So 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 after whatsoever, and to wit:
- The artist may construct the piece
- The piece may be fabricated
- The piece 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 of receivership
And there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colors, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes, no more evocations, no more frames, walls, galleries, museums, no more gnawing at the tortured face of the god Flatness, no more audience required, just a "receiver" that may or may not be a person or may or may not be there at all, no more ego projected, just "the artist" in the third person, who may be anyone or no one at all, for nothing is demanded fo him, nothing at all, not even existence, for that got lost in the subjunctive mode -- and in that moment of absolutely dispassionate abdication, of insouciant withering away, Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until, with one last erg of freedom, one last dendritic synapse, it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture... and came out the other side as Art Theory!... Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest, a vision inivisible, even ineffable, as ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls.
-- Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, 1975
The tragedy of re-reading Wolfe's short masterpiece today, 29 years after I first encountered it, is its sad failure in predicting the future of artistic taste. Back in the mid-seventies, The Man in the White Suit felt confident that the world would come to its senses by the year 2000, that artists and collectors and writers would look back on the artistic period 1945-1975 with head-shaking wonder. "What happy hours await them all!" he wrote. "With what sniggers, laughter and good-humored amazement will they look back upon the era of the Painted Word!"
Sadly, Old Tom failed to appreciate the gravity of our 20th century intellectual failures, for we remain incapable of escaping their black-hole pull. The Grand Duchy of Art Theory that Wolfe skewered wasn't some post-war aberration: it was an Event Horizon, a point-of-no-return from which a once-cohesive culture doesn't simply recover. From art to literature to political science, the intellectuals of the mid-to-late 20th century pursued abstraction for the sake of theoretical purity, rendered their fields impotent and irrelevant, and then hid the keys to understanding within an arcane codex of self-referential gibberish that only members of their self-selecting academy could hope to understand.
It is this reason more than any other -- more than mass media, more than politics, more than economics, science or religion -- that accounts for the fraying of our current culture. As I wrote in 2005: