TCS Daily

Portrait of an Artist

By The Editors - May 13, 2008 12:00 AM

For more than 40 years, author Tom Wolfe has challenged the way Americans look at themselves. His unconventional style of mixing literary techniques with factual reporting became known as the "new journalism." His novels include the bestsellers "Bonfire of The Vanities," "A Man in Full," and "I Am Charlotte Simmons."

TCS contributor Ben Wattenberg sat down with Tom Wolfe in New York following a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Derriere Garde, a loosely organized group of artists and composers working to rediscover and reinvent traditional forms and techniques. The full video of this interview can be viewed at

TCS: Tom Wolfe, we are speaking now immediately after the final session of the tenth anniversary celebration of Derriere Garde. Tell us about it and what it stands for.

TOM WOLFE: I had never heard of the Derriere Garde and Stefania de Kenessey the composer who started it -- until I got an invitation in the mail and it had this phrase, I just loved it. Ten years ago everything was still Avant Garde, and here was the Derriere Garde.

And, so, just out of curiosity more than anything else, I went to the very first meeting. Not that this is an ongoing club, but it has drawn quite a few terrific talents who are simply not seen by the existing art world.

I'll give you an example. Jacob Collins is, certainly in terms of skill and technique, one of the most brilliant artists in the entire country. Frederick Hart, who did the colossal deep relief called Ex Nihilo. It is about two stories high on the West Wall of the Washington National Cathedral.

He was naturally nervous. What was going to be the reception in the art world of this essentially neoclassical piece? And there was none. None. When he died I wrote an article about him called "The Invisible Artist" because here he had been commissioned to do the biggest and really the most costly piece of religious art of the Twentieth Century - certainly in this country - and there was no mention of it whatsoever.

If it's realistic, it's just something that happens, as if you add concrete inside of some existing model and out it comes.

TCS: Is art an attempt to understand life? Is that what the artist is trying to grope with?

TOM WOLFE: I don't think the artist is trying to understand life. In my experience the artist is trying to be famous.

TCS: Is that why you write, to be famous, or to get a message across, or to create enjoyment and understanding?

TOM WOLFE: I had that question sprung on me once. I had given a talk at a college about something else entirely and the first question in the question period was, "Why did you write?"

Well, now, if you and I were talking, I would say, I have to think about that. And I will come back tomorrow and let you know. But you feel on the spot when you are up on the stage.

So, I free associated and I found myself repeating part of the Presbyterian catechism which I hadn't taken in I don't know how many years. And I said, well, I think of the Presbyterian catechism -- the first question is, "Who created heaven and earth?" And the answer is God.

The second question is one of the most interesting in all of religion. Why did He do it? And the answer is for His own glory. Now, that's what came up when I free associated, and that may be the most honest reason.

As far as the task of the writer, I feel it is to simply discover things that most people don't know about or find a concept that pulls things together.

I totally disagree with Orwell, who I admire. Orwell said, "I never wrote a decent word that wasn't motivated by a deep political feeling." I have never written a decent word that was dominated by politics.

People always talk about me as this right-wing writer. And to them I say, "What's my agenda? What is political about I am Charlotte Simmons? What's political about A Man In Full, what's political about The Right Stuff or The Bonfire of the Vanities, or The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test?"

TCS: Some of your readers think that the answer to that is it's a rebuttal to some of the crazy leftism that has gotten into our arts.

TOM WOLFE: Well, I can't stand the fact that party lines are created all the time in the arts. And in the days of communism, they used talk about the party line. Well, this is not the days of communism. But there's still a party line and I just can't resist trying to pop the bubbles.

TCS: But in our society bubble popping is a political art and has political meaning to it.

TOM WOLFE: Well, not in the terms of who's going to win elections.

TCS: You were one of the originators of what is called "The New Journalism" which is sort of fact and evocation mixed together. Is that the right definition?

TOM WOLFE: New Journalism as I understood it is using the techniques that had hitherto been confined to fiction, such as telling a story scene-by-scene. And also the careful notation of status details. To me, that is the most important thing to spot in any situation you're writing about. What is the status line-up? What are the rankings within the group?

That's why my book The Right Stuff about the Mercury Seven astronauts is not a book about space. It's about this hierarchy that I knew nothing about when I approached the subject - this pyramid of accomplishment that they won't even name -- I'm talking about the pilots now, they were all military pilots.

It's a code and I had to give it a name, so I called it "The Code of the Right Stuff". When I do reporting, I love to find something like that -- a whole concept that I knew nothing about.

TCS: Let me ask you for a thumbnail reaction to some writers and what you think of them. John Steinbeck?

TOM WOLFE: Steinbeck was far more experimental than he was credited with being at the time. If you look at The Grapes of Wrath, which was his great monumental work, published in 1939, we were following the Joad family. It's a well-known story, the Okies as they head for California.

But in between the chapters he has a turtle crossing the highway. And this turtle gets hit again and again by automobiles, but it draws itself into its shell and keeps going.

You finally realize he's talking about the Okies. They're going to keep going. Ken Kesey's father was one of them, and Kesey became one of the great American writers of the post World War II period.

TCS: Norman Mailer.

TOM WOLFE: Mailer cannot write novels. I'm sorry to have to say that. He has no ear for anyone other than himself. Just look at the dialogue. The one exception to this is a so-called novel called The Executioner's Song, which has wonderful dialogue.

How did he change? Well, he didn't. Lawrence Schiller, a photographer, knocked on his door one day and says, "I have all this material, tapes of Gary Gilmore, the killer who was the center of a highly publicized case. And I'm not a writer, but I need a writer." So Mailer agreed to do this. He never went to see Gary Gilmore, who was alive at that time, in prison, and could be visited.

He just took this material -- all the dialogue is written -- and he won a Pulitzer Prize. You would think that he would have learned a lesson from this and would have either gone out himself, doing what Lawrence Schiller had doneā€”or have Schiller go out again.

TCS: Moving on, William Faulkner.

TOM WOLFE: I was in high school and I was browsing in a bookstore and I saw this paperback with an interesting looking cover. There were two convicts in a row boat and it was called The Old Man, referring actually to the Mississippi River.

And I read this thing and I went into my English teacher -- -- and I said, "I've just discovered this writer. Oh, my God you won't believe this. He's written this novel about these two convicts who escaped from jail during a flood and one of them wants to go back in jail. The other one wants to run for it."

And the teacher said, "You mean, William Faulkner." I said yeah, that's his name. Faulkner is the greatest American novelist I ever read.

TCS: Is there anything that we haven't covered that you would like to issue a grand pronouncement about?

TOM WOLFE: I have no pronouncements today. But I would stress this one thing. And you open yourself up to grandiloquence here. I think the fundamental motive of every person is to live by a set of values, which if written in stone would not make you yourself, but rather your group, the supreme group on earth.

Intellectuals do this every day. "We're up here at the top of a mountain and look at all those smarmy politicians, presidents, kings, how vulgar they are."

But also good old boys from the south will do the same thing. My brother-in-law happened to be present in 1943 in a general store, and here were three good old boys who were too old to go into the armed forces, talking about the war.

And one of them says, "You know, this whole war -- the whole problem here is this man called Hitler. I don't know why we just don't go over there and shoot him."

And his friend says, "Well, I'm sure it's not that easy. I don't know how you can just go over there and shoot him."

And the first says, "Look, you get me over there in a boat, I'll shoot him."

"How are you going to do that?"

He says, "Well, I'll go to the front door and I'll ring the bell."

His friend says, "Are you crazy? He's not going to come to the front door. The whole place has probably got a big wall around."

He said, "Okay I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll wait until its dark, I'll go around to the wall and back, I'll climb over it and I'll hide behind a tree with my rifle. And in the morning when he comes out in the yard to pee, I'm going to shoot him."

These were Scotch-Irish people. They loved guns and guns mean a lot to them. And they hated officials and they hated all the layers of bureaucracy. They believed the government can't get anything done right. It's all so simple. You just have to go over there and do it yourself.

TCS: Thank you, Tom Wolfe.



Nature of Art
>"I know of many individuals who are extremely artistic, but their method of expression is considered to be more mainstream and of a practical nature; i.e. craftsmen, journalists, programmers, scientists, inventors, etc."

Interesting. Would you thus consider those craftsmen, journalists, programmers, scientists, inventors, etc. to therefore be artists? By what devination do you determine those individuals' artistic impulses? Is simply ALL expression art, or does art consist of a specific criteria within that expression?

I'm curious about the philosophical aspects of this subject. (So hold on to the saddlehorn.)

I think Joanne is correct, as far as programming is concerned
One of the classic books on Computer Programming is titled "The Art of Computer Programming".

It is in (I thinik) 7 volumes and is by DE Knuth.

The joy one experiences when one grasps a new algorithm is no less than the joy one experiences when one looks at a great painting or reads a great novel.

Wolfe on Art
Wolfe's "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers" -- his skewering of the American Intelligencia's fashion-driven impulse to embrace counter-culturism -- still makes me laugh to this day. There are passages of sheer brilliance within it. Unfortunately, I've never cared for his fiction. (Although I read it many, many years ago and probably deserve to re-read it with a now more mature mindset, I found "Bonfire of the Vanities" extremely unsatisfying.)

More pertinent to Wolfe and Art, his slim volume, "The Painted Word" -- wherein he directs his critical sass at the sociology of the Modern Art movement -- is spot-on.

Art and Creativity
>"The joy one experiences when one grasps a new algorithm is no less than the joy one experiences when one looks at a great painting or reads a great novel."

I can understand that. However, my contention would be that that joyous reaction indicates an APPRECIATION of the creativity of the output. With regard to the actual production of that output (i.e., computer programming, etc.), I'm merely wondering if there isn't some distinction to be made between creativity and artistry.

Too often, "Art," it seems to me, has become a nebulous term which one applies simply in order to lend some manner of highbrow credence to practically any given endeavor -- thereby, in effect, reducing the very "prestigious" nature which the term Art implies; for instance, something like, say, "The Art of Child Raising" -- is that topic really an example of artistry?

Mind you, this is all leading down an extremely subjective philosophical path, so of course there are no "correct" answers.

I agree. Like beauty, most of the time, ART is in the eye of the beholder
And I am also irritated by the too many instances when the word "Art" is added to too many mundane activities to give them (the activities) more importance than they otherwise would get (from the general public).

The Art Argument
>"As for a definition, I think that art is the creative/inspired expression of an emotion or an idea."

A safe (and true) enough definition, albeit one I ultimately find open to abuse since many people may consider ANY expression (including touchy subjects such as vulgarity and pornography and the like) as being creatively inspired manifestations of emotions and ideas. This is, of course, the difficulty in presenting an objective definition of art (which may ultimately be be impossible) -- which is why I tend to stear clear of empirical definitions of art as a tangible concept.

[Disclosure: I spent two years in Art School prior to committing to Literature as a field of study, so the topic holds some lingering appeal to my philosophic sensitivities.]

Frank Zappa once offered the witty quip that "the most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively -- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, what is that **** on the wall?"

This strikes me as true enough when it comes to the notion of subjectivity, however it also lends itself to an open-endedness which leads to an "anything can be art" argument I find dissatisfying. In the wake of the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks, for instance, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen called them "the greatest work of art in the entire cosmos." Loopy enough to most rational people, of course, but that's the sort of nihilism to which an "anything is art as long as someone identifies it as such" position can lead, where no boundaries exist. And if no boundaries exist, if everything can be art, then art as a concept itself loses all meaning; there must be a demarcation identifying "art" from "not-art" (in that harmonious, yin-yang manner) or else "art" is meaningless. The rub, of course, is identifying that objective demarcation -- perhaps that IS impossible (I certainly won't attempt it). But it's also where the old stand-by, "I don't know if it's art, but I know what I like" bromide seems to hold firmest ground.

Anyway, just some philosophical nuggetry for the thought stew in the rather bleak confectionary activity that's been TCS of late....

Very good
I would totally agree. On the other hand, aritist may create simply because it is what they do or a compulsion to get a though or idea into a certain medium, but too many people want to be considered artists just to be recognized.

In the end, most of the real artists I know could care less. They like what they do and they hope someone else will appreciate it as well. If not, too bad!

But anything can be art
Anyone can dig a ditch, but the guy who first decide to turn a ditch into a "garden waterfall" was an artist; an artistic ditch digger. It is not the canvas that matters, but what you do with it. Only a small percentage are truely inventive and artistic, no matter what the medium.

Adam Smith was from Scotland, right?
"These were Scotch-Irish people. They loved guns and guns mean a lot to them. And they hated officials and they hated all the layers of bureaucracy. They believed the government can't get anything done right. It's all so simple. You just have to go over there and do it yourself."

What ever happened to the 'do it yourself' attitude?

Too true
But why do artists vie for critics attention? I do know it is true, and some very good artists do this; I just don't understand it. I know world class musicians and some pretty good painters and sketchers who do not. They really don't care and certainly don't care about critics. Their work is still being bought and they are doing their thing. Universally their attitude is that the critics will either come around or they won't, but as long as people enjoy their work who cares about the critics!

As for the peanut gallery, all I can say is everyone is a critic. They thing is, we all know what we personally like, but there is always some who think their favortie things are the only thing. Idiots abound! I seldom believe these people mean well. They are usually superficially arrogant and actually believe they are right - sadly. Most don't even try to understand anything beyond their narrow view.

I agree with you on accepting critism; the rest of the so-called critics you need to treat like a duck treats water, ignore them.

maybe there needs to be a new word, with a new definition
Awesome post Stinkhammer, I love philosophical expressions like that.

I agree with everyones' comments. There must be a line of demarcation to what is "art", but there cannot be a line because art really is in the eye of the beholder. We need a new word to define those things not on the "official art" side of the line. Something that expresses it could be art- but its defined so only as "in the eye of the beholder", therefore someone else can rightly say its not art. It wouldn't settle the argument, but it would provide a boundary to help clarify it. Maybe "artful" is a good word to use.

I have a friend that used to work in concrete, he always talked about the "art" of concrete work. He would refer to some of their custom jobs as "works of art" the way the masters were able to do things with the concrete that didn't seem possible. They would finish and stand back and look at it with satisfaction and pride, like its a Van Gogh painting or something. This discussion reminded me of those conversations. To Joe Schmoe its just a sidewalk or a stoop, but to those concrete workers it was something way more. They would even refer to certain jobs they did years previously that were especially challenging or creative or whatever. Everything is artful.

Nice Pauled
I focused in on this paragraph, well said. Its a lesson I've observed/absorbed in the last couple years.

"As for the peanut gallery, all I can say is everyone is a critic. They thing is, we all know what we personally like, but there is always some who think their favortie things are the only thing. Idiots abound! I seldom believe these people mean well. They are usually superficially arrogant and actually believe they are right - sadly. Most don't even try to understand anything beyond their narrow view."

I'm a live music nut, attended several music and camping fests the last few years. I call them snobs, but there are people like you describe who are so crazy about certain bands that they criticize everything outside the unit that comprises their favorite band. Even if that band brings some other musicians onstage they poo-poo it because its not the original thing. I was stunned when I started observing it so much. Its really kind of an interesting cultural aspect of the "scene". Like a cult-following. But you nailed it- "superficially arrogant". I couldn't believe how close-minded some of these people were. They put all their chips in one basket and you'll be damned to say anything otherwise, they simply "know" they're right. (Granted, I think its still a very small percentage of the thousands that attended these events, but it was enough to give me pause and reflect on it)

Me, on the other side of the coin, I would discover a new band I loved and go around and tell everyone they're the greatest thing out there, give out copies of their shows and all that. I quickly learned there is no such thing, its really all about personal taste.

Oddly it was music that also proved this to me
when I was a kid I was a dedicated rocker, then a friend turned me on to pop bluegrass, then another introduced me to classicals. Suddenly I found I accidentially had some appreciation for all forms of music. When I was going to various open-air concert events, some of which featured several music styles from heavy metal to country, I was shocked at the number of people who had no appreciation beyond their favorite style.

When I started to appreciate photography, painting and other art forms, I found the same type of "critics" at every sale or showing. People are biased to their favorite style in any artform, but to put down everything else and act like their thing is the only thing is just plain narrow-minded and stupid.

And yeah, I've even seen the individual band thing in action. But we all have or personal taste, so nothing is the "greatest thing ever".

The practical thing
Aren't you glad your father did the practical thing and kept you feed and housed?

Turds also float to the top.

aren't you a little judgemental ninny
So close minded you are marjon. What if Joanie's father pursued his creativity and became a great photographer making millions? What if he started his own business, a photo studio?

Leave it to the foolish and ignorant to be the harbiters of all knowledge. You solidly embody what is wrong with America marjon.

I'm not arguing against being practical. I'm scorning you marjon for being judgemental and elitist.

Marjon, like so many, suffers from what I call "Fait Accompli" syndrome
He thinks that just because 'Y' (done by some X) is a Fait Accompli, 'Z' couldn't have happened, even had X chosen to do so.

Of course, he would now post back saying he doesn't know what i am talking about.

T pre-empt that, I am going to elaborate what X, 'Y' and 'Z' mean in this context.

X refers to Joanne's dad. 'Y' is the fact that he brought Joanne up as a productive and decent human being, WITHOUT pursuing his hobby.

'Z' is what didn't happen but could have happened, namely, Joanne's father could have taken up his hobby AND brought Joanne up as a productive and decent human being.

I know these are off topic...
...but given how there aren't any other articles of recent note, anyway:

Two articles that are quite damning for the Roys of the world:

One, on the effects of taxing more vs less:

Second, on the Global Warming. A scientist actually had the gall to enter for the first time verifiable ocean circulation cycles into the U.N.'s own climate modeling supercomputers. The results are very damning for the global warming wackos, indeed:

Joanie: "But then he returned from the service and got married. He shot slides for a little while longer and then switched over to a camera that my mother would be able to use.

He was no more than 22 at the time he'd shot the film, but you could see that if he'd stayed at it, he would have been a great photographer. Instead, he did the "practical" thing. He worked for a defense plant until the day he the age of 43."

Her father felt he had to make a choice, be responsible, get a job, make money and raise a family.

Hobbies that cost money and took time away from work and family had to wait.

I think that is honorable.

Joanie doesn't seem to appreciate the sacrifice and neither do you.

I think Joanie was being judgmental.
Her father sacrificed his 'hobby' to make a weekly paycheck and provide a stable environment for his family.

It seem Joanie is the one being judgment and elitist for scorning her father's work at a defense plant and giving up his 'hobby'.

But who knows. Maybe her father got bored with photography. Just because someone is good at something, doesn't mean they like it.

Where are the global warming articles?
Maybe we won?

Electricity is not practical?
Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse did much practical engineering and technical work to electrify the country and the world.

I think a great example of a society that did NOT do the practical thing was China. China had invented many things before the west but did not see any practical use for rockets or clocks.

Were the Chinese better off in the long run for ignoring creations that were practical?

Anyone can dig a ditch?
Actually most people in the modern age can't dig a ditch. And very few indeed can dig a ditch fast and well. And even fewer can recognize that nothing can proceed without the ditch (or it's equivalent), so the ditch digger is arguably as or more important than the architect who designs the building or the engineer who designs the piping run.

Much as I abhor collectivism there is something to be said for the idea that intellectuals (knowledge workers) should spend at least some minimum amount of time actually interacting with the physical world. If I were designing the perfect world all teens, especially the bright teens, would spend at least a couple of summers lifting sod or digging ditches or carrying mortar so as to have an appreciation for the physical work that's necessary to turn ideas into reality.

You can't read Wolfe's fiction like other fiction
You read his fiction the way you read other fiction. Many writers are better than Wolfe at writing flowing stories, but no one is better at creating descriptive and human foibles gems.

In "Bonfire of the Vanities" there is, for instance the description of the inner thought processes of the prosecuting attorney who is lusting after the juror. And also, to pick another, the whole dialogue with the Jessie Jackson clone about steam control.

The steam control thing is, in fact, a little essay much like Radical Chic.

I concur about the teens.

In addition, I would make teens spend a few weeks in some turd world country so they MIGHT gain an appreciation of how good they have it.

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