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Issue 87

Molotov Cocktails

Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay ‘Radical Chic’ explores the decadent relationship between wealth, glamour and extremist politics – and is as relevant today as it was 34 years ago

BY Michael Bracewell in Culture Digest | 11 NOV 04

‘Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice.’ In what must surely be one of the most audacious pieces of scene-setting in modern prose, Tom Wolfe’s classic essay ‘Radical Chic’ gathers speed not with a word or a sentence but with a sound. First published in New York magazine in June 1970, this account of a fund-raising party held by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein for the extremist political group the Black Panthers in the Bernsteins’ penthouse duplex on the Upper East Side of Manhattan would take its place as one of the most withering indictments of metropolitan sophistry and public self-preening ever to be written.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm: 16 letters sliding across the printed page do the work of an opening chapter. In their onomatopoeic purr of contentment resounds not just a defining example of Wolfe’s method as a literary polemicist but the essence of his treatise on Radical Chic. For his subject is how culture’s patrician classes – the wealthy, fashionable intimates of high society – have sought to luxuriate in both a vicarious glamour and a monopoly on virtue through their public espousal of street politics: a politics, moreover, of minorities so removed from their sphere of experience and so absurdly, diametrically, opposed to the islands of privilege on which the cultural aristocracy maintain their isolation, that the whole basis of their relationship is wildly out of kilter from the start.

In the world of contemporary art the practice and phenomenon of Radical Chic have seldom been too distant. And while the cultural dynamics of the early 21st century are more confusingly elastic than were those of 1970, there remains an attraction for artists and curators in appropriating the mythic impact of political or counter-cultural extremism – often selecting the agency of those causes or personalities that come fully embossed with the glamour of sub-cultural ‘chic’. As artists have roamed the fashionable, ragged fringes of Rock and Pop music – name-checking the usual suspects, from Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground through The Fall, Joy Division and The Smiths – so there are similar seams of vicarious kudos to be mined from the history of radical politics. But when Gavin Turk (for example) makes a diamond dust print of himself in the exact style of the iconic portrait of Che Guevara, or of Andy Warhol’s screen print of Joseph Beuys, should this be regarded as an exercise in Radical Chic? Or likewise when John Russell and Fabienne Audéoud make re-enactment pieces describing historic acts of ‘transgressive’ culture – William Burroughs shooting his wife or a Chris Burden performance from 1971 perhaps? It’s anyone’s guess, really.

In art beyond Postmodernism the dividing line between irony and, for want of a better word, sincerity is more porous than blurred. Today’s demonstrations of Radical Chic within visual culture (a re-enacted Cramps concert, anybody? Jeremy Deller’s recreation of a miners’ riot?) seem more likely to be made with a full awareness of the vertiginous slippages in their perceived intentionality. This is all a long way from the Bernsteins’ duplex and the trend among the privileged intelligentsia towards pronouncing that they were living in a fascist police state, forbidden even the most basic of journalistic freedoms.

But as Wolfe was describing a social trend that occurred off the back of fashionable counter-cultural causes in the late 1960s, so for the cultural practitioners of today the abutting of direct action political groups up against the intoxicating and pervasive flippancy of Postmodern lifestyle Camp can be seen as a recent variation on the theme of Radical Chic. The acuity of Wolfe’s term has evolved, it would seem, to become a facet of cultural critique, as opposed to a direct accusation of espousing radicalism in the name of high fashion.

To bring us up to speed: Hito Steyerl’s video piece November (2004), shown recently at Manifesta in San Sebastián, for example, montages references to radical politics, the sleaze-ploitation films of Russ Meyer, and the Red Army Faction. What emerges is a visceral questioning of the relationship between radical aesthetics and political extremism, in which the collision between style and dogma in turn presents its own index of questions. These are some of the concerns shared by Bernadette Corporation’s video Get Rid Of Yourself (2001–03), in which anti-globalization riots are juxtaposed with the rhetoric of fashionable lifestyle. At the same time a film such as Bruce La Bruce’s Raspberry Reich (2004) – in which the subject of the Red Army Faction is treated as a gay porn story – might be seen as a Pop-cultural appropriation of radicalism but remains in its dogma closer to political satire than Radical Chic.

Really to count as Radical Chic, the involvement of Society – which today might (just) include the upper echelons of the new ‘celebrity’ class – is a vital part of the formula. (Madonna marketing herself as a Patti Hearst-style street fighter?) For in its purest form, as defined by Wolfe, Radical Chic is an exercise in double-tracking one’s public image: on the one hand, defining oneself through committed allegiance to a radical cause, but on the other, vitally, demonstrating this allegiance because it is the fashionable, au courant way to be seen in moneyed, name-conscious Society.

For Wolfe style is meaning, and meaning is style – the polemical expression that defines the cultural analytical leverage of his writings. As a prose stylist and a lifelong dandy, he perceives the world as a single, crystalline anthropology of status, made eloquent through the testimony of its most minute details. (It is rumoured that Wolfe is always seen dressed in white, in order symbolically to reflect his critics back on themselves.) In terms of his literary method Wolfe’s style is a bravura conflation of 19th-century naturalism (Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy), the mock heroism of Augustan satirists (Alexander Pope or John Dryden) and a new Pop linguistic hybrid of his own invention. This latter element, crucially, involves a dissolution of the authorial first person; narrative takes place within the consciousness of Wolfe’s subjects – pursuing observations and trains of thought in real time, then drawing back to survey the detailed context of their scene.

Towards the end of the 1960s, when Wolfe first observed the curious dalliance between the socially élite and hip, romantic young radicals, he dubbed this relationship ‘the season of radical chic’. He focused his analysis of the trend on the party held by the Bernsteins for the Black Panthers in their ‘Chinese yellow duplex, amid the sconces, silver bowls full of white and lavender anemones, and uniformed servants serving drinks and Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts’. It is the Roquefort cheese morsels that prompt the contented, moment-savouring ‘Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm’; the pleasure of the sophisticated canapés becoming synonymous with the pleasure being enjoyed by the radically chic in attending a fund-raising ‘meeting’ for a group of militant activists who have been accused, among other things, of plotting to blow up the Bronx Botanical Gardens. In the 34 years since the publication of Wolfe’s essay the phrase no less than the practice of Radical Chic has maintained its place in the discursive arena between privilege and politics. As though predicting the shifting intentionality of much contemporary visual culture, Wolfe himself decrees that to think of Radical Chic in terms of its sincerity is all but pointless.

Rather, the ideological double-tracking of it proves equal commitment to chosen causes and to the role of those causes in ‘maintaining a proper East Side lifestyle in New York Society’. The tone of Wolfe’s prose is one of such finely balanced irony (with much of the essay written in the style of gushing, mannered gossip) that the reader is left in no doubt that the target of his argument is the stratospheric status-consciousness of a certain kind of privileged culturati, for whom the upholding of their own sense of social superiority – by whatever means possible, you could say – is their principal occupation. In short, Radical Chic is described as a form of highly developed decadence; and its greatest fear is to be seen not as prejudiced or unaware, but as middle-class.

Thus, in Wolfe’s bravura description of the bizarre social algebra of the Bernsteins’ soirée, it is the painful contortions of being-seen-to-be-aware that most hit home. For example: ‘“Who do you call to give a party?!” says Richard Feigen. “Who do you call to give a party?!” And all at once the candid voice of Radical Chic, just ringing out like that, seems about to drop Don Cox, Field Marshal of the Black Panthers, in his tracks, by Lenny’s grand piano. He just stares at Feigen […] this Yale-style blond in a tuxedo […] and from that moment on, the evening begins to take on a weird reversal. Rather than Cox being in the role of the black militant mau-mauing the rich white liberals, he is slowly backed in to a corner. Afro, goatee, turtleneck and all, he has to be a diplomat […] He has to play that all-time-loser role of the house guest trying to deal with a bunch of leaping, prancing, palsied happy-slobber Saint Bernards […] It’s a ball-breaker […] And no wonder. For what man in all history has ever before come face to face with naked white Radical Chic running ecstatically through a Park Avenue duplex and letting it all hang out?’1

To be seen to espouse radicalism, however, from a position of social and material power has long been a favourite affectation of the haute bourgeoisie. In his Sentimental Education (1869), his epic study of Parisian society in the years building up to the European revolutions of 1848, Gustave Flaubert takes particular delight in describing the enthusiasm of middle-class students, artists and gallerists for the gathering tide of rebellion. He notes the fashion for wearing heavy overcoats ‘lined with scarlet flannel’ in imitation of the workers-turned-anarchists. At the same time respectable young men are outraging the moneyed society of the Faubourg St Germain by preaching armed revolution in the Empire drawing-rooms of patriarchal financiers.

Wolfe also refers back to the French fashion for nostalgie de la boue, the early 19th-century practice, among the wealthy and aristocratic, of asserting their sense of superiority over the middle classes by taking on – in a cosmetic, gentrified fashion – the styles or activities of the ‘lower orders’. This act of appropriation intensifies, says Wolfe, when ‘a lot of new money and a lot of new faces come into Society’ at any given time. Hence, in the 1960s, the courting by Society of such ‘tame primitives’ (to use Wolfe’s term) as the Rolling Stones or Che Guevara – Society women doing the Twist at the Peppermint Lounge.

So what of Radical Chic in the Zeitgeist-defining contemporary art of the last decade? Wolfe’s acuity was such that he also defined a term that is in a state of constant reinvention. Certainly the ascent to Vogue heaven of ‘young British art’ in London in the early to mid-1990s can be seen as a version of Radical Chic. For here was a generation of artists affecting surly, anarchistic, Punkish street values, being power-brokered by a patrician, moneyed class of gallerists and dealers – many of whom had no real experience of contemporary popular culture and hence found the antics of the yBas thrillingly exotic. Parties were held in marble halls for the snotty and the stroppy. Thus Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas et al. owed the glittering trajectory of their success to nothing more than the sheer momentum of Radical Chic, as it took hold of Society in need of ‘tame primitives’.

Throughout the 1990s, as the margins of artistic practice became the mainstream of the new cultural establishment, the evolution of Radical Chic could be seen in a broader gentrification of the avant-garde. (There was something disconcerting, for example, about the photographs of Patti Smith and her band beaming like obedient schoolchildren on either side of the Dalai Lama.) From Shoreditch to SoHo moneyed tourism in the ragged edges of underground cultural rhetoric became inextricably entwined with fashionable lifestyle. This was exemplified at one of the art fêtes in London’s Hoxton, when Tim Noble and Sue Webster (major beneficiaries of Radical Chic) set up a street-side ‘tattoo parlour’ and gave the strolling culturati and well-bred gallery girls the flaming skulls and dagger-pierced hearts they’d seen in all those Nicolas Cage movies.

But the fin-de-siècle whirl of visual art’s trans-media fashionability during the 1990s has given way, for the most part, to a new austerity and a chilled relationship with image – however softened with refined aesthetic gorgeousness, intuitive method or encyclopaedic Pop-cultural reference points. Today’s visual culture may engage with Radical Chic, but it is fully conscious of the precise dynamics of the manoeuvre. Thus Wolfe’s identification of Society’s dalliance with radicalism remains sound, but its context has changed. Since the Bernsteins served Roquefort cheese morsels to the Black Panthers the status engineering of the politico jet set has been replaced by a far more efficient means of honing one’s public image: you pay someone else to do it for you. This much we have learnt in the 30 years since Mick Jagger wore the same sunglasses as Ulrike Meinhof.2

1  Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1970, pp. 56-7 ​2  Steve Rushton, ‘Cloak & Dagger: The Design of the Modern Terrorist’, in DotDotDot, Summer 2004, p. 89

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.