The Painted Word – Part 3


“Believe me, you can get all the tubes of Windsor & Newton paint you want in Cincinnati, but the artists keep migrating to New York all the same.” -Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word


It’s always been tricky for artists to make a living strictly at their craft. Sell your paintings (good luck) or find a patron to support you while you make art. Wolfe traces the shift in the artists “arena. — the place where he seeks honor, glory, ease, Success…”

First the successful artist would reside in the house of a noble or royalty. Then, later, in the salons where wealthy patrons provided the space and status artist sought to achieve.

After the French Revolution the artists would find themselves gathered around a single figure, an artist of importance, all “like-minded souls”, who’s goal now was to shock the middle class.

Rather than venturing out to travel the world, out from the protection and security of the salon or the shadow of an Edward Manet or a Victor Hugo, they never seemed to get very far from the center of things.  In France, they never got farther than, literally, a few miles away. And in the United States? Everyone ended up in New York City.

Thus begins one of Wolfe’s main points about the art world at the start of the 20th century: it’s very, very small and split into two groups. The artists and le monde–the cultural elite.

The artist finds a flat in New York and talks about rejecting the status quo, the rich, the whatever. Yet, these artists would always be on the lookout for the annual trip of Dorothy Miller and Alfred Barr from the Modern Museum of Art. Each spring they’d leave uptown New York and try to find the next “big thing.”

This “boho dance” had two phases. First the artists shows their work off within their own little circles acting as if he doesn’t care for anything beyond it. Second, the cultural elite, le monde, the world that the artist outwardly shuns, but needs in order to succeed, comes to consummate the ritual. For these artists, success is only success if it’s within le monde.

The artist gets “fame, money, beautiful lovers.” The Elite get the respected status of Benefactor of the Arts.

“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 class…”

The early 20th century found the “art world” a very small world indeed. Dependent on the even smaller number of influential cultural elite. And as we’ll see in the next chapter, the “public is not invited (and never has been.)”


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