Radical Un-chic

James Panero, The New Criterion, December 2007.


Pablo Picasso was a fraud. So says Tom Wolfe, who does not like Picasso. This much was becoming clear. Picasso, according to Wolfe, “left school just before they taught perspective.” He had to shroud his backgrounds in “fog.” He was a sorry excuse for a draftsman. He rendered “hands that look like the asparagus you get in the store.” That priapic doodler. That asparagus-handed Andalusian. Tom Stoppard sure nailed it in his play Artist Descending a Staircase—“Imagination without skill gives us contemporary art.” Picasso had us fooled! “If I couldn’t draw, I would have started a movement myself. I would call it Cubism.”

Tom Wolfe! There he was, dressed in his Sunday best. The physiognomy. The detachable collar. The author of Radical Chic, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Going on about Picasso. And it was starting to sound a little familiar. Wolfe is right that the art world is in crisis. But his articulation of this crisis is curious. He repeats and simplifies. He beats up on straw men. He puts on quite a show. Wolfe himself is a draftsman, a cartoonist of some talent who has illustrated his own books and articles. But for Wolfe, the horses in Guernica are always “choking on a banana.” Or maybe it’s a “light bulb.” When it comes to modern art, he has been painting history with the same broad brush for over thirty years.

The New Criterion