A Paragraph from Tom Wolfe

As a teenager I thumbed through my mother’s copy of From Bauhaus to Our House without understanding much of it. However, one paragraph naturally stood out. Looking at it again I am struck by the perhaps needless cruelty of the author. Still, the larger point hits home then and now.

For that matter, in most of the higher arts in America prestige was now determined by European-style clerisies. By the mid-1960s, painting was a truly advanced case. The Abstract Expressionists had held on as the ruling compound for about ten years, but then new theories, new compounds, new codes began succeeding one another in a berserk rush. Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, Hard Edge, Color Field, Earth Art, Conceptual Art — the natural bias of the compounds toward arcane and baffling went beyond all known limits. The spectacle was crazy, but young artists tended to believe – correctly – that it was impossible to achieve major status without joining in the game. In the field of serious music, the case was even more advanced; in fact, it was very nearly terminal. Within the university compounds, composers had become so ultra-Schoenbergian, so exquisitely abstract, that no one from the outside world any longer had the slightest interest in, much less comprehension of, what was going on. In the cities, not even that Gideon’s army known as “the concert-going public” could be drawn to an all-contemporary program. They took place only in university concert halls. Here on the campus the program begins with Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” followed by one of Stockhausen’s early compositions, “Punkte,” then Babbitt’s Ensembles for Synthesizer, a little Easley Blackwood and Jean Barraqué for a change of pace, then the committed plunge into a random-note or, as they say, “stochastic” piece for piano, brass, Moog synthesizer, and computer by Iannis Xenakis. The program winds up with James P. Johnson’s “You’ve Gotta Be Modernistic.” Joplin and Johnson, of course, are as cozy and familiar as a lullaby, but they are essential to the program. The same thirty-five or forty souls, all of them faculty members and graduate students, make up the audience at every contemporary musical event. The unspeakable fear is that not even they will show up unless promised a piece of candy at the beginning and a piece of candy at the end. Joplin and Johnson are okay because both men were black and were not appreciated as serious composers in their own day.


UPDATE: Looked at Tyler Coates’s overview in Esquire, and was impressed by Coates’s concluding comment about The Painted Word: “…There’s something to be said for a writer willing to fall on his sword in order to get people talking about art.”