Tom Wolfe, social satirist and best-selling author, was on hand the evening of November 28 at the Asia Society in New York to give the second of this year’s four “Distinguished Lectures on American Art and Culture of the Twentieth Century” sponsored by the Whitney Museum’s Department of Public Education. The series’ three other speakers are Leo Steinberg, J. Kirk T. Varnedoe, and Robert Hughes. That Wolfe is not as serious—or, to use the Whitney’s term, “distinguished”—a thinker on art as his fellow lecturers was a fact not lost on the small audience in attendance, comprised almost entirely of Whitney members and art-world people. Nor was it lost on the Whitney sponsors themselves. Russell Connor, the Whitney’s Head of Public Education, facetiously remarked in his introduction that, as he spoke, the movie people were backstage negotiating with Wolfe for the film rights to The Painted Word (1975), Wolfe’s one-hundred-and-twenty-page “debunking,” as the jacket copy of the paperback edition says, of the “phonies” behind the “great American myth of modern art.” “We’ve signed Jeremy Irons to play Leo Steinberg,” said Mr. Connor, in effect banishing Wolfe from the world of art to the world of pop culture. When Wolfe bounded onstage, dressed in a white three-piece suit, Mr. Connor’s anecdote rang even truer.

In the elegant brochure describing the lecture series, Wolfe’s title was the rather staid “The Big Shift: Changes in Artistic Taste in the Final Fifteen Years of the Twentieth Century.” But Wolfe in his opening remarks revealed the title he really had in mind, the far more pedestrian “Will Picasso Become the William Adolphe Bouguereau of the Twenty-First Century?” Wolfe’s talk centered on a few predictions about shifts in taste and value in the arts. The first prediction was that, by the year 2000, Picasso will be considered as trivial a painter as Adolphe William Bouguereau (1825-1905), the French academic painter, is to us today. Bouguereau, said Wolfe, was the “epitome of art” in the nineteenth century; indeed, he had “all the prestige of Picasso.” His work, Wolfe told us, was avidly sought by the Vanderbilts and the Astors. “By the time I reached graduate school at Yale,” said Wolfe, “Bouguereau was a term of mockery.” What became of all those Bouguereaus in the Vanderbilt and Astor collections? “They were dumped on Southerners in the Twenties,” said Wolfe. “If you go to Wilmington, North Carolina, you'll find them.” Wolfe foresees the same swift and ignominious collapse of the reputation of Picasso in the next fifteen years.

Wolfe then shifted from painting to sculpture to make his next prediction. “Daniel Chester French,” said Wolfe, “was the most famous sculptor in America in the nineteenth century.” But he too was a casualty of a “big shift” in taste. “When French died in 1931, he was forgotten.” Wolfe’s candidate for the Daniel Chester French of the twenty-first century? Henry Moore. “Today,” said Wolfe, “an American city does not consider itself validated unless it owns a Henry Moore.” Just think “how remarkable it’s going to be: in just fifteen years, taste will change so rapidly that Picasso will be the Bouguereau, Moore will be the French of the twenty-first century.”

Wolfe then shifted from painting to sculpture to make his next prediction.

Tom Wolfe’s third prediction concerned Philip Johnson’s AT&T building, which won’t be remembered for its controversial pediment, he said, but rather “because it has a front door.” Buildings of the last forty years, explained Wolfe, have had “hidden” entrances, an outgrowth of a Marxist or worker-inspired ideological revolt against “the bourgeois grandiosity of large front entrances.” (These remarks echoed the thesis of Wolfe’s 1981 book, From Bauhaus to Our House.) “Bourgeois cornices and curves were also verboten” said Wolfe. But now, in the Eighties, all this has changed. Johnson’s building represents a “permission slip” for a “return to theatricality” in buildings. “Now you're seeing front doors.” There has been a change in the academy of late as well, Wolfe went on to say. Where once architecture students went about “signing petitions demanding an end to the laborious process of architectural drawings,” nowadays “drawings can’t come off the architect’s tables fast enough.”

Wolfe then summarized his argument in The Painted Word, apparently as evidence of his assertions. He told us how modern painting has been a gradual “cleansing out” of “all the bourgeois detritus” left over from nineteenth-century painting. Wolfe’s history of modern art is a history of the “monomaniacal task of reduction . . . in a rush to reach perfect zero.” It began when early modern painters disposed of nineteenth-century “storybook realism.” It continued when the Cubists dispensed with representational objects. Then the Abstract Expressionists removed the third dimension. The Color Fielders then stripped away “evocative” (e.g., bourgeois) brushstrokes and expressive globs of paint. The Minimalists discarded “lovely colors” (replacing them with “Tool-and-Die Works red and Subway I-Beam green”) and complicated design (favoring “hard linear geometries”).

The “monomaniacal task of reduction” and “pell-mell rush to zero” didn’t stop there, however. The frame still had to go—thus began the era of installations that couldn’t be separated from the museum itself. But the museum could go too: so began Earth Art. But what about the very idea of an art object at all? (“How bourgeois,” said Wolfe, mocking the reductionists.) Thus the birth of Conceptual Art: documentation referring to an art object that may or may not exist. This was the apotheosis of “the painted word.”

There has been a similar “rush to reach perfect zero” in other arts as well, said Wolfe. In dance it was reached when pieces were performed behind curtains so the audience couldn’t “interface” with the spectacle. In music “perfect zero” was reached when composers stopped giving concerts. “Who Cares If You Listen,” Milton Babbitt’s 1958 article, was cited as the theoretical touchstone for this impulse among contemporary composers. Instead of concerts, said Wolfe, there were “conferences” where students and faculty “passed around scores.” “They say one composer’s scores—his name was Charles Wuorinen—were out of this world.”

And what does Picasso have to do with all of this? Since Picasso had initiated the “monomaniacal"—and, to Wolfe, entirely pointless—“task of reduction,” Picasso deserves the same cruel fate as Bouguereau. Picasso is as guilty as Charles Wuorinen for conspiring to undermine “bourgeois” beauty of nineteenth-century art. And when taste shifts in the next two decades, Wolfe predicted, Picasso will get his. Picasso will be the Adolphe William Bouguereau of the twenty-first century. “In the Salon de Picasso in Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not Center” of the twenty-first century, said Wolfe, “students will be brought in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Guernica and they’ll say, ‘But they meant it. They meant every word of it.’”

Now why has the Whitney Museum’s Department of Public Education (in conjunction with the Anne Burnett and Charles Tandy Foundation) chosen to present Wolfe in its “Distinguished Lectures” series? Certainly not, as the foregoing makes clear, to educate the public about art—Wolfe knows nothing about art. His ignorance seemed even to extend to the subject of Bouguereau. Wolfe appeared to be unaware that a Bouguereau revival has been in progress for some years, one that resulted in a major retrospective exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1984 and a current exhibition (on view until January 13) at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. In turning his attention to the fine arts, Wolfe doesn’t even do them the justice of doing his homework. Much less does he “relate twentieth-century American art to its social, political, and cultural context,” as the Whitney sponsors had asked each speaker to do.

To return to the question posed above—why was Wolfe sponsored by the Whitney Museum? The answer must lie in its wish to corner a celebrity whose presence will create a public-relations scandal. If this was the Museum’s intention, it was a total failure. The serious art public gathered in the Asia Society’s small Wallace auditorium wasn’t so easily fooled—or amused. Few in the audience laughed at Wolfe’s many “outrageous” remarks, which were all designed to provoke the kind of philistine outrage that has as its source a deep-seated insecurity about modern art in all its guises. It was quite plain, long before Wolfe finished speaking, that the whole thing would have played better in Peoria, perhaps—or in Hollywood, as Russell Connor in his own way so aptly suggested.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 5, on page 78
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