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November 28, 2007

Book It, Donno

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

At the ultra-secret 2Blowards staff meeting a few weeks ago someone -- The Wife, I think -- said something about me writing a book. I hear such remarks about twice a year, and my standard response is that I did write a book once upon a time: this one, actually. (Lord knows why Amazon even bothers to list academic books that went out of print more than 25 years ago.)

To be honest, I sometimes do consider writing another book. If the book question pops up when I'm in one of those delusional frames of mind, I then usually say something like: "I might. But a really tough part is finding a publisher, and I'm not sure I want to go through that hassle."

Then, after saying just that at the restaurant table, I mentioned that I was toying with the idea of building on those Peripheral Artists (and similar) posts. The concept would be to create a kind of alternative to painting history narratives showing an inevitable path from the Renaissance to Modernism. That is, if Establishment/Modernist narratives downplay or ignore artists and styles that don't fit those narratives, then why not create a narrative where Modernism is a source of ideas, yet a sideshow, an interesting experiment that ultimately proved unsatisfying.

Since the meeting I've taken a few small steps. First, I've been fiddling with a provisional outline. Once that's done I'll probably have to write a sample chapter. The third task is coming up with a list of potential publishers (I'm doing that now, actually). Then I assemble a proposal and shop it. Given that such a book requires plenty of illustrations, I don't think self-publishing or electronic publishing will work; I almost surely will have to talk a going concern such as Yale University Press into backing the thing.

An important consideration is that I don't want to turn this into a crusade; if I get turned down by a number of publishers I want to be able to walk away from the project with few regrets and a minimum of wasted time.

Money? I'm not doing this for dollars. As Michael and others have repeatedly mentioned, the hourly wage for most authors is pitifully small. Yes, there's the little dab of glory and the larger surge of ego-satisfaction and pseudo-prestige (in some circles) of having a book published. But my main motivation, oddly enough, is idealism. I genuinely think that Modernism has received far too much honor and attention than it deserves, and needs to be cut down to its proper size: I want to do my part.

Another thing I'm doing is writing little notes to myself while at my favorite donut shop. What I need is some sort of organizing scheme. Obviously, there's chronology. Then there's the matter of geography: a lot of important non-Modernist art was created someplace besides France and New York, and that must be be dealt with somehow. And at this point I'm thinking that some kind of framework dealing with style, technique and perhaps subject-matter might be needed. Maybe even a cross-matrix of subject-matter and style/technique -- though that might be too cumbersome.

For example, here is a list of possible style/technique categories taken from various napkin notes:

  • Technical approaches:
  • Poster / flat color
  • Hard-edge naturalistic
  • Classical / glazing
  • Loose/free brushwork
  • Impasto / palette knife
  • Broken color

  • Schools / groupings:
  • Pre-Impressionist, non-Academic
  • Colorist/Impressionist
  • Traditionalist/Impressionist-influenced
  • Design-dominant
  • Cautious Expressionists
  • Simplifiers/Deco
  • American Regionalists / Depression-Style
  • Illustrators - traditional
  • Illustrators - decluttered
  • Illustrators to Fine Artists
  • American West
  • Russian and Chinese traditionalists

At this point, I'm in throwing-mud-at-the-wall mode -- tossing out ideas for future consideration and refinement.

If any readers wish to contribute thoughts on the various points I've raised here, feel free to comment. Just be aware that I might well steal the very best ideas (but will try to give credit if the project results in a publication).

Regardless, I'll keep cranking out posts about artists that strike my fancy.



* * * * *
The title of this post might be cryptic to readers age 35 or less. The long-running (1968-80) TV cops show Hawaii Five-O had a continuing dialog line, "Book'm Danno," when the bad guy was apprehended. I'm riffing it.

posted by Donald at November 28, 2007


One possible consideration in starting a book project - imagining your reader. Since book will cost money to a buyer (however small your own return on this time/work investment will be), it is a product, and so it follows basic market set ups. So, target audience.
Art school students? Afraid they'll enter cognitive dissonance with what their lecturers tell them...The lecturers themselves (i.e. - academicians)? I don't see much applause from those parts. General public of artistically inclined? Hmmm...

Posted by: Tatyana on November 29, 2007 1:55 PM

Donald, I think the time is either here or very near for the kind of book you propose. I base this on the magazine stand where I see 2 additions to the Western Art field ("Western Art Collector" and "Western Art & Architecture") and another strong entry in general representational art ("American Art Review.")

I think that figurative and representational art have always been there, maybe in enclaves like art of the American West, and maybe among the Classicists of the National Academy of Design and so on. Some of them found homes in publishing while magazines and books still printed illustrations. Now that a computer program can create cubism, special effects, overlays, and other amazing sights, there seems to be a kind of hunger for a human vision, more shaped by emotion, memory and sense memory. I think the giclee print industry shows this.

Publishing is a bitch (I often despair over my own book which was supposed to be out weeks ago and still isn't!) but it's changing quickly and the new technologies ought to make such a book MORE possible rather than less.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on November 29, 2007 3:06 PM

Great, great idea -- long overdue!

Maybe you're not thinking of it this way, but as a fan of Tom Wolfe, I see such a book as "Part II," so to speak, of his "The Painted Word" (although, obviously, it would be in a very different written style). As "The Painted Word" exposes and ridicules the "official" modernist history of 19th and 20th Century art, your book would be the complementary detailed alternative "outsider" history. It fills in the giant void created by Wolfe's debunking of the "official" history.

As a reader, I like the idea of a chronology of styles -- even if the styles are very unrelated and geographically dispersed. The first ones up, the first ones discussed.

Also as a reader -- and I realize that this is probably very expensive -- I like the idea of lots of color plates. (In a way, this argues in favor of a webpage version of the book.)

I also like the idea of a series of small-ish volumes. How many people will consciously want to buy and read a big, heavy, expensive "alternative history" coffee table book? Better yet (so it seems to me), twelve slim-ish paperback volumes (one for each of the different schools / groupings) at $x dollars a book. The intitial purchase wouldn't be that daunting, and then people "pay as they go." At the end, people would have a really neat art collection of alternative mainstream works to treasure and enjoy.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on November 29, 2007 6:28 PM

Regnery, the publishing house that does a lot of against the grain political commentary publishing, might be interested in your against the grain approach to art history. Or they might at least have leads to other unorthodox publishers. Just a thought.

The New Criterion has been a tiger in the fight against modernist orthodoxy. I'm sure they would be helpful in giving you leads to potentially sympathetic publishers. I think they're listed as one of 2B's cultural links. One of their best reviewers of art shows is Karen Wilkes.

Posted by: ricpic on November 29, 2007 8:24 PM


I can offer to get you in touch with my own publisher. Who knows? He may be interested. Both he and I are picking up ideas from the famous writer and film director Michael Blowhard on just-in-time publishing. This may gives us a chance to implement these new publishing techniques in practice.

Also, you previous book may finally get a review -- check it in a few days.

Best wishes.

Posted by: Nikos Salingaros on November 29, 2007 8:59 PM

That New Criterion critic is Karen Wilkin (not Wilkes) for those who want to go a-Googling. She is an incredibly perceptive art historian with what is called "a great eye." She is also an in demand independent curator. A word of warning, Ms. Wilkin greatly admires many abstract painters and modernists (horrors!). This may make her persona non grata around here.

I love the idea Mr. Hemric offered of making it a series of smaller, more focused, volumes. This has more market appeal than a giant revisionist tome.

BTW if I dare say so, this enterprise might be termed a Post-Modernist effort. It was, after all, the PM movement (usually lumped in around here as merely a flavor of modernism) that questioned the notion of historical, linear, progress in the arts in favor of an "it's all been done and it all can be done" non-hierarchical approach.

Posted by: Chris White on November 30, 2007 10:10 AM

But pomo is only bad when it affirms things you don't agree with! Everybody and their deconstructed brother knows that.

Posted by: JV on November 30, 2007 12:15 PM

"Donald Pittinger wrote this classic some years ago. It is a concise and readable introduction to the subject, as witty as it is authoritative. The normally dry statistical analysis and projection of population figures is made interesting by allusions to culture, and to factors that drive population growth. Not to be missed!"

Posted by: John Emerson on November 30, 2007 12:55 PM

Thank you all for commenting. I've had the flu and regret that I haven't been able to respond sooner.

Nikos -- Thank you. I'll get in touch once I get to the point where I have something tangible to offer publishers.

PoMo commenters -- While I don't generally care for most Modernism (which I tried to like when young) and PoMo, I don't think it should be outlawed, suppressed or anything like that. I think, in the long-run, they will be seen less positively than now (for reasons I won't try to elaborate in a short comment) and will become seen as noteworthy, but not necessarily a dominant part of the long-term sweep of the history of painting.

What tends to irk me is the strongly implicit (and sometimes explicit) notion propagated by SOME promoters and defenders of PoMo, etc., that not liking those genres is a sign of defectiveness in some way -- how could an educated, cultured person NOT like it? I put this on par with the slams against Modernism ("My kid could do it better"). I hate pop-psychologizing, but there might be an element of insecurity among the bashers and deprecators on both sides. And waters get muddied, not clarified.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 3, 2007 2:58 PM

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