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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Yellow Hat

Michael Bracewell [to writer Tom Wolfe]: In the essay that you wrote in 1976 for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 'Chester Gould versus Roy Lichtenstein', you make the very interesting point that commercial artisan craft can be more sophisticated, artistically, than the work of a lot of fine artists that is based on similar subject matter and techniques.

Tom Wolfe: That was all part of the general theme of The Painted Word. And that brought on the most rabid, angry response that I've ever got for anything. I define the 'art world' as 3,000 people in America, and 10,000 people in the world. Of the ones in America, only 300 of the 3,000 do not live in the New York metropolitan area. And the ones in New York determine all the prestigious taste in art. As a result, artists who wanted prestige would treat illustration, comic books, the famous Brillo boxes, as if they were objects found on Easter Island. As in: 'You don't exactly know how they got there, but they're interesting—they must be religious in nature.' And it became considered primitive material.

In the case of the essay you mention, Chester Gould, the illustrator who created Dick Tracy, was a very sophisticated artist. He understood the limits of that particular graphic process of printing comics. If you look at the chiaroscuro in the Tracy comic strips, it's brilliant! And it
hadn't been done before, as far as I know. Also some of the colouring—Dick Tracy wore a yellow hat; well, nobody has ever worn a yellow hat! So how could this be treated as primitive? He had more skill than Roy Lichtenstein. There is a line I love in Tom Stoppard's play Artist Descending a Staircase (1988), when one of the characters says, 'Imagination without skill gives us modern art.' And I think it's quite true. Someone like de Kooning couldn't draw a cat on a fence; but he was considered to have true genius because he painted like a child—a very young child, I'd say.

(From Michael Bracewell's interview with Tom Wolfe, "The Man in the White Suite," Frieze issue #56, [sorry, the article is not available online without a subscription].)


Featured Comment
by Paul Butzi: A slightly more complete quote of the Stoppard line from Artist Descending a Staircase is:

"Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wicker-work picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art."

Stoppard has a knack for getting the knife into just the right spot and then giving it a vigorous twist. He must have both imagination and skill!


Blogger eolake said...

Great post.
I have been thinkin and writing about art for decades (, and one of my contentions have always been that limiting "art" to what hangs in galleries is... well, brain dead.

For a good understanding of comics I recommend Understainding Comics by Scott McCloud.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Bob Poe said...

If a picture is worth...
Images that may or may not be valued as "art" have always been very bothersome to writers, who, at some point (perhaps while pondering the mysteries of the ID) find that writing about something that is visually meaningfull ultimately falls apart in the face of the sum of an image's forms. The writer's art exists as it unfolds in real time. A visual image may exist on more than one plane in a simultanaity that may even suggest contradictory ideas. Writers of course do the same thing (Kafka, Burroughs, and many poets), but I doubt that any of them felt compelled to attack Modern Art. If we annoint T. Wolfe as the art police, give up engaging with our contemporary visual artists on the grounds of some arbitrary overarching rule about skill, what does that make us? M. Bracewell's comment connecting Chester Gould's use of chairoscuro and Roy Lichtenstein's lack of sophistication demonstates the kind of arrogant snobbery one may associate with ignorant intollerence.
T. Wolfe is a clown, (what are those white suits about?) Whatever the role of a true critic is has very little to do with T. Wolfe's opinions about something he has never fully engaged with. Could it be that he isn't really interested in art? Or is it the "art world", which more often than not may deserve his ridicule. I just think we may want to be able understand that art, and the product that has been co-opted for other purposes, are separate entities.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Thanks for getting it. (s)


10:52 PM  

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