doing next week? Oh, Walden, that’s what we’re doing next week.
Scott Hambrick: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden which is one of my favs. I love Henry David Thoreau, he’s been so influential on me, I cannot state it enough, and continues to be. I’m working on my Walden project now. Charity and I have been doing that together since ’94? There you go. There’s an Online Great Books podcast. You can go to Instagram @onlinegreatbooks and follow us there, we announce when the new shows are out, got some memes on there, you might go check that out. Also, go to onlinegreatbooks.com/ogbpodcast and join our waiting list, we’ll let you know when enrollment opens soon and get 25% off your first three months. By the way, I was looking at our stat, Karl, we have about 30% of the downloads that a show will get in the first week, happen the first day and the other 70% happen over the course of the week. I think that’s evidence that people aren’t’ subscribing. So, If you’re listening to the show, please subscribe that way you won’t have to go looking for it, it’ll go right to your podcatcher whether you listen to it on people podcast or overcast, you’ll get that thing hot off the podcast presses. Go out there and subscribe, that would be a big help to us. Next Thursday we will talk to you guys about Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden so jump into that, read what you can of it, we’ll all visit on Thursday. Thanks.
Karl Schudt: Thank you.