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March 02, 2005

Guest Posting -- Donald Pittenger, Part One

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of the great underdiscussed culture-topics that often comes up at this blog is what it's like to live a life that involves some involvement with the arts. The conventional press provides a torrent of info about the lives of the stars and the bigtime players. But how about the rest of us? What are our lives-with-the-arts like?

We go about incorporating "culture" into our lives in a huge variety of ways. At one extreme are people who take no note of cultural matters at all. TV, design, food, storytelling, clothing, and music -- it's just stuff that's out there, to be leaned on, enjoyed, and griped about. But, really, what's the big deal? At the other end of the spectrum are people for whom cultural questions often get to be overwhelming -- those who make an actual living helping create culture: designers, writers, musicians, editors, acting coaches, technicians, production assistants, etc. (And let's not forget those Backbones of Culture, the arty trust-fund babies who write slim, sensitive, autobiographical novels and spend their days getting themselves photographed for downtown style magazines. A-hahahahahaha ...) Most people with a semi-substantial interest in the arts -- that would be most of us -- fall somewhere in between.

There are so many questions that seldom come up, at least in print. What's it like interacting with the arts over the long-term? (My quick response: sometimes it's more rewarding, sometimes it's less...) How does one's relationship with the arts change over time? (My relationship with the arts has been like a love affair; it has its ups, it has its downs ...) To what extent is an involvment with the arts a positive? (It can enrich and deepen one's experience of life ...) In what ways can it be a negative? (It can derange and mislead ...) How do we jigger the givens of our lives -- money, relationships, time, etc -- to make room for our cultural interests? (I've given up promotions in order to have more free time ...) And how has all this affected how we experience the arts? (I respect the basics more now than I did when I was young. And I value the ability to put the Self and its needinesses aside far more than I once did ...)

I've always enjoyed reading comments left at the blog by Donald Pittenger, who brings a lot of perspective, brains, and humor to bear on what he says. I've also had a great time swapping email with Donald. But I was eager to know more about his experiences and reflections too. So I recently asked him if he might be willing to pull together a few additional memories and thoughts. I'm thrilled that he has done so, and that he has done so in spades, writing what's in essence a short memoir -- a wonderful and informative look at a life spent in and around the arts.

Donald has considerately broken his piece up into semi-themed sections, and I'm going to take advantage of his organizational work and run the piece over several days. Today Donald writes about his background.


Half a Century at the Extreme Margin of the Arts
by Donald Pittenger

Although I seldom mention it in polite conversation, I have an undergraduate degree in Art. And I'm even more coy about the fact that I hold a Ph.D. in Sociology from a fancy Ivy League university whose identity I zealously disguise, referring to it by the cryptic words "Dear Old Penn."

I keep quiet because (1) I never practiced Art professionally, and (2) I never professionally practiced Sociology either. (As a matter of fact, I consider the Sociology thing an acute embarrassment, regarding the field as being largely a political agenda disguised as an academic "discipline." I dropped my membership in the American Sociological Association back around 1980 when its professional-interest magazine got filled with items documenting sociologists rushing to be first to champion the cause of one newly-identified oppressed group or another.)

Professionally, I'm a demographer, having written a book and some articles on the subject and having been employed (as well as self-employed) in the field since 1970. In practice, I've spent most of the last 20 years designing and programming computer systems for my demographic needs.

I'll also toss in the fact that I enlisted in the Army shortly after the Berlin Wall went up and that I completed my three-year obligation. What this means, aside from having the usual supply of Army tales, is that I can carry on an argument about foreign policy and not worry about being derided as a "chickenhawk." Oh, there's more: When people brag about their recent Caribbean cruise I can counter that my first cruises were on troopships to and from Korea. And if I feel malicious, I can always casually mention to people with exquisite political sensitivity that I was trained as a killer at taxpayer expense. What fun!!

My interest in "the arts" is mostly limited to graphic arts, architecture, industrial design and a sub-set of classical music. I spend little time and energy on the remaining arts, but will spare you a rant on that subject.

Furthermore, my arts interest is not the "gush and goo" sort of thing I heard years ago at the San Francisco Opera where Marilyn Horne (I think it was) gave a talk with Q&A for 30 or 40 really adoring fans. The fawning adjectives cooed by the questioners gave me a sugar high.

I seldom get "blown away" experiencing art. Part of this might be due to my temperament and the nature of my approach to graphic arts that I'll deal with below. The main reason has to do with familiarity: I've been paying attention to graphic arts since I was a teenager and therefore have been exposed directly or indirectly to most of what is held to be the best of Western painting. In other words I'm seldom surprised, and I believe it takes surprise to create a "blown away" reaction. My most recent such experience was a couple months ago at the Getty in Los Angeles where I encountered Lawrence Alma-Tadema's "Spring." I knew about Tadema but had never seen his work in the flesh, so viewing this large, vibrant, interesting canvas set off an "omigod" reaction in my mind.

Alma-Tadema: "Spring"

Things were different when I was young and ignorant; pleasing aesthetic surprises came thick and fast. Examples of blown-away experiences include the 1953-ish sighting of a 1936 Cord sedan tooling along near my north Seattle neighborhood. If it had been a beautiful naked female instead of that Cord, I'm not sure my reaction would have been much stronger: that car was PURE SEX!! This was my first "live" Cord-sighting, but I had the strong reaction even though it was not a total surprise, being familiar with it through photographs.

1936 Cord Sedan

My reaction to the 1953 Studebaker hardtop coupes was similar when they were first announced. Nowadays I can see some flaws in the Studebaker design, basically the relationship of the rear wheel well to the passenger cabin caused by the fact that stylist Bob Bourke had to work with a wheelbase that was maybe four inches too long for his concept. Gordon Buehrig's 1936-37 Cords remain drop-dead gorgeous to my eyes. Furthermore, I can still react strongly to really good car designs when they are announced to the public because of the combination of the quality of their appearance and the novelty factor.

Aside from the classical music I mentioned above, the artistic fields that interest me are the ones that attracted me in my youth and which I have dabbled in as an amateur. If I didn't have the talent to dabble, I didn't and still don't have much interest. Which leads to the fact that I tend to approach art more as a TECHNICIAN than an aesthete, though I believe the two often overlap.

Hal Foster: Panel from "Prince Valiant"

For example, since I was a child I have been intrigued by really well-donedrawing. This no doubt began via looking at comic strips (Hal Foster's "Prince Valiant" and everything Alex Raymond did) and illustrations in magazines such as the old Saturday Evening Post. Since childhood, I've done a lot of drawing and know how difficult it is to capture an object or (more importantly) a person accurately, yet with technical and aesthetic flair. Alphonse Mucha's ability as a draftsman seldom fails to astonish me. Jeffrey Jones' "Idyl" panel in the 1970s National Lampoon magazine was a source of intrigue. (I doubt that Mucha and Jones -- especially Jones -- are in danger of being nominated into the highest ranks of fine artists. Nevertheless I consider each to be extremely good at the sort of work he did and I continue to take pleasure looking at their stuff.)

Jeffrey Jones: "Blind Narcissus"

At the time I left high school I wanted to become an automobile stylist, so I started at the University of Washington as an Industrial Design major in the School of Art. I later switched to Commercial Design and eventually graduated in that field. Besides a lot of studio classes in drawing and painting, I had courses in Art History, the history of architecture and first-year architectural design. The history courses conformed to the prevailing Modernist ideology of the late Fifties and the studio classes were almost entirely bereft of instruction on technology and techniques for related reasons.

Quality of training aside, on completing college, I recognized the facts that (1) commercial art was a tough career field thanks to its fashionable nature and the obvious drying-up of demand for illustration by 1961, and (2) I was never going to be better than "pretty good" as a practicing artist or designer of any sort. As a result, I entered graduate school in Sociology, my informal undergraduate minor, upon leaving the Army three years later.

Sociology in the mid-1960s, despite a social-worky tinge from its University of Chicago roots and a small-m Marxism that in the mid-60s was still off the radar of most students, was a "fun" field. It was nebulous enough that one could easily stake out a sub-field simply by calling it "The Sociology of [fill in the blank]." That appealed to me as a potential college professor.

But the main reason I went into Sociology was because I like demography. Due to historical accident, Demography was a sociological sub-field in America; in Europe, one entered Demography via Statistics or maybe Economics or Geography. I had a tough time as a grad student at Washington in part because of the three-year timeout in the Army. Plus, grad school sociology was a lot less fun and a lot more theoretical than the undergraduate variety.

The worst problem was that sociologists could never agree on what Sociology actually was, so there was no agreed-upon (amongst different universities) body of knowledge that had to be mastered, unlike, say, Civil Engineering. Therefore, by being a BullS**t discipline, it was hard for grad students to firmly anchor their ideas and knowledge.

I transferred to Dear Old Penn once I got my MA and did much better there grade-wise. But by the time I left, the boom-market for college teachers of the mid-60s was rapidly ending. So I became of government demographer working for New York State in Albany, later returning to Washington State in a similar capacity.

As it turned out, I proved to be a better demographer than artist, so I have no regrets about my career change aside from some issues regarding timing. For nearly 45 years, aside from doodling automobile designs, I kept up with art as a somewhat interested bystander. Lately I have taken up painting as a potential hobby for when I retire and am now trying to overcome my lack of training in that field.

At this point I need to add that the subject that really has always interested me is History. I suppose this puts me into the same ballpark (or playpen?) as Friedrich. When I was young, I absorbed the Art History Party Line that Modernism (in painting, sculpture, architecture, product design and so forth) was what "progress" over time, especially during the previous hundred years, had led to. It was a clear and, for the naive, reasonable or even compelling narrative.

What was not clear at the time was whether art had attained a proto-Francis Fukuyama "end of history" state or if other changes were to come. On the one hand, aside from periods in ancient Egypt, art had continually changed. On the other hand, now that architectural embellishment had given way to unadorned geometric surfaces and representation in painting had evolved into total abstraction, what could possibly come next?

I cannot recall anyone agonizing over these issues in 1960, though I'm certain that many artists and observers sensed that these issues existed and some no doubt got their thoughts published; seems to me that I was aware of the issues, but very tentatively.

Le Corbusier: Villa Savoye

Art did not end in classical Modernism. The pendulum began to swing back towards architectural embellishment and representational art, though in often strange, sometimes politicized, and usually I-can't-believe-we-are-actually- doing-this-so-I'm-sorta-kidding-wink-wink ways. Having lived to see that the dogma of my youth has been partly overturned I am now, like Friederich, interested in the process of artistic content and change as related to broader societal change.

What I find especially interesting is that a noticeable amount of the art and architecture that was roundly denounced as junk in 1955 or 1960 has been re-evaluated. And maybe ditto for established art of that era. When I was young, I made an effort to like Picasso's art because I was supposed to like it if I were to call myself cultured. But I never cared much for his work, nor that of Matisse, nor even (gasp) Monet's later work.

Nowadays, having such culturally defective tastes does not bother me. I find myself buying books about the Pre-Raphaelites and certain British and French academicians. No, I don't always care for their subject matter, but their work interests me because of their technical skills: some of those guys could really draw and paint! I wish I were that good.

"Flaming June," by the Victorian painter Lord Leighton

And since I decided to grasp the portraiture nettle right off the bat in my re-entry to painting, I've caused to prosper by ordering book after book about John Singer Sargent.

(By the way, for a fascinating look at how portraiture has changed over time, visit the National Portrait Gallery the next time you are in London. It's about a block north of Trafalgar Square and admission is free. The time I was there works were displayed chronologically by era, and the fun bit is the progression from really nice stuff in the mid 1800s to big, brownish stuffy stuff towards the end of that century to quirky non-portrait portraits starting in the 1920s and continuing to the present.)

I see that I'm starting to digress and ramble, two of my charming quirks that invariably cure my Lady Friend's insomnia. So ciao for now.


Many thanks to Donald Pittenger. Please be sure to come back for tomorrow's installment. It's about architecture. And please feel free to leave comments, swap impressions, etc -- Donald promises to check in and respond. What has your own life in and around the arts been like?



posted by Michael at March 2, 2005


One question Michael does NOT mention in his intro is 'In what ways has your engagement with the arts had an influence on your professional career? Assuming you do not makes your living in arts and culture.' I have always been culturally active, mostly in music, but also educated enough in a classical sense to audaciously brandish some iconoclastic-- perhaps ill-informed-- opinions in most artistic disciplines. Attempting to engineer a career transistion, it appears to me that those I interview with are both intimidated by my cultural interests, and yet at the same time look at those interests as an indication of my lack of groundedness in the real world. I am tempted to say that it is at times a handicap.

It is always facinating to read the backgrounds of people who came of age professionally before the 60's. An art background blossoming into demography! In this era of credentialism I wonder if such transistions are as common. Do you find, Donald, that those in your professional life that become aware of your visual arts background and interests look at you any differently?

Posted by: Awbnid on March 2, 2005 03:07 PM

Hi Donald,

What an interesting posting. I especially liked the stuff you wrote about the fifties and sixties when Modernism was so dominant. You've got me thinking about the arts educations that people get in this country and how much they train people not to either enjoy or understand the arts at all. A question: what kind of education do you think might prepare people for a life of either enjoying or participating in the arts? Thanks! Looking forward to your next posting!

Posted by: Maryse T. on March 2, 2005 10:13 PM

The French classical historian Paul Veyne calls Sociology "comparative history". Not a science, but neither is history. So there's a problem when the scientific claims and pretensions get excessive, but not otherwise.

He says about the same about political science, but not economics. I believe he still defines anthropology by subject matter (pre-modern peoples or whatever they're called now.)

Posted by: John Emerson on March 3, 2005 04:59 AM

So you liked "Prince Valiant" and "Idyll" too, huh? (I've got a book which collects all the Idyll strips which I continue to look at once a year or so.) I find it amusing, somehow, that we share such tastes, as well as having a continuing interest in the arts while spending most of our working lives doing something quite different. I wonder if there's a link to our shared interest in cultural history. I'm looking forward to your discussion of architecture. In my own case, my dawning realization that Modernism wasn't all there was to art--and that the 'story' of Modernism was all too pat and not quite the truth--began with thinking about Modern architecture back in the 1970s.

Excellent memoir.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 3, 2005 06:20 AM

I come from a humble background of almost illiterate craftsmen, being the first in my family to go to university and such. So, much of what I learned about the arts has been my own discovery, not something thrown upon me by birth or early education.

However, I've always been a good draughtsman, probably helped by a somewhat lazy right eye that screwed up my ability to see depth well. But, when the time came to choose a tertiary education, it turned out no arts academy taught what I wanted the most; the classic academical training in the crafts of drawing and painting.

Now I know there was one faculty in one art school far away from where I lived that maybe could have offered what I wanted, but I also know now its existence was not spoken off. And the professors and teachers working there were ridiculed by their colleagues elsewhere.

So, while I was exploring what art schools could offer me instead, I came accross loads and loads of poseurs who all wanted to become someone without knowing how; my fellow students to be.

I declined that offer, studied history and philosophy instead, and use my obervational skills only in writing nowadays.

Such had been the trauma of those weeks visiting those art academies I haven't drawn anything for almost twenty years. It took the discovery Dan Gregory's weblog and books before I refound the fun of drawing again.

Posted by: ijsbrand on March 3, 2005 07:37 AM

The older I've gotten, the more I wonder at how much impact apparently trivial considerations appear to have on the overall course of people's lives. I have an all-too-similar story to tell: when I was 10-12 years old, I drew constantly. I'm not saying I was a paragon of visual creativity, but I spent hundreds of hours working on my own projects, often comic books. I was the best person I knew at drawing, but I was well aware that I needed a serious skill upgrade. I even harassed my mother to sign me up for art lessons. Regrettably, the teacher she found at a local art institute (who couldn't draw to save his life) had imbibed every 'progressive' arts education idea in the book, and knew deep in his heart that accurate rendering was death to any artist's creativity. As you might imagine, my youthful ardor was soon quenched by being forced to work at the officially approved--i.e., deliberately childlike--art projects that he mandated in order to unlock my inner creativity. Furious at this example of what struck me at the time (and pretty much still strikes me) as an example of adult mendaciousness, I shelved the whole idea of art for a decade or so.

Now, maybe that just means that I didn't want an arts career bad enough, but...given how large a role chance has played in what I do for a living now, sometimes I wonder...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 3, 2005 01:11 PM

AWBNID -- The distance between demography (plus scientific -- as opposed to database -- computer programming) and graphic arts is just about as far as that of any other set of professional pairings that I can imagine. So my short answer is that they simply occupy separate, non-overlapping domains (think Venn diagrams!). I never brought up the matter in job interviews aside from dealing with any questions regarding my undergraduate training.

However, I've been able to apply some of my commercial art training, along with whatever aesthetic sense I might have, from time to time in my working life. In recent years, when I program Windows forms (those screens with push-buttons, drop-lists, checkboxes, graphs, etc.) I think I make them pleasing to view and easy to comprehend, given what Microsoft allows you to get away with. Also, when I was in business for myself, I was able to design my own sales literature, thus eliminating the need to hire a designer to do it. Sorry that these are small-picture, results-oriented cases and nothing to do with broader artistic considerations, but that's the way it was in my case.

MARYSE T. -- Regarding your education question, all I can honestly do is tell you what would work best for me. And that would be to take a decent survey course in whatever the subject matter might be (in order to jump-start formation of some sort of conceptual framework that might even be abandoned later) and then follow it up with a lot of reading or other self-study. Ideally this latter should be linked to some focused goal. One example for me was a sophomore-level art history survey course I took jillions of years ago. It gave me a broad view of what was done when as well as a "plot-line" (I'll discuss this in a forthcoming posting). Recently, I've been doing a lot of reading about European art of the period 1850-1910 related to how representational artists dealt with the human form, especially in terms of skin tones under various lighting conditions (the subject I'm currently interested in). That led me to absorb a lot of lore regarding Pre-Raphaelitets, academicians and so forth. Other than in specialized areas (such as, oh, writing musical counterpoint), I'm a skeptic about the utility of taking lots of classes beyond the introductory.

JOHN EMERSON -- If Michael would like to post a rant by me about Sociology, I'll be happy to write one. The American breed of Sociology used to be (and still might be) a highly eclectic mix -- mess? -- of implicit politics, "Theory", pyschology-like lab studies, and survey research. The latter two items generally use scientific procedures, but aside from writers attempting to link results to theory or hypotheses, this part of the field is a-historical. I'm 35 years away from being engaged in the discipline, so I can't even guess how much current American Sociology is scientific as opposed to BS.

FRIEDRICH -- After Architecture, Michael has a post in the pipeline about my experience in art school back in the 50s. You might find it interesting because it covers ground similar to what you discuss in your second comment post.

And about that instructor your mom fobbed off on you and the likely fact that he couldn't draw: I find that it is very hard to convincingly draw (much less paint) a human subject with technical and artistic flair when in representational mode. However, consider doing a portrait, say, in some other mode (Cubist, Futurist, Surrealist, whatever) such as one sees in London's National Portrait Gallery in the post-Great War sections. In this case, what becomes important is the mode and not the subject. That is, the artist is doing a Cubist painting primarily and the subject matter might happen to be Lady Bigcrumpet; how much the result resembles Her Ladyship doesn't much matter. (Okay, the artist will CLAIM he's making a deeper, more true statement about her, but that is basically BS intended to mystify art critics and us philistines.) The point I'm coming to is that NON-REPRESENTATIONAL PAINTING IS A LOT EASIER TO DO THAN THE REPRESENTATIONAL KIND. Even little-talented me can probably knock out a gallery-qualiity distorted face using bold lines and lots of neat colors applied in an oh-so-"painterly" manner.

Regarding Idyll -- there really is a book containing it?!? I did a Google on Jones last summer and totally missed that (though I did find his personal web site where I read his discussion of his, uh, operation). Please let me know the title, ISBN, and other particulars about the book as I'd like to get a copy if it isn't too expensive (I assume it is out of print).

IJSBRAND -- At least you were mature enough in your youth to have an idea about what sort of artist you wanted be. I simply went along with what was offered -- stay tuned for my post about my art school experience.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 3, 2005 11:09 PM

I wrote a response the other day, but it never appeared . . .

I greatly enjoyed reading this, esp. on a day when I picked up a photograph I'd been making payments on at a design studio. I drove by the place over a couple of months, each time being struck by the picture that was hanging in the window. Finally stopped by and had a great talk with the owner on how art is one of the few things that really matters (I added poetry to that too). Now this absolutely gorgeous photo (of a passage in an underground water facility in the Hunter's Point area of SF) is hanging in my office and making me incredibly happy.

Art that you love can be heart-expanding. Thanks for the piece, and I'm looking forward to the next one(s).

Posted by: missgrundy on March 4, 2005 03:20 PM

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