Political Observer comments.
I found this essay on 3 Quarks Daily: ‘Against De-Materialization: Tom Wolfe in the Age of *NFTs’ at Quillette and was scanning it and encountered this brief synopsis of ‘Bonfire’
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) concentrates on the convergence between the financialization of the economy and the trivialization of culture in millennial Manhattan. It eschews the flashy formal devices of postmodernism in favor of rich, deep description of figures and phenomena that are clearly recognizable from real life. The plot recounts the downfall of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street banker who Wolfe designates by the Hegelian term “bondsman.” McCoy trades in “gold-backed bonds”: financial instruments that represent a determinate quantity of physical gold. Such bonds are referential signs, similar in form to the verbal signs with which Wolfe describes them. McCoy has made his fortune by trading in the kind of money whose value is assumed to be real. He is therefore unprepared for the eruption of hyper-reality in either economic or linguistic form.
In economic terms, hyper-reality produces “derivatives”: financial signs that refer only to other financial signs, rather than to any real-world commodity. In linguistic terms, hyper-reality is manifested in differance: Jacques Derrida’s never-ending chain of representation that never comes to rest in extra-linguistic reality. Sherman McCoy is certainly destroyed by a media wildly independent of anything that might be described as “reality.” And yet, the novel is unimpeachably realistic in form. Wolfe surveys the roiling chaos of 20th-century New York City from a detached, objective perspective. He uses realism as the antidote to the hyper-reality of real life.
Recently I read almost a hundred pages of ‘Bonfire’ and its ‘hero’ Sherman McCoy… The book itself was a doorstop, brevity, or better yet concision was not his strong suit. Nor was character development, his literary actors are utterly static, its a collection of marionets. The only time the novel comes alive, in any way, was when McCoy and his his would be conquest, are attacked, when they get lost on the Bronx Parkway, and end up in the ‘wrong part of town’ : they fend off their attackers.
Safe at home, after the attack, McCoy and friend: Wolfe sex scene is -to call it prim isn’t quite right, but its lacks the passion for conquest that a Capitalist like McCoy would relish.
Note that Julia Friedman and David Hawkes resort to Derrida. Its as if neither one of these writers, have quite grasped the fact that Modernism, of Art, Poetry and Criticism were integral parts of each other! Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, and in an American context Frank O’Hara.William Empson could be added to this list.
Here is part of Judith Goldman’s reviewing Wolfe’s book in September 1975:
Is there anything on that blank canvas but blankness?
Tom Wolfe goes nowhere in The Painted Word (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $5.95) he hasn’t gone before. He tells the familiar story that earned him his reputation and made him big at the media box office: the tale of the aspiring haute bourgeoisie. With a nasty humor that conceals his Middle American morality, Wolfe dissects the trappings of the art world to make the old point that “the arts have always been a doorway into Society,” and goes on to present a theory he mistakenly believes anew: “Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” To understand modern art, one must know the words of current criticism; this is Wolfe’s seeming point.
Although Wolfe went to great lengths to build his case against modern art, the message of The Painted Word is not about art, but Wolfe’s familiar one against change, movement and all things different or unknown. To call Wolfe a philistine is to miss the point. He is neither an alien nor an unsophisticated man, but a reactionary who is for the status quo, deeply suspicious of radicals, black or white; intellectuals; art; and high culture. Difference is dangerous in the heartlands. And Wolfe, as the protector of Middle American values, writes for those folks back home. He brings light to their darkness and by, telling them about the moral shams that pass for big time in art and politics, he confirms their fear and prejudice. Culture, like the big city, is wicked and dangerous—at least according to Wolfe.
The final paragraph of the Goldman essay is stinging:
The sad postscript to The Painted Word was the art world’s reaction. Who’s afraid of Tom Wolfe? Many people seemed to be and grew serious and defensive. Art seldom receives the attention of journalists or the popular press and Wolfe’s image of it makes the neglect seem justified. But the less public reason for the defensiveness has to do with conditions inside the art world. Much current art writing lacks either passion or conviction. But the fault does not lie with Greenberg, Rosenberg or Steinberg, for they are passionate observers of the art scene. Not one of them has responded to Wolfe. At least they knew he was not writing about art.
Goldman’s last sentence of the above paragraph is not just insightful … Mr. Duron addendum to Goldman’s essay, speaks from the Neo-Liberal Age in a state of collapse: ‘a pillar of postwar art criticism’ ! Tom Wolfe was never anything more than an American provincial, as conjured by Walt Disney!
But such criticism aside, the book remains a pillar of postwar art criticism, and one might say that he presciently identified the International Art English that plagues so much writing about art today. —Maximilíano Durón
The Julia Friedman and David Hawkes essay rambles on and on…
Harold Rosenberg’s ‘Tradition of The New’ was published in 1959, and Robert Hughes ‘Shock of the New’ was broadcast in 1980 on the BBC, and on PBS in 1981. Just two examples of actual Art Criticism. Hughes was also the Art Critic for Time Magazine. The American Post War Art World was defined by the arrival of European refugee Artists, like Hans Hoffmann, who taught a generation of American artist, who became Abstract Expressionist, or Pop artists like Larry Rivers. Rosenberg called what this coterie practiced ‘Action Painting’. Its successor Pop Art, Op-Art, and the pioneering work Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, just give a few examples of what I observed from 1960 to the present!
That anyone can be shocked by Marketing Hype in the World- Marketing Hype is the very life blood of the Neo-Liberal Age, even in its state of slow-motion fissuring. Tom Wolfe was the death rattle of The Dandy: he was not Baudelaire but Beau Brummell.
Added March 16, 2022:
* Note that NFT stands for ‘Non-Fungible Token’ : even in the watershed of the collapse of the Neo-Liberal Swindle in 2008, and its horrific costs, not just in monetary terms, but in human suffering – Hayek as Pontiff of The Market Mythology still holds sway in the cultural/political life of The Art Market.