May 30, 2018


The Statustician! (JOSEPH EPSTEIN, 5/24/18, Weekly Standard)

Then, in 1970, he wrote his breakout piece, the work that made him a writer to be reckoned with. "Radical Chic" was an account of the most famous case of reverse slumming of its time: the party that Leonard and Felicia Bernstein gave for the Black Panthers. The phrase "radical chic" was a perfect description of the behavior of an upper class with nothing at risk cultivating fashionable progressive opinions to reinforce its own self-esteem and at the same time seeming to demonstrate its large-hearted sensitivity to the condition of the underclass. The point about the phenomenon was that it was risk-free. As Wolfe later noted: "A Radical Chic protester got himself arrested in the late morning or early afternoon, in mild weather. He was booked and released in time to make it to the Electric Circus, that year's New York nightspot of the century, and tell war stories."

The roster of guests gathered at the Bernsteins' Park Avenue penthouse duplex for an evening of fundraising for the Black Panthers was a splendid combination of the well-known and the well-to-do. Included were Jason Robards and Schuyler Chapin, Goddard Lieberson and Mike Nichols, Lillian Hellman and Larry Rivers, Aaron Copland and Richard Avedon, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, Adolph and Phyllis Green and Betty Comden. A party for the Panthers had its complications: Black servants had to be replaced by Hispanic ones, for a start. Then there was the question of the Black Panthers' taste in hors d'oeuvres and so much more with which the thoughtful hosts had to contend. The Bernsteins' mistake, of course, was letting Tom Wolfe in the door.

What he set indelibly on display in "Radical Chic" was that people who can afford them can wear their opinions as if they were designer clothes. Some opinions, like some clothes, were more comme il faut than others. Expressing support for the Black Panthers, a group that should its members' dreams come true would have everyone in the Bernstein apartment that evening on a tumbril on the way to the guillotine, was the political equivalent of Dior, Hermès, or Givenchy.
Just behind the Panthers in progressive social prestige in those days came Cesar Chavez and his National Farm Workers Association. In the same essay, Wolfe gave a brief account of a fundraiser arranged for them by Andrew Stein in Southampton. "From the beginning," Wolfe writes of Stein's fête, "the afternoon was full of the delicious status contradictions that provide much of the electricity for Radical Chic."

The men in their Dunhill blazers and Turnbull & Asser neckerchiefs, the women in their Pucci dresses, Gucci shoes, and Capucci scarves listened to heartrending accounts of grape pickers and their children rising at 3 a.m. for 12-hour days in the blistering hot fields with nothing to eat but a baloney sandwich. How sad, how gripping, how unjust it all was, until, Wolfe interjected, "the wind had come up off the ocean and it was wrecking everybody's hair." Perfecto!

Perfecto, that is, if one wishes to show how feeble, thin, and ultimately fraudulent was the sympathy of the rich and famous for the poor and downtrodden. "Radical Chic" put a serious dent in the radical movement that was then sweeping America and that today chiefly finds a home in the much shabbier surroundings of university humanities and social-science departments. Many thought the essay the work of a right-winger, but they were wrong. The essay was the work of a man who enjoyed the comedy of rich contradictions played out by people prepared to desert their common sense in the hope of boosting their status. And Wolfe didn't in the least flinch when naming names: Jean vanden Heuvel, Jules Feiffer, Carter and Amanda Burden, Sidney and Gail Lumet, and other glittering names all hosted events like that of the Bernsteins. "Who do you call to give a party?," Wolfe quoted the then-high-profile New York art dealer Richard Feigen asking.

Wolfe never minded making enemies. Early in his career he took on William Shawn and the New Yorker in an essay called "Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!," guaranteeing that he would never appear in that magazine's pages. Later, he wrote of Robert Silvers, the Anglomaniacal editor of the New York Review of Books, that "his accent arrived mysteriously one day in a box from London. Intrigued, he slapped it into his mouth like a set of teeth." In those two strokes, he made himself permanently non grata with two of the most powerful editors in the land. He was no more tender about the leading intellectual figures of the day. He described Susan Sontag as "just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering to the podium encumbered by her prose style, which had a handicapped parking sticker valid at Partisan Review."

Along with conferring greater fame on him than he had hitherto known, "Radical Chic" gave Wolfe a strong taste for provocation. Literary and intellectual provocateur was a role he felt comfortable playing. He seemed greatly to enjoy a ruckus of his own devising. After "Radical Chic" came his book The Painted Word, a dazzling takedown of the pretensions of the contemporary art world and its star critics, which was excerpted in 1975 in Harper's. (Six years later, in From Bauhaus to Our House, he would perpetrate a similar massacre of modern architecture.)

Wolfe was a brilliant titlist, and "The Painted Word" conveys the chief idea in the work--namely, that no contemporary painting could have any serious standing without a critical theory certifying and explaining it. Twenty-five years from the time of his essay, he prophesied, there would appear on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art "huge copy blocks, eight and a half by eleven feet each, presenting the protean passages. . .. Beside them will be small reproductions of the work of leading illustrators of the Word from that period such as Johns, Louis, Noland, Stella, and Olitski." The essay is a reminder that in Joseph Roth's novel Left and Right, the criterion a wealthy character sets for buying art is "that a picture should repel his sense and intelligence. Only then could he be sure of having bought a valuable modern work."

Posted by at May 30, 2018 5:10 AM