Novelist Tom Wolfe has long been one of America's most perceptive social observers. In books and articles, he has profiled American popular culture from the Mercury Space Program and customized autos to the fields of fine art and architecture. Recently, C.F. Payne of the Illustrators' Partnership asked Wolfe to discuss the role of illustration as a form of popular art. This interview will be printed in full in the Illustrators' News and on the IPA Web site (www.illustratorspartnership.org).
CA: Early in your writing career you were a literary equivalent to an illustrator, working with magazines on a variety of assignments with an editor and deadlines. You also illustrated many of your articles. Did you have any aspirations to be an artist or an illustrator?
Wolfe: Very early on, up through my teens, I was really interested in it. When I was seven or eight I went to a WPA [Works Projects Administration] art school. It cost 25 cents a week. This was in Richmond, Virginia. Fabulous artists who were down and out because of the Depression taught in these schools. When I was in my early teens, I learned anatomy by drawing boxers in Ring magazine: Beau Jack, Listless Lee Oma, Sugar Ray Robinson. Beau Jack was great for obliques and quadriceps, I remember. I wasn't aware of bodybuilding magazines at that time or I would have probably used those.
My first real job was as a reporter for a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts. One day in 1957, I was sent to cover a murder trial. It was a big deal in Springfield just to have a murder trial. They wouldn't let photographers in, so on the spur of the moment, just using a ballpoint pen, I drew the courtroom. It was quite amazing in Massachusetts at that time. The defendants in murder trials were put inside of a half-cage, kind of like a hockey goalie's cage. So I drew that.
It was published; and I started doing a fair amount of illustration. I would do Sunday features. One, I remember, was two pages of detailed caricatures of teenagers and their hairdos, the ducktail, flattop, the Presley. I did a whole bunch of these things. I continued doing it in Washington, for the Washington Post. I started illustrating against a daily deadline. I was reporting, drawing and writing. That will drive you nuts. You get the feeling that there really are two sides to the brain, because while I was drawing, I could not take in the meaning of the words. They just floated by. And vice versa; if l was concentrating on the meaning of the testimony, I couldn't draw a thing.
Finally, from 1977 to 1981, I did a monthly feature for Harper's that was called "In Our Time," a drawing or drawings with a caption, some short, some 200 words or more. I had a good time doing that. I haven't done a whole lot since. I did publish one book of drawings called In Our Time (Farrar Straus & Giroux) in 1980. It ranged over about fifteen years of work.
For years now, I have felt that the annual published by the Society of Illustrators, has been better than all of the catalogs of the contemporary art shows in New York put together. I feel very comfortable predicting that art historians 50 years from now, assuming we're in a world kind enough to indulge art historians, will look back upon the illustrators as the great American artists of the second half of the twentieth century. There is such emptiness in the so-called art world today. So much of it is just etiquette and fashion. For example, right now it is considered terribly reactionary to be using paint, much less doing drawings. That is why you have the prominence of somebody like Matthew Barney who crawls naked in front of a video camera or various "installation artists" who merely place existing objects in a room. Such things are not done for visual effect but in the name of this year's theory of the century in the New York art world. They don't have much with the theory. They have zero without it. This intellectualism has led two generations of serious artists like the Pied Piper of Hamelin's rats over the cliff and into complete triviality. The annual from the Society of Illustrators is full of work that actually engages life. The work that is praised within the art world only engages the art world. It really has absolutely nothing to do with the world beyond. I probably will ruin my own argument by saying this, but when I look at Picasso's Guernica, I laugh. I see a Cubist horse strangling on a light bulb. Only illustrators have brought skill with them in the twenty-first century. Tom Stoppard, in his play Artists Descending the Staircase, says, "Imagination without skill gives us contemporary art." I think that's true. Go to any prestigious art school and see what they are doing. When they do installation art or earth art or conceptual art, the purpose is not to sell it, though you might possibly make a sale to a museum. It is to get tenure. If you become a big enough name doing installations, you have a good chance of being hired by a university. If you hang on there for ten years, you've got tenure. You've solved your financial problems for the rest of your life. But some very funny things happen. One well-known California university ended up with ten conceptual artists with tenure. They made up almost the whole art faculty. They began to get a little grousing from some of the young artists who wanted a life-drawing class. They had to bring in, on a temporary basis, artists who knew anatomy, who knew perspective, who knew what colors were all about. A friend of mine was hired for that very reason. And it was made very clear that he was merely a temp.
I wrote a piece about neuroscience and genetics in 1999. It began with an account of an exhibition of the work of Milton Glaser, Jim McMullen, Seymour Chwast and Paul Davis in Japan. They were being honored with a show as great illustrators from the famous American Push Pin Studio. And naturally they felt great about what was going on. So, now they are brought on stage before 500 Japanese art students. The director of the museum gets up and he says something in Japanese. They have an interpreter on stage for the Americans, none of whom understands Japanese. The director gives his introduction, and the American artists notice that all of the eyes in the audience start staring at them in a very curious way. Then the interpreter kicks in: "Our guests this morning are four artists from the Manual Age." Far from being looked upon as cutting-edge artists, they were looked upon as hairy mastodons left over from before the dawn of history. How curious! These old guys work by hand! From scratch, whatever that is! Manual art! Can you imagine such a thing? The students did only computer graphics. I think some digital artists are terrific; for example, Craig Frazier, who does highly-stylized work. But a lot of it is just junk. They take a photograph and stretch it this way and that way. In my experience, the results are almost never anything that has any real originality or personality. That is a separate issue from the talent that is unique to the illustrator.
CA: Time magazine ran a feature article identifying what they call ''America's Best Artists," with Julia Roberts on the cover. It identified actors as artists, fashion designers as artists as well as architects, sculptors, clowns, comedians, talk-show hosts and talk show guests as artists. Time has commissioned Andrew Wyeth, Grant Wood and Gerald Scarfe to create work for their covers, yet still the magazine doesn't consider the illustrator an artist worthy of mention. Though it's true many in the art community may not consider illustrators artists, why don't those in the traditional media who use the talents of illustration view them as artists?
Wolfe: In the case of Time, I was once talking to a former editor of Time, and I was asking him about the art coverage and he said, "We turn it over to our art critics and pretty much let them do what they want. We can't claim to know exactly what they're talking about, but they seem to be wired into this thing." Wired in they are. Contemporary art critics are not critics, but messengers. They convey to the public the Word, which is to say the current predilections of "the art world," which in fact consists of about 3,000 museum curators, collectors and gallery owners, perhaps 250 of whom do not live in the New York metropolitan area. Contemporary critics—I don't know a single exception to this—never cham- pion an artist who is not well known within the art world. You would think that along the way, some critic would want to discover somebody. That does not happen. Critics are not interested in discovering anybody. They might be sniggered at. Their only concern is to bring you the news of what this small esoteric world values or finds fashionable at a certain point—and to justify it. When I see tortured articles that try to tell you that Abstract Impressionism, for example, expresses the spirit of an age or that Conceptual Art expresses an age or that Pop Art expresses an age—it's perfectly ludicrous. No one in America, no one, is more totally isolated from the age we live in than the fashionable artists. Even Pop Art you would think had some connection, but it was only about images that were out of date. Andy Warhol's Campbell soup cans were about the age of manufacturing and mass production. Yet by the time Andy Warhol was born, we were in the information age. The comic strip things by Roy Lichtenstein—the comics were already dead, because of television. It is all very reactionary. McLuhan once said that "serious" artists are at least one technology behind. They didn't discover the landscape until the railroads arrived and invaded it. But at least you could tell what Pop Art was. I will give it that much credit. But did any of it require skill? Practically none of it, maybe [Mel] Ramos and [James] Rosenquist; I kind of enjoyed their stuff. The rest merely blew up existing labels or comic strip panels without, incidentally, acknowledging the creators of the images.
CA: I guess there are some figurative artists like Wayne Thiebaud whose work would show up in magazines. [Richard] Diebenkorn's figurative and landscape images as well as his Ocean Park series seem to walk both sides of the fence.
Wolfe: You are right about Thiebaud, and even stranger, he is not grotesque. Going grotesque is about the only way for a representational artist to make it in "the art world." I think the reason that Lucien Freud, who I think is a good crafts-man, is accepted today is that he only does corroding people. They are just coming to pieces with flesh decomposing. You can get away with that. Bacon was the same way. Here are these two realists from England. Bacon's acceptance depended on various forms of, shall we say, grotesquely suffering human beings, men raping men, people with their faces smeared from one side to the other. Not that I don't like Bacon, but without that morbidity, the nihilism, he wouldn't have had a chance in the art world. Meanwhile Norman Rockwell is making his way back in. Have you noticed?
CA: Well, he has had this exhibition at the Guggenheim. I can't help but have this mental picture of the Guggenheim trustees with one hand on their noses and the other hand out enjoying the lines and the cash from people coming through their doors.
Wolfe: They are treating him more or less of the way they treat Velasquez or Goya. Those guys wouldn't get to first base doing the same sort of work today. But they are from the past, and so it is all right to judge them by the standards of the past. Rockwell now is beginning to seem far enough into the past. The theory for Rockwell within the art world is, he was a painter of American mythology. So it's OK to have cheery people with mom's apple pie faces full of sentimental kindness and so on. Remember the one he did of the man in the CEO's suit looking at a Pollock, which of course Rockwell had painted just to show he, having great skill, could do Pollock better than Pollock. It was brilliantly done and a brilliant idea.
CA: Here is another item I wanted to touch on. You may be unfamiliar with it, but I think there is a connection for you as a writer. In illustration, we have stock house agencies and large publishing houses, each having illustrators sign very punitive contracts of one kind or another, where artists are signing over their image rights with troubling consequences.
Wolfe: You wrote about that in your [Illustrators' Partnership of America] newsletter.
CA: Yes, in our newsletters as well as in the booklet I sent you, The Independent Streak.
Wolfe: I was unaware of that, and a lot of it seems to get down to the pernicious side of mergers.
CA: Two of the major corporations involved with stock are Corbis, owned by Bill Gates, and Getty Images, owned by Mark Getty. These folks have deep pockets and are gobbling up as much imagery as possible. Artists are having to choose to compete with these huge stock house libraries or ally themselves with them. Some of the contracts give away all the artist's rights, thereby giving the image user the right to alter, manipulate and reconfigure the image into a new picture. If this becomes the dominant model for illustrators to work, what do you see the implications to be for the artists and our culture?
Wolfe: First, let me ask you this. When you sign one of these contracts, does the corporation also own the original?
CA: Work-for-hire-contract means fundamentally that the corporation is the author.
Wolfe: What happens if you simply refuse?
CA: They simply will not work with you. For example, if you refuse to sign one large publisher's contract for their individual magazine, then you can be shut out of all their other 30 or so publications.
Wolfe: That is the pernicious side of the whole spree of take-overs in the last 26 years. You really are eliminating competition. If you had competition between all those magazines—if Vanity Fair was really competing with the New Yorker—which it isn't—illustrators wouldn't have to face the problem they face now. There used to be competition. It just doesn't exist today. It would be easy for me to sit here and tell you just say "no," but it is a real dilemma for artists trying to make a living from illustration alone. It is so insulting. It is actually reducing artists to the level of cottage weavers in the old cottage weaving system. You could design patterns and come up with all sorts of great innovations in weaving, but you just got paid for the amount of cloth you turned out, not for your creativity. We've managed to go back three centuries in that respect. The other problem I guess artists run into is, these magazines are so used to using photographs now.
If magazines can get by with wholly-owned stock pictures, the audience itself will not realize that there is anything better. People got used to dreadfully put together architecture in the twentieth century. Cheap construction was made aesthetically acceptable. Lever House soon began falling to pieces. That was the great ornament of the 1950s, even before the Seagram's Building. They only got by with it because this little art world we're talking about persuaded people with means to believe architecture without decoration, without variety, without any amenities, is fine, not only fine, but beautiful. If you can persuade people of that, they will accept the architecture that is the cheapest. That's probably happening in illustration. If they can persuade people that this is the best you can get, the audience will simply not know there's anything better, particularly if just a few companies are controlling so many publications.
CA: Can there be a time when the audience, being saturated with so much banality, will then come back and demand something different? Would it have to be market driven to make that change?
Wolfe: It can be fashion, and that could be a tool on your side as well as something against you. My impression in talking to gallery owners is that the younger generation with money, like all the young investment bankers, are not interested in buying Picasso or Braque. They particularly don't want distorted, grim, grotesque art. They want art they can put with pleasure on the wall. This usually is going to mean something figurative. But that hasn't swept New York yet. I can easily see it happening. Another example, almost like Rockwell, is Tissot, who was written off through most of the twentieth century as this French illustrator who happened to do big paintings. Now his work is selling [for] two, three, four million dollars each because the skill is overwhelming. Finally, there can be only so much resistance to someone that good. I don't know if you are aware of his work. Some of the things he did are breathtaking. He created what I think of as super-perspective in which you are on a ship's deck that fills up the foreground of the picture, and you look carefully, there in the deepest imaginable distance is a ship that is about as long as a gnat in true perspective out on the sea somewhere. He really is fun.
CA: I'm not familiar, I am going to have to look him up.
Wolfe: Tissot. James Tissot; he was French, but he did much of his work in England. Late nineteenth century. He'll knock your socks off.
In the long run, talent and skill will win out. Rockwell is a perfect illustration, if you'll excuse the word.
CA: When you hear someone playing the piano, you naturally want to listen, and if the person is good you stay, but if they are not you leave. The same applies to drawing and art. It is my hope there will always be a natural human instinct to choose what the human hand can produce well over the alternative.
Wolfe: I quite agree. I think one of the shortcomings of neo-representational painting today is that it does not engage the world. So much of it is studio work, still portraits, still lifes, nudes, but they're the same old narcoleptic nudes you've seen forever. I think it would be so marvelous for painters like that to do what illustrators do. Illustrators have to connect with the world out there. They have to be contemporary or there is no interest in what they do. That is what's missing generally even from the world of the very skillful representational artists. I've met some of these artists. What they can do with paint is great but it's as if there is no world outside of the studio. I wish they would linger awhile before Homer's The Fog Warning, Eakins's The Gross Clinic, Bellows's Stag at Sharkeys, and almost anything by Tissot.
I think there are so many young artists who simply can't give up skill. Usually they have something. The idea of just giving all that up and becoming conceptual artists or abstract artists or installation artists is like treason to their talent.
CA: Mr. Wolfe, thank you so much for granting me this interview.
Wolfe: I've enjoyed this myself. ca