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April 18, 2007

Warhol and Worthiness

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Wife and I recently spent a few days in Pittsburgh where -- with the help of a group of talented and rowdy local actors -- we presented some of our co-written erotic fiction. The reading went well, thanks, and it was a treat meeting and comparing notes with some of Pittsburgh's young-and-creative set.

The Wife and I were both struck by what a cool city Pittsburgh has become. (The locals tell us that this turnaround has taken place very recently -- in only the last five or six years.) The old-industrial-powerhouse basics of the city are great: lots of working-class brawniness and pride, and some impressively quiet and spacious, old-tycoonish stretches too. The city is blessed with mucho in the way of geographical variety -- hills, rivers, cliffs -- and is crammed with tons of character-filled neighborhoods, and an amazing stock of gorgeous old commercial buildings and houses.

As well as -- of particular interest to Offbeat Us -- a couple of fizzy boho neighborhoods. It's great that housing prices are modest too. An offbeat, slacker-ish person, in other words, could lead a swell life in Pittsburgh.

Small musing: As The Wife and I have visited cities in our quest for world erotic-fiction domination, we've often been struck by a big difference between now and when we were setting out. Back in the day, there simply weren't many American cities with lively boho and creative scenes. If that was the kind of life you wanted to lead, you had a very restricted set of places where you might settle.

These days, wowee. The damnedest cities turn out to be home to crackling scenes inhabited by sweetly nutty people you can have crazy-fun conversations with. This is a great development, of course -- may a thousand flowers bloom. Do we owe it entirely to the decentralizing effects of the internet? I blogged here about how wonderful it is that we're beginning to see young films and young film-talent arising from places like, well, Pittsburgh.

But this discovery has also left The Wife and me stealing shy glances at each other. After all, if it's possible to lead a rewarding creative life in a cheap and friendly place like Pittsburgh -- where people are welcoming, where the scale is human, and where intellectual pretentions don't weigh as heavily as they do in NYC -- then why are the two of us putting up with the trials of life in the Really, Really Big City? Maybe the time has come to move. Too bad I still have a few years to go before I can cash in the micro-pension I've worked so long for ...

Anyway, a couple of highlights of our Pittsburgh trip occurred during a pilgramage to the Andy Warhol Museum. Worth doing, I guess, though I say that without much enthusiasm. (I blogged about Warhol here.) Surrounded by his paintings, what mostly struck me was how Warhol's art turns a gallery or a museum into something shallow and flashy -- into what people in the magazine business sometimes call "a fast read," in other words a media-thing that's meant to be leafed-through quickly. He treated an art exhibit, in other words, like a graphic designer treats a magazine. You might be visiting a museum; you might be flipping through a magazine. What's the diff?

Maybe -- to grant him more than I'd really like to, but what the hell -- that was Warhol's inspired move: to treat the fine-arts world as though it were in fact the media world. And maybe that helps explain why so many media people fell so hard for his work: because when they looked deeply into his art what they saw was ... the media, themselves. People do get fascinated when they look in a mirror, after all. I guess you could say that Warhol's art was about the media-ification of everything. You might also view Warhol as a major contributor to this phenomenon.

But I'd certainly recommend a tour of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods well before a visit to the Warhol. That's what's nifty about having an interest in architecture (or, pedantically speaking, architecture-and-urbanism) -- for an architecture buff, the whole built-and-inhabited world is an art museum. What could be more convenient?

Oh, back to the highlights I was typing about. One of them had to do with the museum's staff. All the staffers we saw -- every one of them -- were young people in full Warhol attire. Which isn't to say that they were done up as Warhol himself -- but each one was in a contempo version of the Warhol mode: superskinny, with a lot of art-cropped hair, and wearing tight black pants matched with oddly-colored sneakers. Let's just say that metrosexual-style space-child-ness was not in short supply at the Andy Warhol Museum. Did this just happen, or is it the museum's consciously-pursued staffing-strategy?

But the best moment of our visit came thanks to an exhibit on the Museum's top floor: a temporary show sporting a Global Warming theme. Art by many different artists (many local) on the theme of Global Warming, in other words. Some of the art was enjoyable in an eye-candy way despite the debatable worthiness of the show's theme. But what on earth did the exhibit have to do with Andy Warhol?

Here's the sign -- speaking of Donald's recent posting about captions at museums! -- where the Museum's curators try to tie the whole package up:


I was wiping tears out of my eyes when I read this caption, I really was. If ever there was an artist who had feelings for nothing besides his own pleasure and his own success -- OK, maybe he cared about his mom too -- it was Warhol. The idea of this gangrenous, creepy "vampire" (in Factory Girl Mary Woronov's word) being peddled as an "Inconvenient Truth"-ish kind of fellow ...

Ah, it was all too much. The art establishment, eh? The way it will align itself -- despite the work it's actually dealing with -- with "progressive" causes ... It just will, apparently. Does this happen automatically? Does it have to happen? Do arts bureaucrats actually give these moves a moment or two's thought, or is it, y'know, just what arts bureaucrats do?

The Wife and I both spent the rest of our Warhol visit with silly pictures in our brains of the people running the Museum trying to come up with ever-duller ways of making their institution seem like a dignified, responsible addition to the Pittsburgh scene ... Wrangling seats on the boards of other local institutions ... Inventing dumbass themes ("Warhol and Trans-Fats") for temporary shows ... Luring local matrons into taking their local kids for Up-With-People-style repeat local visits ...

So maybe life in a somewhat out-of-it-place like Pittsburgh really does soften the brain. Hmmm. But maybe it's just that the bureaucrats were piling up credits so they'd look good on their next grant application.



UPDATE: Thanks to The Holzbachian for this link to a good Wikipedia entry about the University of Pittsburgh's spectacular Cathedral of Learning, a Gothic tower designed by Charles Klauder and completed in 1937.

posted by Michael at April 18, 2007


"World erotic-fiction domination"? That's interesting. Have you ever read Maxim Jakubowski? If so, what do you think of him? (BTW, this is a great blog. I really enjoyed your series on literary and popular fiction).

Posted by: GB on April 18, 2007 11:58 AM

Yes, Pittsburgh is way cool. Glad you noticed the character of the individual neighborhoods. I wonder how much of this is influenced by geography?

Pittsburgh is just an explosion of hills and near mountains, which made little pockets of ethnicity.

What impressed me most is the use of color. On so many near derelict yet stately 19th century buildings you would see an explosion of color on a mural on one side. Never seen so much purple as in Pittsburgh.

The housing stock there is not only about the cheapest in the land, it's gorgeous! If you own in NYC, I think a move there is definately worth considering. That is, if you feel like having an extra $300,000+ to play with in your old age (oh, and the hospitals are the largest employers in the city, so A+ healthcare too).

Best Coffee Shop: The Beehive on Carson Street
Best Polish Bar: Bloomsfield Bridge Tavern

Tell me what you think of the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland, eh? My alma mater...


Posted by: The Holzbachian on April 18, 2007 1:17 PM

GB -- Glad you enjoy; very grateful you drop by. Maxim Jakuboski's a giant! Amazing writer, great editor. And I don't just say that because he gave my wife's story collection a blurb ...

Holzbachian -- We gotta see Pittsburgh through your eyes the next time we're out there. And you're so right about colors -- it's a very rich color experience. Do you live there? Forgive me, I forget where you're based.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 18, 2007 3:13 PM

Pittsburgh is where the series Queer as Folk is set in. Gays. In Pittsburgh! Crazy.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 18, 2007 4:03 PM

No longer -- I live in Boston now. But grew up in Youngstown, Ohio which is closer to Pittsburgh than Cleveland.

While I can't speak for the last five years, I think the artists are just putting a (vibrant!) splash of color on an amazing foundation.

Do you know that Pittsburgh has lost HALF of its population in the last 40 years? Look at the population table on its Wikipedia page. It's astounding.

But what this means is that living there feels like you're living in the skeletal remains of a once great civilization. It's kind of like Bladerunner.

I heartily recommend Eugune Smith's photo record of Pittsburgh in the 1950s ">"Dream Streets"

There's an ethereal beauty there.


Posted by: Holzbachian on April 18, 2007 8:13 PM

Pittsburgh is one of the coolest cities in the U.S., and one of the best-kept secrets. Glad you discovered it. It is the one former great industrial city that has not just survived the post-industrial transition but thrived. It has a really good arts and culture scene, a great home-y, down to earth feeling. I also think the hills and rivers lend it a remarkable beauty completely missing in the flatter, more midwestern industrial cities.

I think the secret to the Pittsburgh renaissance is the heavy university presence -- Carnegie Mellon, U of Pittsburgh, and Duquesne all within city limits. Those are really good universities, and they have helped keep a good cutting edge knowledge industry base in the city, along with a lot of young people and a good arts scene. If you ever do move down there (which I often recommend people do), I could introduce you to a friend there who I think you would like.

Also, Holzbachian, in my opinion the "Bladerunner" feeling you're talking about is perhaps *least* evident in Pittsburgh compared to the other major Rust Belt cities. If you really want that feeling, try a visit to inner Detroit. Or to a lesser extent Cleveland.

P.S. I love the Warhol museum and consider Warhol an artistic genius. Then again, I consider the "media-ification of everything" an incredibly important phenomenon of world-historical significance, and think Warhol was prophetic and visionary in his ability to comment on it artistically. But I have to admit I found the "Warhol and global warming" thing every bit as hilarious as you did. Warhol as earnest social reformer is about the funniest juxtaposition I can imagine.

Posted by: MQ on April 19, 2007 2:24 AM

Didn't see the other comment from Holzbachian above:

"Pittsburgh is just an explosion of hills and near mountains, which made little pockets of ethnicity....What impressed me most is the use of color."

That really nails it about the city's aesthetic appeal, which I was really surprised by when I first discovered it. The high hills also create constantly changing, dramatic, and appealing views as one moves around the city.

Posted by: MQ on April 19, 2007 2:28 AM

MQ -- Point taken, Detroit is currently grungy, while Pittsburgh's streets are clean, but the buildings show the effect of the unclean history, which ends up adding character.

Folks tell me that in Pittsburgh, if you painted your house white, it turned grey within a year, back in the day.

But, the fallen empire feeling is valid. I love how Pittsburgh was the Silicon Valley of the country in the early 20th century. All of that concentrated wealth (even more concentrated, I should say) laying around. Much of it found it's way into creating amazing buildings, and happily at a time in US history when architects didn't have their heads up their asses.

I went to school at Pitt and walked through *this* every day:

I hope Michael got a chance to see the interior. I left Pittsburgh for three years in London and Paris and was seldom more inspired than what I had left behind.

Yes, call me mad, Pittsburgh seems more beautiful to me most grand European capitals. Even my Portuguese wife thinks that Pittsburgh is the most beautiful US city she has seen.

I think culturally, Americans are a bit blind to its beauty because we have a (correct) collective memory of it being such a soot filled grunge factory.

The Holzbachian

Posted by: Holzbachian on April 19, 2007 9:20 AM

So great reading your wowza description of Pittsburgh. Though I don't live there, I get to visit at least once every two months since my daughter is attending one of the fine institutions in that great city. I think The Holzbachian has it dead on regarding Pittsburgh. It is very comparative to a European city. To me, it most resembles Montreal, with its distinct neighborhoods, winding streets, huge hilly park near the center of the city, world class museums. It also has, IMHO, the sweetest MLB park in the country, PNC Park.

Posted by: DarkoV on April 19, 2007 11:57 AM

Patriarch-- I had no idea Queer as Folk was set in Pittsburgh. There's a sizable alt community there, though, that's for sure. Tattoos weren't scarce, and the Wife noticed a lot of lesbians. Seems like a very neat place to have an unconventional life.

Holzbachian -- That's right, you're up in Boston, I'd forgotten. Awfully pretty but a little ... academic, Puritanical, or something. I'm always knocked out by Boston when I'm there but always glad to leave too. Somehow a very un-sexy city. How are you liking it? And tks for the Smith photo-book recommendation, looks great. I hadn't even realized he'd done such a project.

MQ -- That's another right-on evocation about what's great about Pittsburgh. There's such a lot of variety there ... We never made it outside the city limits, so I have no sense of how bad the sprawl scene is. Nice to be in a midsize city with a living downtown in any case. So maybe Pittsburgh is the Portland of the Northeast? Or Northeast-midwest, or whatever its region is?

Holzbachian -- No, darn it, we didn't have a chance to get inside the Cathedral of Learning. What a sight it is from the outside, though. Fun to see from you link to Wikipedia that it was finished in 1937. So maybe it was in 1938 that the modernists decided it was no longer legit to build a glamorous Gothic tower?

DarkoV -- Fun to hear your impressions. I bet your daughter's having a fun time there -- what a neat city to have a "city" experience in. Montreal's a great comparison: lots of character, surprisingly cosmopolitan, lots of visual variety ... And all those church spires too. I snapped a bunch of photos of Pittsburgh cityscapes with church spires in them. The spires add a lot.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 19, 2007 12:18 PM


Heh. "Unsexy" -- that's a curse that will ring in my head for a while. I'll ponder it.

Puritanical? Hrmph, I'll have you know that we had a referendum last year to allow our grocery stores to have wine and maybe a little beer. It failed, but that's not the point. See, we got such a thing on our ballot! Look out Austin.

My wife and I fight over this. I do agree that the public spaces of Boston rate a B grade.

But...and in my highly subjective opinion...

Best library in the world? The Boston Athenaeum
Beautiful enough to be a museum, yet comfortable enough to lounge around in.

Best movie theater in the world? Coolidge Corner
(2nd Place: The Music Box in Chicago, Third Place: The Everyman in London)

Best BBQ East of the Mississippi -- Blue Ribbon BBQ here in Boston

In short, there's more inexpensive, fun, things to do here in places I can actually *get to* in my car (less than 30 minutes) than anyplace in the world that I'm aware of.

And like Pittsburgh, ta-da, we're losing population! Yay, more for me.

In contrast, in NYC last month I entered and left 3 Starbucks in a row because there wasn't a place to sit in any of them. I guess I would just prefer living in the ruins of the temple of Athena than during its height. I avoid crowds.


The Holzbachian

Posted by: Holzbachian on April 19, 2007 3:01 PM

Just went on to check out Pittsburgh. Fantastic number of old houses with character, that, at least in the pictures, look great. Many at under $150K! Some at under $120K!!

Posted by: ricpic on April 19, 2007 5:25 PM

Reading all previous comments about Pittsburgh. Maybe I should press my friend more to accept the offered University position so I could visit and see for myself? Although I think it's Carnegie-Mellon, not UoP.
The tower looks stunning; is interior also late Deco? I for some reason picture dull bronze and ebony - what are the colors there?
I looked at the national rooms panoramics...oh boy. Reminded me of grandiose Stalinist projects, like Fountain of Friendship of the World Peoples, at the State Fair in Moscow. The rooms' interiors are depressive, too. The best one is French (no surprise), although for some reason they've chosen national Estonian colors, blue-black-and white (one of my favorite combinations, btw).

Posted by: Tatyana on April 19, 2007 7:28 PM

Pittsburgh was used as an example of a dull and doomed city in Richard Florida's book about "the Creative Class". That book caused a big splash back in 2002. Maybe the embarrassment made them clean up their act and dedullify?

Posted by: Brian on April 19, 2007 11:06 PM

Brian, Pittsburgh had been on a "dedullification" plan since the early 1990's, so I don't think Florida's book served as any impetus for the changes.

Aside from being the tallest schoolhouse in the Western Hemisphere, the Cathedral of Learning allegedly drove Krushchev on to build similar (and taller) buildings in the USSR, after his visit to Pittsburgh in 1959.

Pittsburgh also has the oldest Croatian Catholic church in the country, although a recent visit there showed that being listed on the National Registry will not spare it from being closed, from being in serious disrepair, and from being up for sale. It's a shame; even with the decay, you could tell it was a gorgeous building, parked on the side of one of Pittsburgh's many hills.

Posted by: DarkoV on April 20, 2007 8:21 AM

Hey - as a Pittsburgh native, who left the city and moved back to work for its future, I appreciate all the good comments from visitors and those who lived here for a time.

I have to chime in on that last comment. While Richard Florida's book is provocative and interesting, the changes you see in Pittsburgh today have been accomplished through the efforts of many community groups - over the last 30 years. Yes, 30 years.

Societal change is not necessarily always fast - especially in a city which has geogrpahically assets (our hills) that limit the perception of mobility. I hope that more people realize the quality of life that a city of our size provides whether they are in the "creative class" or otherwise.

Posted by: Ku on April 20, 2007 9:44 AM

Yes, believe it or not, there is a sizeable gay population in Pittsburgh. And yes, you can be pretty out about it. Difference from San Francisco or NYC is that we're just as likely to be taking our nieces and nephews to the movies on a Saturday night as going to the cha-cha palaces. There are over 100 gay organizations - rowing, square dancing, community service, joggers, softball, soccer, and spirituality.

City population has gone from 676,000 in 1950 to about 325,000 now. But in a congested older city of only 55 square miles, 676,000 was probably too many people. Reasons for the drop: most cities lost population after WWII when the suburbs developed, families are smaller, older tenement areas were torn down, death rate is higher than birth rate for another couple years, and collapse of the steel industry 25 years ago. But the new people who are coming are very interesting - they seem younger and more alternative, and they seem to be populating the old neighborhoods where housing is cheap. It's fun to see the transformation in this old midwestern town.

Posted by: Gee-o on April 24, 2007 11:49 AM

Richard Florida is an idiot, and that is a massively overrated book.

Posted by: MQ on April 27, 2007 3:59 AM

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