Tom Wolfe Gets 'Back to Blood'
by brett sokol
Miami, be careful what you wish for. Ever since author Tom Wolfe announced in 2008 that his next novel would be set in—and all about—Miami, locals have eagerly awaited its arrival. The report that publisher Little, Brown had paid $7 million for the manuscript only heightened the anticipation over a book that promised to do for the Magic City what Wolfe’s era-defining 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities had done for the Big Apple. Never mind that Bonfire was hardly a flattering portrait, or that Wolfe has spent the last five decades of his career—from the ’60s journalism of Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers to the ’90s fiction of A Man in Full—serving up the foibles of the power elite and their would-be challengers alike.
On that note, Wolfe’s finally released Back to Blood doesn’t disappoint—unless you’re one of the Miami social climbers mercilessly lampooned within it. The cast includes, well, everyone. Forget about the melting pot of diversity that our city fathers love to trumpet. The title says it all: “Blood means bloodlines,” Wolfe explains. Indeed, for Wolfe, ethnic identity remains the defining—and dividing—feature of the Miami he’s spent the past four years exploring via regular reporting trips, from his new novel’s Napoleonic Cuban-exile mayor, to its belittled African-American police chief, to its milquetoast Anglo Miami Herald editor. And yes, Ocean Drive magazine and its glossy party pages also take a cameo turn in Wolfe’s book.
As for Miami’s art scene, championed by its boosters as not only a financial engine, whose rising tide lifts all economic boats, but a cultural unifier, Wolfe is particularly dismissive. Accordingly, don’t expect to see Back to Blood pop up in the Miami Art Museum’s book club anytime soon: The novel features a Russian émigré, saluted as a magnanimous philanthropist after donating $70 million in art to that museum—and which then renames itself in his honor—who turns out to be a fraud. His donated masterpieces? Forgeries.
“There’s two reasons billionaires want to get into art,” Wolfe says dryly. “One is to show how much money they have. The other is to show what high status they have.” Art Basel, as portrayed in Back to Blood, is simply a playground for this peacocking. “To those in the know, those on the inside, Miami Art Basel had already been a riot of cocktail receptions, dinner parties, after-parties, covert cocaine huddles, inflamed catting around for going on three days,” he writes. “Almost anywhere they were likely to enjoy a nice little status boost from the presence of celebrities—movies, music, TV, fashion, even sports celebrities—who knew nothing about art and didn’t have the time to care. All they wanted was to be… where things were happening.”
The gallery-laden art district of Wynwood doesn’t come off any better, despite a warm shout-out to that neighborhood’s key realtors, the Goldman family, in the book’s opening acknowledgements: “Some enterprising real estate developer starts buying up a superannuated section of town full of dilapidated old loft buildings,” Wolfe writes. “Then he whistles for the artists—talent or utter lack of it makes no difference—and offers them large lofts at laughably low rents… lets it be known that this is the new artists quarter… and in three years or less… Get out of the way!... Here they come!... droves of well-educated and well-heeled people skipping and screaming with nostalgie de la boue, ‘nostalgia for the mud’… eager to inhale the emanations of Art and other Higher Things amid the squalor of it all.”
This isn’t new territory for Wolfe: It was the theme of his 1975 attack on the contemporary art milieu, The Painted Word, which mocked that period’s patrons for not only using art as “a doorway into Society,” a role he believed it had usurped from churches, but for seeking to bask in the subversive frisson that socializing with bohemian artists provided.
And the difference between 1975 and this month’s Art Basel fair? “Today is just an exaggeration of 1975,” Wolfe laughs. “I remember a piece from 1975 that was simply an artist writing on a piece of paper, ‘This is art.’ I thought that was as far as conceptual art could go. I was so wrong!” He reserves a particular disdain for “no-hands artists such as Jeff Koons, who is enormously successful both financially and in terms of reputation. He doesn’t touch a thing! Perhaps you’ve seen his 45-foot-tall rabbits? He has his elves put them together.” Those “elves”—the anonymous staffers who actually produce the work of Koons and other reigning art stars such as Damien Hirst—aren’t a secret. “It’s important that [Koons] doesn’t touch any of it,” Wolfe chuckles. It’s part of the art’s post-Warholian theoretical underpinning. And the more that theory makes non-aficionados furrow their brows, the better.
“If you have to comprehend things that the rabble—who are now known as the middle class—does not understand, you have to go to more and more extreme lengths to do it,” Wolfe says. “It was enough in Picasso’s time just to put two eyes on the same side of a head—that confounded the multitudes…. it’s become more and more difficult to be difficult any longer. And there’s a real premium put on that. The collectors at Miami’s Art Basel want to be on the cutting edge—which they can’t define, but their art advisors can. That’s why you always hear them uttering the word ‘iconic.’ If it’s work by a certain artist that’s iconic, outsiders will recognize it immediately when they come into your house.” E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
photography by mark seliger (rotator); hector Gabino/El Nuevo Herald Staff (wolfe at the miami Herald); jeff koons (rabbit)